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Bibi Pelic's musical morning in the Suk

Violinist's concert lectures make Rudolfinum sing

By Alan Levy, November 27, 2003

The audience assembles expectantly, chattering in many languages, though English and Czech predominate. On the stage of the Rudolfinum's small hall, the Suk, a dozen musicians of the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra tune up; some of them have dressed casually, but not today's guest conductor, Tvrtko Karlovic, who will enter soon wearing white tie and tails. There are many children present, for this hour-long musical event, "Bibi's Concert Series," always starts at 11 on a Saturday morning.


Who is Bibi and what has she done to fill 150 of the hall's 200 seats? As the lights dim, a 33-year-old Croatian blonde bounces onto the stage. She is Bibi Pelic, a prizewinning violinist with an ebullient personality who is threatening to become the Leonard Bernstein of Prague.

Inspired by the late maestro's "Young People's Concert Series," she started with a Family Saturday Concert in June. The one described here was on the last Saturday in September and its topic was "On Music Form." Her next will be Saturday, Nov. 29 (see details in margin).

"What do "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' and the Jupiter Symphony have in common?" Bibi asks us at the outset. Then she answers: "They share the same melody and the same composer: Mozart. They also share the same form because, like a story, they both have a beginning, middle and end."

Bibi plays the childhood jingle on her 201-year-old French-made violin and even sings along. So do children and some grown-ups. With a little help from the musicians and more participation by the audience, she introduces us to the structure of classical music - notes, bars, keys, chords, themes - and sometimes has the orchestra play Mozart out of sync to prove a point.

As Bibi moves beyond the twinkling, twinkling star into the realm of night music with half the four movements of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, she labels Mozart's themes as Cinderella and The Prince and introduces their A-B-A form. She designates half the hall Group A and the other half, B. We are to raise our hands whenever our theme appears in the orchestra's rendition, but sometimes the kids cry out with recognition. The concert is already a dialogue between them and the music, personified by Bibi.

Next she plays Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" on the violin to reinforce our A-B-A recognition. And then comes the message:

"What time does school start?"

"Eight!" "Nine!" come the shouts.

"And what days do your mom and dad go to work?"

The answer is mostly Monday through Friday.

"So," says Bibi, "your daily life has a schedule. And you like to know that Monday you go to school and Saturday you come here. You feel more secure. Well, music also has a schedule, and we'll know what happens next. That's what A-B-A is about."

Accompanying the orchestra in the familiar Tchaikovsky waltz from Serenade for Strings, she stops the music to have a cellist play the A melody so her audience can hear it on more than one instrument. Next, a Dvorak waltz for orchestra followed by his Humoresque: first as a violin solo and then for violin and orchestra, with the house divided again into A and B. After a raffle in which a Bibi Pelic compact disc and a ticket to the Nov. 29 concert are awarded (Sophie Dickson, 8, is delighted to win the CD), the orchestra plays a lilting My Fair Lady medley and we step out into an early autumn afternoon enriched, enlightened and entertained.

Though she carries a Croatian passport, Bibi Pelic was born in the Serbian city of Belgrade, then the capital of Tito's communist Yugoslavia. Her parents were both Bosnian-born, but her father is a Bosnian Croat; her mother, a Bosnian Serb. The name Bibi is Macedonian for Flora. So Bibi's background is both multinationality as well as multinational.

"English is, in a way, my mother tongue," she says, "because when I was 4 months old my family moved to Australia and I spent six formative years there." Her father represented a Yugoslav company in Sydney.

Zvonimir Pelic wanted both his daughters to play piano (elder sister Ivana is a concert pianist in Zagreb today). But when little Bibi heard a recording of Pinchas Zukerman playing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, she announced she would study violin. In March 1987, when Bibi made her debut playing in concert with an orchestra (the Belgrade Symphony) at 16, her solo was the Mendelssohn.

When Pelic was reassigned in 1977 to Austria, Bibi studied at the Vienna International School until the family went "home" to Zagreb in 1982. In the Croatian capital, she studied with Josip Klima, an exponent of the "Czech school" of violin technique.

Early in 1989, Bibi paid her first visit to Prague to audition for Vaclav Snitil, a professor at the Prague Music Academy (HAMU). Snitil took her on as a pupil and, after passing the HAMU entrance exam, she arrived here to stay on Aug. 30, 1989.

In those dying days of communism, even music students were required to attend Marxism-Leninism class. But Bibi was excused because she'd already taken two years of Marxism in Zagreb. She lacked, however, a prerequisite course on the international workers' movement. But she preferred going to as many Czech language classes as she could, plus practicing violin 10 hours a day. So she bought a textbook and told the teacher she'd come for the final exam.

A private test was scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 16. When Bibi came, the woman didn't have time and told her to come back on Monday. In between came the revolution.

On Monday, nobody went to HAMU - except Bibi. None of her professors was there - except her examiner. Totally distressed by unexpected unemployment, she told Bibi: "There will never be any exam anymore." So Bibi went home and practiced. Goodbye, Lenin.

With wars escalating in Yugoslavia, Bibi's family encouraged her to stay in liberated Prague. On graduating from HAMU, she continued her studies with Snitil and gave concerts around the country. Already an accomplished musician, she asked her teacher what she should do next and this wise man told her: "Walk and think." So she cut down her practicing to four hours a day and spent more time in cafes and at the pool table.

She played summer festivals in the Croatian port of Split, attended master classes in Switzerland and Germany, and performed at the Master Players Festival in Lugano, Switzerland. In 2001, she was awarded a Gustav Mahler European Prize by the European Union of Arts. Her bookings gradually expanded to Italy and Greece.

While going global gracefully, she hardly aspires to the Czech constellation of international violin superstars: Vaclav Hudecek, Ivan Zenaty, Josef Suk. Not that she's put her concert career on the back burner, but the success of Bibi's Concert Series has taken her by surprise. Originally planning four sessions next year, she's upped her schedule to 10. Says Bibi:

"It's become my mission. I want to bring people back to the concert hall. I want them to realize that classical music can be fun, enjoyable, and the more you know about it, the more you'll understand and appreciate."

Fluent in Czech, she hopes she's only a year away from developing Bibi's Concert Series for Czech television: "But I still have to build on what I'm doing and what I'm learning from my audience. An intermediate step would be to expand from Suk to Dvorak Hall," the larger auditorium next door. She has no doubt she can make a big hall intimate.

"It's more fulfilling to know I'm making a difference in other people's lives. And I love it when a smiling face comes up to me on the street and says "I learned something from you.'"


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