Monday, November 8, 2010


Vitkov Memorial
November 7

Star cellist Jiří Bárta got some of his friends together for a high-gloss chamber concert Sunday night that offered an eclectic program and a fascinating study in sound dynamics. It’s not every evening, after all, that you get to hear music performed in a gigantic mausoleum.

Bárta brought new life to a dead space.
A passage from Flaubert about “sublime beauty” in art set the theme, though the program might just as well have been titled “Songs I Like to Play.” Bárta opened with Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals, accompanied on harp by Jana Boušková – a nice selection, but so clichéd that there’s not much sublime left in it. If the highest function of art is, as Flaubert suggests, to induce dreaming, then Debussy’s Ballade was closer to mark, especially as played by Boušková and Radek Baborák on French horn.

The modern pieces were more interesting and provocative, starting with Ravi Shankar’s Sonata for cello and harp No. 1. Working the low registers of his instrument, Bárta produced a sitar sound for the opening passage, which segued into a playful springtime romp with straightforward cello lines supported by lustrous accents and flourishes from the harp. Boušková and Bárta also sounded very good together on Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, lending an elegant quality to its many moods and rhythms.

Boušková was in some ways the foundation of the performance, helping Bárta create an ethereal atmosphere and haunting sound on Sofia Gubaldulina’s A Letter to the Poetess Rimma Dalos. She and Baborák struck perhaps the best sound combination of the evening on Bernard Andres’ Songs From Last Season, enriching what seemed like movie soundtrack music with precision playing and skillful effects. And Boušková’s absence was notable on Jiří Hájek’s Sundial, where somehow a clarinet and three strings couldn’t quite make up the difference.

But in the end it was Bárta’s show, and he demonstrated some seriously good chops playing Luboš Fišer’s Sonata for solo cello, a somber elegy that calls for both feeling and dexterity. Bárta also turned in an impressive performance on electric cello in the finale, Gavin Bryars’ After the Requiem. Accompanied by two violins and an acoustic cello, he added another dimension to the piece with skillful bowing that deepened and enriched the sound. The program would have been stronger with more of that and less of the classical clichés.

That said, it’s entirely possible that the sound (and this review) would have been altogether different had the performance been held in another venue. The Vitkov Memorial is a functionalist behemoth that was built between the world wars to honor the Czechoslovak legionnaires. Co-opted during the 1950s as a glorified interment site for good communists like Klement Gottwald, it has at its core an enormous hall that could be God’s own chapel – about 60 meters high and 100 meters deep, made entirely of imposing marble and stone. There is absolutely no reason that acoustic instruments should sound good in this space.

And yet the opening concert of Strings of Autumn, which featured a male vocal quartet, the Hilliard Ensemble, accompanied by saxophonist Jan Gabarek, came off with just the right touch of reverberation and exceptional clarity of tone. With more and more varied instruments, Bárta’s concert had mixed results, but held some delightful surprises. Foremost was the harp, which somehow lost none of its warmth and, perhaps because it was the biggest instrument onstage, did the best job of filling the sonic space. Bárta’s cello also sounded remarkably good, clean and well-articulated even when paired with other strings. Baborák’s horn was cooler than usual, but held its sweet round tone.

Generally speaking, the bigger the group onstage got, the more the sound flattened out. However, a couple of high-volume outbursts from the clarinet and string quartet on Hájek’s Sundial revealed a nice natural echo in the room. It’s far from an ideal performance space – for one thing, the ventilation system produces a nonstop electrical hum. But judging from these two Strings of Autumn concerts, the Vitkov hall holds intriguing acoustical qualities that deserve further exploration.

And the Strings of Autumn organizers deserve credit for scheduling two of their concerts there this year. The Vitkov Memorial is not easy to reach, but the capacity crowds and very satisfying shows attest to their perspicacity, and the potential of yet another unique performance space in Prague.

For more on the Vitkov Memorial:

The National Museum's official site includes a “virtual tour” that only hints at the size of the space:

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