Classical & Opera: Czech out Martinu

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Bohuslav Martinu may be a well-known composer, but his work is often neglected. This state of affairs will be rectified with a weekend of music by the Czech exile at the Barbican

Each January, London's new musical year seems to start in earnest with the opportunity to assess the status of a major 20th-century figure during an intensive weekend of concerts at the Barbican. This year is no exception when the focus of attention falls on the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. Who is Martinu? We may know his name, but to experience his music live, that has been far more difficult to do. Yet not this weekend, when the Barbican resounds with wall-to-wall Martinu.

"One of Martinu's problems is perhaps that he was so prolific, producing almost 400 works," says the conductor and avid advocate of the composer, Jiri Belohlavek (right), who conducts today's concert performance of the opera The Greek Passion and tomorrow evening's closing concert. "We seem to be sceptical of 20th-century composers who write a great deal. Which are the great pieces, which aren't? Also, because Martinu's career embraces such a wide range of styles and idioms, it's difficult to pin him down and categorise him. But those certainly aren't reasons for ignoring him; in fact, the opposite."

Another potential reason for Martinu's chameleon-like persona is that he spent a greater proportion of his life in exile from his native Czechoslovakia. Born in 1890 in a church tower in the small town of Policka, Martinu's gifts were precocious. Yet he had little time for the Prague Academy, soon taking off for Paris, the centre of the European avant-garde. "There he got everything," says Belohlavek. "French music - Debussy, Ravel, Les Six, visiting influences from people like Stravinsky, jazz, and out of all that began to evolve his own Neo-Classicist style and his playfulness. One interesting piece of this period is his Half-time, inspired by football!" and aired in this evening's concert.

Then, in 1940, Martinu and his wife were forced to flee France for America. "Martinu was now already past 50," says Belohlavek. "But his career was only just beginning. In the States, he found a real champion for his music in the shape of Koussevitsky and began writing in a form he hadn't tried before, the Symphony." The 5th Symphony closes this evening's concert, while the 4th completes festivities on Sunday. "Conducting Martinu Symphonies is not simple," says Belohlavek. "They look easier on the page than they are. One often gets mechanistic interpretations which don't explore the music's inner soul."

For Martinu, the exile was not yet over. He spent the last five years of his life, until his death in 1959, in France, Italy and Switzerland. Among the works of his Indian summer come the evocative Frescoes of Piero Della Francesca and his last opera, The Greek Passion. "If we should think of Martinu as an impersonal composer, he dispels such labelling with The Greek Passion, based on the novel by Kazantzakis. This modern retelling of the passion story contains some of the most powerful music he ever wrote."

Hear it today - in fact, get to St Giles, Cripplegate for 11am and an aperitif of Martinu quartets from the Stamic Quartet.

The BBC's Martinu Festival runs today and tomorrow at the Barbican Centre, EC2 (0171-638 8891)

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