Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Švandovo Divadlo
October 5

“You come to these concerts,” my friend Michael, the Prague correspondent for Deutschlandfunk, leaned over and said. “Do they always do this sort of thing?”

By which he meant the six music stands being arranged for the one musician playing Pierre Boulez’s Domaines. The short answer to the question is, yes. Unorthodox arrangements and approaches are the norm at Prague Modern concerts, which is one of the main reasons to see them. Standard ideas of music are stretched, contorted, stood on their heads and otherwise turned into challenging, stimulating pieces that scrub your brain and open up new ways of thinking.

There were no less than two composers conducting their work last night, starting with local star Miroslav Pudlák leading Chaosmos, an early work (1992) for chamber orchestra and tape. It starts as a solemn study with some sharp edges that segues into an electronic segment which grows bright, almost bubbly, before reverting back to live instruments that finish the piece with a whimsical flourish. Interesting fare with intriguing variety.

Scintillating soloist Brabec
Boulez’s Domaines (1968-69) was originally written for solo clarinet and 21 instruments arranged in six groups, each with its own score – thus the multiple music stands. The soloist arranges the order of the music as he likes, then works his way from one end of the stands to the other, and back, creating a musical mirror effect. The piece would have been a lot more interesting with the supporting ensembles, but soloist Jan Brabec’s playing was the highlight of the night – sharp, versatile and very impressive on the outer edges of the sound, with the instrument pushed to its tonal limits.

The “chance” theme reached full flower in the next piece, Earle Brown’s Four Systems (1954). Brown’s graphic notation allows the musicians to determine the order and duration of the piece, even what instruments will be used. The result is something beyond music, an abstract that reflects its original inspiration, Alexander Calder’s mobiles. Last night it sounded like a sampling of random noises on a foggy waterfront. Flutist Clara Nováková added a nice touch with a fujara, a Slovak folk instrument that looks like a stately cousin of the digideroo.

Miroslav Srnka showed why he is one of the country’s busiest composers with Fictitious Hum (2007), a piece for piano, flute, clarinet and string quartet based on the Emily Dickinson poem Like Some Old fashioned Miracle. The fascination with the American icon’s poetry in this part of the world is hard to figure, but it has produced some interesting work; Czech jazz guitarist David Dorůžka’s collaboration with Swedish vocalist Josefine Lindstrand, Silently Dawning (Animal Music, 2008), is a fine example from another genre. Srnka seemed to pick up on the sound of the bees and the romance of summer in the aforementioned poem, turning out an energetic, interlocking work well-played by the ensemble.

German composer Stephan Winkler concluded the night, conducting his Elektrizität (2004) for chamber ensemble and soundtrack. It’s hard to make electronics and live instruments work together, but Winkler did it very well, threading the tensions and improvisations of the six performers (including a drummer) with impressive sonics that ranged from a stereo roar to subdued mechanical breathing. A sparkling showing by this ebullient visitor, who came to town courtesy of the Goethe Institute.

And a fall fine opening for Prague Modern, which was in good form. The ensemble seems to have arrived musically; now it’s time to open up the programming, with plenty of fresh ideas in the offing from advisers Michel Swierczewski and Didier Montagne.

Speaking of Montagne, his KAIROS cultural atelier will be hosting an evening of contemporary music with Prague Modern players and composer Miroslav Srnka on October 13. More on that next week.

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