Iva Bittova, Present Music’s guest diva
Iva Bittová acted in theater and films before she turned to music, and it shows. Even at a rehearsal with the Present Music ensemble Friday morning, she lit up the room. Her presence and her music charmed the musicians, who smiled their way through Bittová’s Funny Miss and other works.
Present Music will feature the Czech singer-violinist-composer Saturday night (March 19) at the Humphrey Scottish Rite Center. As adventurous as Present Music has been over the years, Kevin Stalheim’s group hasn’t encountered anything quite like Bittová’s music. Some parts of Funny Miss call for absolute precision among Bittová and the eight players. Other parts are loose and open-ended.
“I wonder if it would be better for us to just vamp until you scream,” suggested arranger-violinist-guitarist Eric Segnitz, as the group worked on a tricky transition.
Later, in Elida, Bittová turned to Segnitz and said, “I think we should have a little guitar here. Can you improvise a beautiful little something?”
“You’re asking a classical violinist to improvise on the guitar,” Segnitz replied. “You’re getting into dangerous territory.”
Bittová: “Just open your mind. Just fly away.”
Segnitz smiled. Of course he could improvise something.
Top-notch players don’t respond so favorably to a composer-performer solely because of charm. Bittová also won them over with her remarkable musicianship.
She plays the violin beautifully. Her singing incorporates an incredible spectrum of screams, chirps, cries, squeaks and ululatations, in addition to a variety of lush, luxurious timbres and gorgeous legato and phrasing. Very often, she plays and sings at the same time, often in counterpoint, a very difficult thing to do.
Funny Miss amounts to a spectacular mini-concerto that showcases Bittová’s unique skill set. But she humbly calls it a song. It brings to mind a virtuoso rave-up on East European styles, a whirl of exotic minor scales redolent of gypsy music and klezmer. But Elida breaks into back-beat rock ‘n’ roll. In Samota, she transforms herself into a jazz-cabaret chanteuse, accompanied by tinkling cocktail piano.
“People are always saying that I play Bulgarian music or gypsy music or klezmer, but I don’t know,” she told the band.
After rehearsal, over coffee, Bittová said that most of her music comes to her with violin in hand. She plays and sings and feels her way toward melodies and harmonies until they begin to congeal into something tangible.
“There is no calculation, no thinking, just practicing and trying to absorb beautiful things,” she said.
That sounds a little dreamy, but a lot of discipline lies behind what she does. She still takes regular violin lessons with her teacher of 25 years and practices her scales and drills every day. Right now, she’s learning Bruch’s Violin Concerto, not to perform, but for the challenge and the discipline. She’s fanatical about intonation, and concentrates very hard to tune her voice and her violin perfectly.
Bittová, 52, started taking violin lessons at 7. Her father was a bass player in the local opera orchestra in Bruntál, in Moravia province. Her father was ethnic Hungarian and also played cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer specific to Hungarian folk music, trumpet and guitar.
“I remember sitting with my father and listening to Dvorak, with the score open,” she said,. “He would point and say, ‘Now we are here, now we are here.’ I loved that. He also loved jazz.”
Just about then, a female voice emanated from the coffee shop speakers; Bittová perked up. “Nina Simone,” she said. “She is so wonderful.”
Still, at age 14, Bittová hated to practice and decided she’d had it with the violin. She entered the Brno Conservatory as a student of both drama and voice. Upon graduation, she became an actress, first in Brno’s Goose on a String Theater and then in television and film. At age 22, amid a thriving acting career, her love for music reasserted itself suddenly.
“I wasn’t really happy as an actor,” Bittová said. “When I was a child, I hated practicing. When I got older, I loved it. It’s like meditation. The violin is so beautiful, so exact.”
Soon after that, she started experimenting with combining singing and playing and with composing her own material. And thus Bittová was reborn as a unique sort of diva, and an uncommonly good-natured one.
“This is the music of my life,” she said. “I like to make music to make myself happy and to make the audience happy. It’s simple. But it’s a lot of work. I don’t want to show how difficult it is, though. It must light and nice.”
7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 19, Humphrey Scottish Rite Masonic Center, downtown at 790 N. Van Buren St. Tickets are $30 and $20, $5 for students, at the Present Music website and by phone, 414 271-0711 ext. 2. Also on the program: Present Music will become the second group to perform Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in music.