Mozart and I have one thing in common: we both like Prague. Mozart enjoyed his greatest success in Prague; I enjoyed Prague’s musical scene. Visiting Prague prior to the Velvet Revolution, life was tough; food was scarce, but there was plenty of music. Less than half the size of Florida, Czechoslovakia boasts four great composers: Smetana, Dvořák, Martinů and Jánaček.
And it was music that brought me to Bohemian National Hall. It started with a performance by students of the Mannes School of Music in November 2015 that continues every year. I soon discovered that there are concerts by various music schools throughout the year.
But, it was Dvořák’s 100th anniversary last year that captured my attention. Getting off the elevator on the second floor, I was entering Dvořák land. The Czech Center had mounted a special exhibit. The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of his opera Rusalka caused additional excitement. Of course, Dvořák’s popularity is not surprising. After all, it was Dvořák who had given American music lovers the 9th Symphony, known as the New World Symphony.
Having caught the cultural Czech learning bug, I asked permission to see the Václav Havel library, located on the third floor. I had expected the library to be intimate and rather somber. Instead, it is a cheerful place with high ceilings, and inviting, comfortable chairs. Havel’s books are stacked on wooden shelves on two opposite walls. In addition, there are various tributes to him.
Václav Havel was a modern, forward-looking man who played a major role in toppling communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989 without bloodshed (hence the Velvet Revolution). He assumed the presidency shortly thereafter, and was reelected in a landslide the following year.
Bohemian National Hall dates back to the 1890’s when Middle Europeans lived side by side along Second Avenue: the Czechs and the Slovaks in the upper 60’s, the Hungarians in the 70’s, and the Germans in the 80’s. With a few exceptions, the Hungarians all but disappeared. Except for Schaller & Weber, the Heidelberg restaurant, and Glaser’s Bakery, so did the Germans.
But, Bohemian National Hall – renovated and restored 10 years ago–continues to be alive and more active than ever. In addition to the New York Czech Center, it houses the Czech Consulate, the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association, and the Dvořák American Heritage Association.
2018 marks the 100th Anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s Independence. The celebration includes recitals, lectures, discussions, movies, fashion shows, jazz, ice hockey, black tie events –a centennial bash that will climax in October.
I didn’t know any of this when I attended my first concert at Bohemian National Hall. To paraphrase a Jewish saying: “You don’t have to be Czech to enjoy the celebration.”
“Czech cuisine? You must be kidding,” is the usual answer from my otherwise eager eating companions, whom I asked to share a meal with me at the Bohemian Spirit.* As such, Bohemian Spirit is aptly named, for it features authentic European Middle-Eastern dishes that are not popular at the moment: homemade liver paté and headcheese; roasted pork and beef, goulash, sausages, dumplings, potatoes, onion, and cabbage; as well as pancakes and strudel, topped with fruit in season. Beer on tap — its famous Pilsner Urquell — is a best seller. Portions are large; prices are low.
While this hardy fare is usually served at midday in most European countries, Bohemian Spirit is only open for dinner. I assume it has a faithful neighborhood following, ready to spend a leisurely evening in pleasant surroundings, enjoying a good meal without spending a fortune.
I have had dinner here with friends before. None regretted coming here. We looked at the photos on the wall, chatted, and had a good time. In a way, it is a less sophisticated version of the dinner served at Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie.
*PS: The food section of today’s New York Times gives a Tex-style Chili recipe that calls for “rich, fatty meat, strong heat and a long simmer in beer.”
Dorou chut — “Enjoy your meal.”