Sunday, November 14, 2010


La Fabrika
November 12

Fama, from left: Martinovský, Danel, Veverková and Adorján.

We were hanging at the bar during intermission Friday night when Didier arrived, late as usual. He eyed the glasses in our hands and said, “Modern music and beer.” I held my breath, waiting to see which way the arbiter of good taste and musical refinement would rule. Then he broke into a big grin.

It’s wonderful.”

It was wonderful, and maybe why the crowd was so juiced. Modern music audiences are typically small and intense, hanging on every scratch and squeak in rapt silence, then responding with polite applause. On Friday a full house hooted and cheered like they were at a rock concert, even whistling for Uli Fussenegger’s killer contrabass performance of Georges Aperghis’ Parlando.

But you didn’t need alcohol to appreciate the fine performances, starting with Prague’s own Fama Quartet establishing its bona fides with Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima. This is one of those pieces that you either love or hate, a 40-minute series of 50-plus musical fragments broken by intervals of silence, during which the performers are supposed to be mentally reciting fragments of poetry by Friedrich Hölderin. Count this reviewer among those less impressed by the music, which seems like interminable variations on a single idea, than by the skill required to play it properly.

Fama Quartet leader and first violinist David Danel said afterward that he wanted to perform the piece because it is a key work in the modern repertoire for string quartet, and thus part of building a first-rate ensemble. He deserves special credit for taking it on at this juncture, with a new viola player (Ondřej Martinovský), and Anna Veverková sitting in for regular second violinist Aki Kuroshima, whose return from Japan has been delayed by illness. But with Balázs Adorján providing his usual steady anchor on cello, there was no drop in quality. The foursome had obviously worked hard on the piece, and nailed it technically. It probably helped that the overall atmosphere of Diotima is cold, with expression depending more on individual flourishes than combined quartet work, of which there are relatively few passages.

Phenomenal focus from Fussenegger.
The second half of the evening belonged to Klangforum Wien, a collective of 23 musicians from nine different countries based in Vienna. Conductor Clement Power brought 13 of them, including the aforementioned Fussenegger, who served up a tour de force of technique and concentration with Parlando, working his bow on the big contrabass like a fevered surgeon. The piece covers a wide spectrum of both sound and style, ranging from deep profundo to high electric, and incorporating lively rhythm, rock and jazz licks. Fussenegger played it with great energy and wit.

Czech composer Miroslav Srnka is a favorite of visiting ensembles, and it was a treat to hear his Magnitudo 9.0, especially played with such imagination and flair. The piece, for two strings, two woodwinds and percussion, opens with low tremors that build to an energetic whirl, led by some catchy bass clarinet lines propelled by rolls on a bass drum. It’s a delightful work, running through a rainbow of colors and characters that were nicely drawn.

Simon Holt’s Lilith is well-orchestrated noise for nine instruments that sounds like a traffic jam underwater. Power showed a lot of finesse modulating and balancing the many elements, drawing a crisp performance from the players.

Jorge López’s Gonzales the Earth Eater is too cute to live up to its title, despite including a reference to William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine. But it offers some clever tempo changes and tasty flavors from a Wagner tuba as the two strings and two woodwinds whip up a vortex of sound, then lumber off into the sunset. The players had a nice feel for the piece, with seamless work on the Wagner tuba by Christoph Walder.

The finale, Enno Poppe’s Salz, sounds like New Orleans jazz funeral music as it might have been composed by Igor Stravinsky. The nine instruments include electric keyboards that provide funeral-home fills to start, then crank up a warped calliope sound with Frank Zappa overtones. It’s not a terribly engaging piece, but it demands very good playing skills, and the ensemble’s performance, which culminated in a ringing blast of high horns, drew enthusiastic, extended applause.

What most impressed about Klangforum Wien was its combination of formal classical training with contemporary sensibilities. The playing could be stiff at times, but the caliber and versatility of the musicians was quite good. And under Power’s direction, they could go from serious to whimsical in a heartbeat; on both sides of the podium, the control was masterful. Overall, the ensemble’s blend of sophistication and playfulness went down very well – especially with a beer chaser.

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