|Ostravská banda at an earlier tour stop in Graz.|
The best concerts provide not only an evening of musical entertainment, but an opportunity to get your ears tuned – that is, adjusted to what well-played music is supposed to sound like. The opening night of this year’s Contempuls festival offered that and more, with two high-caliber ensembles playing an engaging variety of modern music, capped by Petr Kotík leading his Ostravská banda in a sterling performance of John Cage’s 1958 Concert for Piano and Orchestra.
The opening set was a collaboration between two groups: Ensemble Nikel and Ensemble Praesenz, which share roots in Europe and Israel. The six musicians, clearly versed in the modern repertoire, played with precision and audacity. Pianist Reto Staub set the tone in both those categories with the opening piece, Georges Aperghis’ Conversation X, which calls for the performer to babble a nonsense language while plinking on a piano with altered strings. Staub managed to make it sound both primitive and sophisticated.
|Pro sounds from Haynes, Staub and Ťupa.|
Clarinetist Richard Haynes and cellist Jan-Filip Ťupa served up a bright, chirpy rendition of Magnus Lindberg’s Steamboat Bill Junior. Toshio Hosokawa’s Für Walter – Arc Song II didn’t make much of an impression, but electric guitar player Yaron Deutsch lit up the house with Fausto Romitelli’s Trash TV Trance, which employs everything from distortion to Jeff Beck-style riffs. The guitarist is required to use a number of objects on the strings and fretboard, from a standard steel slide to an electric razor. Deutsch made it look easy.
Elena Mendoza’s Díptico also called for some unconventional techniques, with Staub plucking the piano strings and percussionist Tom de Cock bowing gongs and vibraphone keys, among other objects. Haynes and saxophonist Vincent Daoud showed nice breath control in what was not a terribly exciting piece, but an impressive display of musicianship. The last two pieces – Chaya Czernowin’s Sahaf and Rebecca Saunders’ Vermilion – are mostly soundscapes and sonic distortion, technically demanding though not a rousing finish for a set. Still, the group got enthusiastic applause for what had been a well-crafted 80 minutes of music.
Kotík was traveling with a markedly young version of his ensemble on this tour, but the group was giving nothing away in professionalism. The playing was superb, with the three percussionists getting a good workout on a circus array of instruments.
The opening piece of the Ostravská banda set featured the single best performer of the night: violinist Hana Kotková, handling the solo duties on Luca Francesconi’s Riti Neurali. The part requires the player to basically attack the score and maintain that level of intensity for about 13 minutes. Kotková showed great skill and remarkable control, piercing and slicing atop a complex orchestral structure of varying timbres.
Paulina Załubska’s brief Dispersion, which sounds like insects dancing on a high-tension line, served as a lively warm-up for the two big percussion pieces. Bernhard Lang’s Monadologie IV started with the three players – Tamás Schlanger, László Tömösközi and Ádám Maros – on relatively conventional drum kits, playing overlapping, simultaneous rhythms, most of which would not be out of place in a jazz big band. For the second half of the piece, they switched to three piles of found objects like tin cans, hubcaps, frying pans and an oil drum. It was an energetic and accessible performance that put a jolt in the crowd.
After a break to rearrange the stage, the percussionists returned for one of Kotík’s pieces, In Four Parts (3, 6 & 11 for John Cage). It’s an ambitious work that ranges from tender vibraphone lines to a grand cacophony of cymbals and drums, with an interesting internal structure but perhaps not enough variety to sustain its length.
The ensemble spread out for Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with four of the players sitting in the audience. Done right, the piece sounds as revolutionary now as it did 50 years ago, manipulating both space and time, and employing notation that gives the musicians a lot of latitude in determining the volume and duration of notes. The conductor’s job, according to Cage’s instructions, is to act as a “living chronometer,” setting not a tempo but an overall time framework. Kotík looked more like a traffic cop than a traditional conductor in that mode, but he drew an outstanding performance from the ensemble, delicate and abstract, yet firmly grounded. The audience held its collective breath during the piece, then erupted in explosive applause and whistles when it ended.
Speaking of which, it was encouraging to see such a big turnout for such esoteric fare. Modern music is an acquired taste, and there are plenty of performances in Prague that are lucky to draw 20 people. The nearly full house at La Fabrika suggests that a larger audience is out there – and confirms the quality of the programming put together by Contempuls organizers Miroslav Pudlák and Petr Bakla, composers of note themselves. It will be interesting to see if they can sustain both the quality and the audience for the rest of the festival.