|Conductor Peter Vrábel gives birth to a new work.|
A great, great outing by this modern music ensemble, and a reminder that even in hidebound Prague, it’s possible to do cutting-edge work that will find an appreciative audience.
The highlight of the evening was Kryštof Mařatka’s Luminarium, a smart, sophisticated and highly entertaining piece of music, introduced by the composer himself. But first, a few words on the opening pieces and setting, one of the large exhibition rooms on the ground floor of Kampa. The refurbished space, with its stark white walls, exposed ductwork and cement floor, was a good fit with the music, and the glow of city lights reflecting on the river outside the windows added some nice atmospherics.
The program opened with eight violinists walking to the front of the room and playing Peter Graham’s Ataraxie with their backs to the audience. The piece was essentially an exercise in dynamics, especially with the sound bouncing off the wall before it reached the listeners. Some parts worked better than others, notably those passages when each of the musicians was playing something different, like dissonant polyphony.
Two young Czechs – composer Petr Wajsar and visual artist Propkop Bartoníček – collaborated on the second piece, an ambient work with accompanying animation and film footage. Taken alone, neither of the elements was remarkable; the music was a series of ascending tensions and colors, with several crashing climaxes, and the visual was mostly an amorphous blob floating in a primordial soup. But as a swarm of black dots (drops of oil in water, as the artist revealed in a few seconds of reverse footage) descended on the blob, it was clear we were witnessing the moment of conception, at which point the separate elements jelled very nicely into an audiovisual metaphor for the act of procreation. When the piece ended with a perfectly round, smooth sphere turning to gently tranquil music, the only thing missing was a post-coital cigarette.
Mařatka gave an extended introduction to Luminarium – in Czech, unfortunately for English-language types. But you don’t need a primer to appreciate the piece, a nine-movement concerto for clarinet and orchestra that takes listeners on a world tour of familiar and remote locales ranging from France to the Solomon Islands. In each section, Mařatka offers a taste of the local culture and music, sometimes borrowing familiar melodies and forms, other times spinning out exotic fantasies. Accompanying text projections (also in Czech, alas) helped guide the audience through the locations and musical genres.
Luminarium is a breathtaking work in several respects – the dazzling scope of references and influences, the instrumentation (who knew you could get so much out of a simple slide whistle?) and the inventive orchestration, which mimicked laughter, animal calls, Tibetan throat singing and ritual dances (how about that xwââyâ from New Caledonia?), to name just a few among the rich panoply of sounds. The orchestral score is so engrossing that it’s easy to overlook the clarinet solo, a complex, nuanced part that could stand on its own. Soloist Irvin Venyš proved himself up to the task, and was called back for two brief encores by an enthusiastic audience.
But the real star of the evening was Mařatka. He was busy afterward talking with fans and friends, including Czech composer Martin Smolka, with whom he shares a dubious distinction. Both men have borne the brunt of local abuse – Smolka when several musicians in the National Theater orchestra deliberately misplayed the music in the 2004 premiere of his opera Nagano, and Mařatka when several members of the Czech Philharmonic refused to play his Zvěrohra during the 2008 Prague Premieres festival. Such are the pitfalls of being a contemporary Czech composer.
But Mařatka was a happy camper last night, pronouncing the performance “very fine” and talking about how much he enjoyed working with the Berg ensemble. “They’re a good orchestra, they have a great attitude,” he said.
A little better than the Czech Philharmonic, this writer noted. Mařatka just smiled.