Natasa Newton - helping young Czech and Slovak musicians play in the UK

23-10-2006

Natasa Newton is one of the founders of the Anglo-Czechoslovak Trust, an organisation established not long after the fall of communism, in 1990. Its main aim was to foster ties between young Czech and Slovak music students and their counterparts in the UK - in all over 900 students have so far taken part in the programme. Natasa Newton told me all about the Trust when we met at her London home last week, though I first asked her about her own background.

The Anglo-Czechoslovak Trust "I'm from Prague. I was there until I was 28 and then I moved to England with my two children, one year old and five years old, and started a new life. Even though my husband was English and working for Czech Radio [Radio Prague], but I started here completely on my own."

"I was helped a lot, I was studying here. Then I started to teach and then I started to teach Czech, would you believe, in 1990. Otherwise I was teaching music."

Who was your husband who worked for Czech Radio, if you don't mind answering?

"He was John Newton, and I think he was working there until 1987. We had been pen friends, would you believe. We married in 1972 and I left Czechoslovakia in 1978. I think he was working there until 1987, then he moved to England as well."

Was your husband a communist?

"I think in England he was one of these young people who were excited about communism, which they had no idea of. Then I think he had a shock, when he started to work in the Radio, he was under pressure...he thought he was clever enough to play it right."

Tell us about yourself again, when you came here to England with your two children in 1978.

"I think I came at the right time. It was complicated, I wanted to come back but it was to do with the immigration passport, which I couldn't get and if I wanted it I would have had to go back to Prague...so I stayed."

Did it take you long to get used to life in England?

"I didn't think about it. I was just making sure that my son was going to school and my daughter was able to go to a crèche or nursery, which wasn't that easy...I was able to study and build up some kind of an idea of what I was going to do here. Because there was no plan, I wasn't supposed to stay here, it was a very snap decision."

After 1989 you set up the Anglo-Czechoslovak Trust. Its main activity was helping - or exchanging - music students, is that right?

"That's right. At that time my daughter was playing piano at the North London Festival...and I realised that's something I could do for the musicians, because I always wanted to do something for the musicians...They had a very piano - a Steinway - and very good acoustics, there were adjudicators - and the entry fee was very low.

"So I got this idea to send letters to all the Czech and Slovak music colleges and asked if they would like to come. I had lots of friends who offered to accommodate them...and I said if they pay for their journey, that's all they're going to pay for. We had 43 students, who came on a really full bus.

"That was a great success. It was fantastic for them, because it was the first time some of them had ever been able to get out. They loved it. Then they came in '92, '93, '94.

"But the North London Festival was a bit limited, because of the politics of the festival - they [Czech and Slovak students] were winning everything. It was a small festival supporting young musicians, but our young musicians of 15, 16 were like professionals here.

"So I realised that we had to start something on our own, because we didn't feel comfortable there and they definitely didn't feel comfortable with us, because we were reducing the amount of entrants, because ours were so good.

"So in 1996 we held the first Anglo-Czechoslovak Trust competition...There are so many things I'm grateful to people for, for helping - otherwise the whole idea wouldn't work."

What do you think the young Czech and Slovak musicians get out of this experience of coming here to play?

"For say the first five years it was for them realising that it's very difficult. Everybody thought, the world is open, and it's our oyster. And even though it was encouraging on the other hand...they realised it's so difficult to make it."

So many years after the fall of communism the Czech Republic and Slovakia are quite advanced, international travel is quite cheap - do you think your Trust still has a function?

"I was always told by all these people who were helping with accommodation for out students, what are you doing for the British musicians? They are all musicians - you're doing everything for your Czechs and Slovaks.

"And I think the cards are changing. It seems to me now that, yes, I am helping the British ones. From the beginning there were more Czech competitors, then there was a balance, then it was becoming the other way around. Because I didn't want to take care of 30, 40 people for a week. It was very hectic.

"Now we are still promoting the Czech and Slovak music. It's actually coming to the stage that the old winners from the 1990s are coming back as adjudicators. Or playing in Britain...because actually as for Britain and the Continent there's still a division there, they can play around Europe but it seems to me that to get to London is very, very difficult. They all complain that they don't have the contacts.

"So I think there are still plenty of things to do and still keep being important, or being useful."

For more information about the Anglo-Czechoslovak Trust go to www.actrust.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk.

23-10-2006