No birthday cake for this 20th anniversary concert, and not much of a crowd, either. But for modern music aficionados, it was a stimulating and enriching evening of work by seven contemporary Czech composers, most of whom were in attendance.
Atelier 90 is an association that was formed in February 1990 by a small group of Czech composers who had suffered under the yoke of communist censorship. In an essay in the anniversary program book, founder Marek Kopelent writes, “We wanted to follow progressive currents in the wider musical world, and totally distance ourselves from communism.” Now 78, Kopelent is a revered figure in his field, both at home and abroad, who remains vital and active.
His piece in Monday night’s program, Ballada pro klavir (Ballad for piano), is a somber solo work that offers an aural rendering of invasion and oppression. Kopelent cites the period of normalization as the specific reference, but the scope of the music is much broader, with sharp bursts of atonal chords followed by long, low echoes that grow in intensity and complexity. In some ways, it’s a frightening piece; at one point, it sounds like an invading army is marching through the streets in iron boots, especially with Jana Potočková at the keyboard.
The opening work by Lukáš Matoušek, a chamber piece for mezzo-soprano, clarinet, viola and piano, also had some moments of dread and anxiety – not surprising, since the text was drawn from Biblical passages in the Apocalypse and Lamentations of Jeremiah. Vocalist Oldřiška Musilová did a nice job with some high, compelling lines, supported by interlocking instrumental solos, duets and trios, with the composer himself on clarinet.
Two brighter pieces lightened the first half. Vlatislav Matoušek’s Vox Clamantis is a lovely work for two female voices and percussion. He also draws on Biblical texts, though not nearly as dark (Isaiah, the four evangelists), and the singers – Matoušek’s daughter Klára and Kristýna Valoušková, probably the best modern music singer in the city – were angelic. They added some nice accents with a metal bowl, stones and other quirky percussion. Miloš Haase’s Hermés for solo flute was positively cheerful, with lilting melodies and whistles like a miniature steam train. Flutist Lenka Kozderková showed impressive technique: “Perfect lips!” another musician marveled during intermission.
A brisk second half opened with Bohuslav Řehoř’s Duetto, a vocal piece for mezzo and baritone, with a bell. A chantlike work with shifting harmonies and medieval echoes, it had a nice luster as performed by Markéta Dvořáková and Petr Matuszek. Pavel Kopecký’s Reminiscence, a piece for solo clarinet and electronics, was mostly an exercise in sonics, with some ear-piercing high notes and nice echo effects from the clarinet, supported by a computer soundtrack that sounded like an electronic fun house.
And Martin Marek’s Chvíle (While) made a satisfying finale. A duo for bass clarinet and marimba, it had some inventive turns and jazz flavors, with Kamil Doležal giving the clunky bass clarinet a good workout, and Markéta Mazourová adding glistening fills and flourishes on the marimba.
In all, an impressive cross-section of genres and styles, and a very tasty sampling of current Czech work. Some of the pieces were overly long, and it’s worth keeping in mind that these composers are only a small, AMU-centered slice of the full spectrum. But it was good to see Atelier 90 so fresh and vibrant after 20 years. Congratulations and happy anniversary to Marek Kopelent & Company; here’s to another 20.