Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Sts. Simon and Jude Church
January 25

Playing with a touch of divine inspiration. 

Who could resist an opportunity to see two wind quintets on the same bill? The well-regarded Afflatus Quintet was joined by the younger Belfiato Quintet last night for a program of mostly French composers, a refreshing change from Prague’s usual chamber music fare. They nearly filled Sts. Simon and Jude Church, and by the end of the performance, it was clear why.

The first half of the concert belonged to the Afflatus Quintet, a group of very accomplished players. Flutist Roman Novotný, oboist Jana Brožková and bassoonist Ondřej Roskovec are all members of the Czech Philharmonic. Clarinet player Vojtěch Nýdl is a member of the Prague Philharmonia, and Radek Baborák, an artist-in-residence with the Prague Symphony Orchestra this season, normally plays French horn with the Berlin Philharmonic. They warmed up with an opening Haydn divertimento, lending a light musical exercise some weight with lustrous tones and a steady, restrained tempo.

The second piece, Darius Milhaud’s Le Chiminée du Roi René, is a suite from a film score written for Raymond Bernard’s Cavalcade d’amour, released in 1940. A standard in the wind quintet repertoire, it poses a good workout, with shifting melodies, nimble turns and quick, short runs. The group handled them with aplomb, showing the style that characterizes much of their playing – thoughtful but spirited, a masterful blend of intelligence and feeling. They took that sound up a notch for Ferenc Farkas’ Early Hungarian Dances of the 17th Century, a reworking of some anonymous period dance melodies. The quintet gave them a crisp, lively edge, earning an enthusiastic round of applause.

The next generation of wind wizards.
The second half of the concert opened with nine musicians onstage – the Afflatus five, and oboist Martin Daněk, clarinetist Jiří Javůrek, bassoonist Ondřej Šindelář and French horn player Kateřina Javůrková of the Belfiato Quintet, a group of recent graduates and protégés of Roskovec. The larger ensemble’s sound was fuller and deeper, but no less tight for Gounod’s Petite symphonie, a piece brimming with bright colors and inventive tones. The nontet gave it a vibrant glow, taking expert advantage of the layers of sound, and playing with warmth without sacrificing any precision.

Flutist Oto Reiprich made it 10 when he joined the group for Jean Françaix’s Les Malheurs de Sophie, a brilliant evocation of a child’s world. The piece was immediately engaging and the energy of the performance was infectious, playful and fast-paced. The combined ensembles proved adept at handling modern phrasing and chords, and Novotný finished with a flashy bit of flute work that drew cheers.

Compared to much of the recent classical music on Prague stages, in particular the gargantuan Mahler symphonies, this concert was like brain candy, small bites of sweeter and simpler fare. But there is a purity about wind ensemble music, especially played at this level, that is invigorating. The sound has the clarity of a fresh mountain stream, and as it builds in complexity, it serves as a reminder of how much can be accomplished with just a few instruments.

Afflatus” is a Latin term for inspiration, in the poetic sense of something that is blown into one by a divine wind. If last night’s concert wasn’t quite divine, it certainly had heavenly moments. And if the second half was any indication, it was a heartening look at a great musical tradition being passed down from one generation to the next.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Obecní dům
January 20

Don't be fooled by the smile ― this man is bad.

Were his voice not so amazingly good, it would be tempting to call Bryn Terfel an actor who can sing. Playing his new “bad boy” image to the hilt, the Welsh bass-baritone mugged, leered, bellowed and charmed his way through his Thursday night concert in Prague, putting on a show that titillated and delighted a packed house of enthusiastic fans.

Terfel set the tone with the opening number, Dr. Dulcamara’s conniving “Udite, udite o rustici” aria from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. As he was preparing to sing, Terfel slyly pulled a bottle of Pilsner Urquell from his sleeve, then proceeded to wave it around and drink it down in three hefty, man-sized swigs over the course of the number. It was an amusing routine that ended with him stumbling around the stage glassy-eyed, missing an attempt at a handshake with the concertmaster. Pure corn, and the audience ate it up.

How bad could Bryn get? He brandished a blade during Weill & Brecht’s “Ballad of Mack the Knife,” and toked on an imaginary joint as Sportin’ Life singing Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Just in case anyone missed the point, he announced that “Many of my characters tonight are really bad, misfits of the opera world,” before growling and belching an animated “Ehi, paggio – L’onore! Ladri!” from Verdi’s Falstaff. That was a masterpiece of comic timing, with conductor and longtime performing partner Gareth Jones dropping in the orchestral flourishes and exclamation points at exactly the right moments. These guys would kill in Vegas.

Amid all the clowning, it was easy to overlook Terfel’s voice, which is as big and strong as any that have filled Smetana Hall. What’s more impressive is his excellent diction, solid technique and masterful vocal control, all world-class. There was some complaint from critics that Terfel didn’t have the commanding voice required for Wotan, the role he played in the Met’s recent production of Das Rheingold. That was hard to judge from this performance, which did not require much stretching – you could count on one hand the number of high notes Terfel hit. But he is above all an intelligent singer, and as a marketing effort for his new release, Bad Boys, this concert was an agreeable exercise in light lifting.

Getting in character.
Still, it had two distinct shadings. The first half, mostly opera selections from Donizetti, Wagner and Verdi, had weight and substance and the benefit of Terfel singing roles that he has played onstage. It was polished, witty and at times even compelling. By comparison, the second half, which featured Broadway staples like “Some Enchanted Evening” and “The Impossible Dream,” seemed flat, like someone had let the air out. Terfel has the pipes and affection for that material – he has recorded entire albums of Lerner & Loewe and Rodgers & Hammerstein. But it lacked impact, with Terfel sounding more like a slumming opera singer than a pop star.

This mattered not a whit to the adoring audience, which groaned audibly when he looked at his watch and announced the final song, then greeted his encores with yells of approval. For the first, Don Giovanni’s “Deh Vieni alla finestra,” Terfel went into the audience and got on one knee to serenade an elderly fan. The second was an unabashedly sentimental nod to his homeland, “My Little Welsh Home,” which he introduced by saying, “I’ve been a bad boy all night. Now I want to be good.”

The music was uniformly strong all evening, thanks to Gareth Jones, who drew a bright, seamless sound from the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra. Jones is a smart, energetic conductor who puts a lot of pop in the material, a style that worked very well on Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre. But the real surprise of the evening was Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which was strikingly good, considering that it was being played by a Czech orchestra, led by a British conductor, with a Czech soloist – Pavel Kašpar on piano. Kašpar plays Haydn and Beethoven as well as anyone, but who knew that he could swing?

As for Terfel, he packages his prodigious talent in a regular-guy vibe that has a very strong appeal. Somehow, the nod and wink that he has for everyone reach all the way to the back rows of the hall, and by the end of the concert, it’s easy to imagine meeting him at the pub to bang back a couple tasty Pilsner Urquells.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Švandovo divadlo
January 18

A formidable player with chops across three genres.

More performance art than music, Tuesday night’s Prague Modern concert featured none of the usual members of the ensemble. Instead, German bass player John Eckhardt brought his battered double bass from Hamburg to join the local electronic duo Birds Build Nests Underground and projectionist Martin Ježek for an evening of...well, noise. But very interesting and entertaining noise.

Eckhardt, who started his career as an electric bass player in funk bands, moved on to acoustic jazz bass and then classical training before immersing himself in modern music. He’s played with groups such as Klangforum Wien, Ensemble Modern and musikFabrik NRW, and recorded extensively, most recently a solo release titled Xylobiant. All these influences surface during his solo performances, which are often accompanied by projections or other visuals.

Were one to hear an Eckhardt solo recording without knowing what it was, it would be impossible to imagine a lone musician wringing such an astonishing variety of sounds out of a single instrument. In the solo half of his Prague performance, he started with long, low growls and grunts, worked his way down the neck to squeals, cranked up the volume to chain saw-intensity and took it down to silent passes of the bow. He played everywhere and everything you can possibly play on a double bass to get a noise out of it, including some virtuoso work on the strings below the bridge, using his fingers and the screw end of the bow. At one point Eckhardt even broke into a straight-ahead jazz improv run, as if to show he can play “normal” music, too – and very well.

The second half of the concert was a jam session of sorts, with Petr Ferenc and Michal Brunclík manning their laptops and turntables to create a field of noise for Eckhardt to improvise against, and Ježek adding a visual equivalent with multiple projectors showing overlapping abstract images. With the stage completely dark and the three musicians off to the side to make room for the screen, it was impossible to watch them work together. And the sound was so dense, it was difficult to discern individual elements.

But it worked. The Birds duo is good at weaving layers of snaps, crackles, pops, scratches, sirens, voices and other random noises into a single organic sound that gradually builds to an electronic thunderstorm. In the seeming chaos, there are structures and riffs and enough changes to keep a careful listener engaged, and Eckhardt provided a steady anchor with deep, droning bass notes. The visuals were not terribly interesting – blurred winter trees, a carpentry instruction film – but Ježek showed himself to be a master of his trade, employing stop frames, slo-mo, multiple images, split-screen and other techniques, all at a rapid clip.

The effect was exhilarating. Soundscapes like this are difficult to pull off, especially in amateur hands. But Eckhardt is a real musician who brings intelligence and integrity to his work, along with considerable imagination. It’s not for everyone. But if you open your ears and mind, it can take you interesting places. And pairing him with Czech performers added some local spice to the mix that went down well.

If Eckhardt were playing at a beatnik coffee house in the 1950s, where he would fit in very well, he would be called a hep cat. That’s not a bad description of him today, either.

For more on John Eckhardt:


Gareth Jones
January 17

When superstar singer Bryn Terfel takes the stage at Obecní dům Thursday night, the man charged with giving him the musical showcase and support he needs will be a fellow Welshman, conductor Gareth Jones. A trim, affable man of 50, Jones has been working with Terfel for more than a decade. I caught up with him at the cozy bar of the Imperial Hotel after rehearsals on Tuesday, where he was gracious enough to talk shop over beers.

Keeping the beat for Bryn.
It’s always a joy,” Jones said of the 50-plus concerts he’s performed with Terfel. “He’s one of the greatest communicators I’ve ever run across.”

By which Jones means, first, that Terfel pays attention to what’s on the page. “He’s completely driven by the text,” the conductor said. “Every sound that he makes comes directly from the text, as opposed to, let’s make a beautiful noise here. Many singers make beautiful noises, but not always with meaning.”

Then there’s the adulation that comes with being an international star. “No matter where we are, from the minute he walks on stage, Bryn has the audience right here,” Jones said, tapping a finger into his palm. “Perversely, that lifts the burden from my shoulders. It makes my job absolutely the easiest thing in the world.”

Onstage, anyway. There’s still the tedium of rehearsals, particularly challenging when one parachutes into town a day or two before a concert to prepare an unfamiliar ensemble – in this case, the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra – for a program that ranges from heavyweight classics to Broadway show tunes.

I usually start with the hardest pieces, to establish that we have to get a certain sound pretty quickly,” Jones said. One of the trickiest selections on Thursday’s program is “Stars” from Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score for Les Miserables. “It’s always a nightmare,” Jones said. “I have to remind the orchestra that it’s meant for a mild voice, sung acoustically, not with a mike.” A bit easier is Hans Sachs’ “Was duftet doch der Flieder” monologue from Wagner’s Meistersinger. “That’s a joy to do with Bryn,” Jones said. “It could have been written for him – it’s perfect for his voice.”

While this will be Jones’ first appearance on a podium in Prague, he is not new to Czech music or orchestras. Two years ago, he conducted the Prague Philharmonia in an appearance with Rolando Villazón in Paris. “Totally fantastic,” he said of his experience with the Philharmonia. Jones also had the good fortune to study under Sir Charles Mackerras at the Welsh National Opera from 2001-04, where they staged productions of Janáček’s Jenůfa, Kaťa Kabanova and The Cunning Little Vixen.

If you’re going to assist somebody, it might as well be the best,” Jones said of his time with Mackerras. “He was an absolutely astonishing man to work with. And Janáček has such a unique sound. The first time I heard Kaťa Kabanova, I had no idea where the rhythms were going. But the music is incredibly beautiful. What I’d love to do now is House of the Dead.”

The schedule for this concert is relatively relaxed, with time for four rehearsals over two days. Jones said he probably would not take full advantage of them, as he wanted to keep an element of spontaneity. “You can rehearse too much,” he noted. And it sounded like he had already established a personal chemistry with the orchestra. “If you show a degree of trust in the musicians,” he said, “they’ll reward you by playing better.”

Gareth Jones is also the founder and musical director of Sinfonia Cymru, a Welsh chamber orchestra that showcases promising young players. More on that at:

Sunday, January 16, 2011


January 15

An intelligent player with poetic sensibility.

It can take years for a performing artist to find his voice, no matter how good his technical skills. Franceso Piemontisi offered a reminder of that last night with an engaging recital that was as much about promise as performance.

Piemontisi, 27, is all business when he comes onstage, pausing only for a quick bow before sitting down and launching immediately into the program. He hovers close over the keyboard when he plays, shoulders hunched like a journalist on deadline. And he has the most expressive body language of any pianist in recent memory, bouncing with the rhythm and leaning into the melody.

He opened with a Bach partita, working the pedals to give the piece a modern burnish, though with a soft touch. It was a straightforward warm-up for Beethoven’s Sonata in A major (Op. 101), played with more nuance and feeling, if a bit uptempo. In particular, the final movement galloped to a finish. Piemontisi seemed to find an expressive groove with Liszt’s Vallee d’Obermann from his Swiss cycle, varying moods and tempos to draw out the full array of emotions, from melancholy to joy. He also showed some impressive speed and dexterity.

Technically, all three selections were spot-on. And it was clear Piemontisi had put a lot of work into preparing them; none are in his standard repertoire. But they lacked a higher dimension – a commanding style, a distinctive voice, a fresh interpretation. The pianist has a fine poetic sense, but there were only flashes of it in the first half of the concert. Otherwise, the music was tightly controlled, without much breathing room for variations in phrasing or approach.

Schumann’s Kreisleriana in the second half was better, lightened by some lyrical moments that were absent earlier in the evening. Slowing down a bit, Piemontisi found atmospheric variations in each of the eight movements, yet maintained a stylistic consistency that gave piece an overall integrity and flow. He showed some dynamic range as well, sounding some contemplative notes in the slower movements, and exploding with dramatic bursts of energy in others.

The audience called Piemontisi out for three brief encores, so all this may be so much critical carping. Certainly there’s no denying his intelligence and skill. But he needs seasoning, which can only come with experience. When Piemontisi finds his voice and develops a unique creative vision, he will be a formidable talent indeed.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Obecní dům
January 12

A superlative stand-in.
Opportunities to hear the complete score of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé don’t come along very often, and last night’s performance by the Prague Symphony Orchestra included a tantalizing hitch: a substitute conductor. With Spanish maestro Juanjo Mena out sick, Wilson Hermanto, an up-and-coming Indonesian-American, was given the baton and a daunting challenge. Nearly an hour in length, Ravel’s “choreographic symphony” is an incredibly complex work that demands a large orchestra, full mixed choir and considerable finesse at the podium. Hermanto, 38, responded with a display of poise and talent well beyond his years.

Commissioned by the legendary Sergei Diaghilev for his Ballets Russe,
Daphnis et Chloé barely weathered the storms besieging the project in 1912, which included an argumentative choreographer, temperamental dancers and an overly ambitious schedule. The competition was pretty stiff, too – the company was simultaneously rehearsing Debussy’s L’Apres Midi d’un Faun, and had recently premiered Stravinsky’s groundbreaking works The Firebird and Petrushka. After a lackluster premiere of Daphnis et Chloé, Ravel was considered lucky to pull two suites from it that went into the symphonic repertoire.

A century later, the full ballet is considered Ravel’s masterwork. A sprawling piece held together by several main motifs, it ranges from wild dance sequences to muted passages that would fit neatly into a tone poem. The instrumentation, time signatures, phrasing and melody lines change so often, and so inventively, that one never knows what is coming next. So expressive is the score that dancing seems almost superfluous; in capable hands, the music itself leaps, writhes and pirouettes across the stage.

Hermanto showed that facility last night, handling the complicated orchestration, changes in mood and tone and many breaks with smooth precision. Most impressive was his control. Particularly in the more boisterous dance sequences, the piece can easily run away. Hermanto anchored it with a steady tempo throughout, and kept the sound in balance on both the high and low ends, capping the brass and percussion explosions, and rendering soft string and vocal passages with radiance and texture. That level of fluency with 20th-century music is uncommon even among more accomplished conductors. Evidently Hermanto absorbed his lessons well in the time that he spent under the tutelage of Pierre Boulez.

Just holding together all the disparate elements of Daphnis et Chloé is a challenge, and in that regard a nod should be given to the musicians and singers. The Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno turned in another smart, nuanced performance, adding vivid colors with shimmering, wordless vocals. And the orchestra was clearly eager to support Hermanto, playing with enthusiasm and flair. Czech orchestras aren’t always welcoming to their guests – in November, the Czech Philharmonic sent an unprepared soloist packing after one rehearsal. But last night was a very good matchup of a still-developing conductor with an ensemble willing to bend a bit and be accommodating.

Prague's popular virtuoso.
The musicians were also notably supportive of the soloist in the opening piece, Richard Strauss’ Concerto for French horn and orchestra No. 1 in E flat major. Radek Baborák, who is spending the 2010-11 season as artist-in-residence with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, is a world-class talent on his instrument with a big local fan base. Many of his admirers were at last night’s concert, calling Baborák out for two encores after a very polished performance of the concerto.

Strauss was only 18 when he wrote the piece, which is strikingly bright and buoyant compared to much of his later work. There’s not much for the orchestra to do, other than provide an upbeat backdrop. But the players were happy to showcase Baborák, who infused his usual rich, round tone with a stirring ring of nobility. Some of the subtleties of his playing were lost in the orchestral passages, so it was a treat when he did a solo excerpt from the concerto for his first encore. That gave the audience an opportunity to appreciate the fine techniques and full flavor of virtuoso playing.

Hats off to the orchestra administrators for an evening of great programming. And here’s hoping we haven’t seen the last of the promising Mr. Hermanto.

For more on:

Wilson Hermanto:

Friday, January 7, 2011


Sts. Simon and Jude Church
January 6

Jazzbos Honzák, Nejtek, Bárta and Vícha.

Skates were the way to go in Old Town last night, as freezing rain glazed the cobblestone streets and sidewalks with treacherous black ice. The atmosphere was much more welcoming at Sts. Simon and Jude, where bassist Jaromír Honzák played a tasty set with his quartet, Face of the Bass.

Honzák is the latest in a long line of stellar bass players from the Czech Republic, a group that includes international stars George Mraz and Miroslav Vitous, and current homeland favorites Pavel J. Ryba and Robert Balzar. An alum of Berklee College of Music in Boston, Honzák runs the jazz department at the Jaroslav Ježek Conservatory in Prague while composing and fronting several groups. Face of the Bass is the most experimental, with fellow composer and modern music aficionado Michal Nejtek on keyboards, and versatile sidemen Marcel Bárta on horns and Roman Vícha on drums.

The group has great range, segueing smoothly from free-floating, asymmetrical rhythm and melody lines to jazz standards with straight-ahead verses and solos, often within the framework of a single song. They played mostly compositions by Honzák and Nejtek Thursday night, with contrasting detours into Eric Dolphy and, of all things, ABBA. Structurally, their own pieces were simple, largely repeating phrases with a lot of breathing room that gave the players a chance to show what they can do.

Honzák is an artist on his instrument, using a variety of fingering techniques and wielding his bow like a paintbrush, creating vivid aural colors. Watching him play is like going to a master class, though it’s much more satisfying to sit back, close your eyes and let the rainbow of sounds take you places. Were it not for the tone, you could be listening to a violinist playing intricate and imaginative improv.

The opening piece, “Majesty Time” by Honzák, set the basic template: long, atmospheric melody lines laid down by Bárta on bass clarinet or soprano sax, with the other players providing smart fills and lush accents that grew into individual solos and, occasionally, all four musicians jamming together. That was rare. The group favors a sophisticated form of improvisation bordering on free jazz, which usually has one or two players maintaining a basic rhythm line while the others soar into contrasting keys and complementary time signatures. When it works, it’s heady and stimulating fare.

Two pieces, Nejtek’s “Night” and Honzák’s “Mysterious Face,” worked very well strung together in that framework. So did Honzák’s “If,” which featured a soulful bass solo. Bárta pulled some impressive squawks, moans and screams out of his horns for Eric Dolphy’s “Hat & Beard,” a piece stylistically very close to the group’s own repertoire. And who would have thought that ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” could be translated into a slow, engaging jazz ballad? Bárta left the stage for that song, as if the thought was too much to bear. But if Charlie Parker could make a jazz classic out of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” the pop possibilities are endless.

The only down note of the evening was the sound. Visually, Sts. Simon and Jude offers an enchanting performance space. But the acoustics have vexed more than one group, including classical choirs. For a small jazz ensemble, it’s almost hopeless; the sound breaks up quickly, and the drums tend to overwhelm everything else, even with a soft touch like Vícha’s. Miking and balancing all the instruments might work, but as it was, only two instruments were plugged in last night – the bass and a supplemental keyboard. As a result, many of the fine points of the performance were lost, in particular some flashy solos by Bárta.

But give the programmers at the Prague Symphony Orchestra credit for including a jazz combo in their chamber music series, especially this one. Honzák is an interesting composer and player who deserves to be seen and heard. The music can be challenging – but then, so can getting to the venue.

For more about:

Chamber music at Sts. Simon and Jude:

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Sts. Simon & Jude Church
December 31

What better way to ring in the new year than with Händel’s glorious Messiah? Collegium 1704 served up a fiery performance of the popular oratorio Friday night that brought a capacity crowd to its feet and lent a radiant glow to the frosty streets of Old Town.

Conductor and artistic director Václav Luks led a group that was ideal for the sanctuary space at Sts. Simon and Jude – 20 musicians, 16 choral singers and four soloists. The sound was rich and full, yet perfectly clear. And there was no cutting corners with content. The ensemble performed the complete work, which with intermission runs nearly three hours. It was a wonderful opportunity to hear and appreciate the full piece, especially given the high caliber of the performance.

Luks set a brisk tempo with the opening “Sinfonia,” seguing quickly to the prophecy of salvation, sung by tenor Eric Stoklossa. He proved to be the most versatile singer of the cast, taking full advantage of the ornamentation possibilities in the score. The chorus followed, sounding perhaps the best that it has all year, vibrant and spirited without losing any of the complexity or nuances of the music. Luks is masterful at drawing out the subtleties of anything he conducts, while giving free rein to vocals that seem to soar heavenward. In this performance, the male voices, which provide an earthly anchor for the divine sopranos and altos, were particularly good.

The other soloists were uniformly strong. Marián Krejčík showed surprising range for a bass singer, and excellent diction. Soprano Alena Hellerová and alto Markéta Cukrová were also strikingly fluent with the English-language text. Hellerová has a fine facility for Baroque phrasing, and Cukrová offered her usual combination of sensitive expression and technical skill.

One of the hallmarks of Collegium 1704’s sound is its balance, which is a challenge in this work. Typically, the chorus runs away with the piece, especially in the signature “Hallelujah” movement. Luks managed not only to keep the instruments and vocals in balance, but create a dialogue between the two, giving the piece fluidity and momentum without sacrificing any of its riveting singular moments. The sweep of music with those kind of dynamics is irresistible, and made the three hours pass quickly.

The other intangible that Collegium 1704 brings to the early music repertoire is its exuberance, a sense of joy and spontaneity that transcends anything on the printed page. This was in full bloom Friday night, evident in everything from the smiles on the violin players’ faces to the energy of the music as it burst from the stage like a shower of confetti and balloons. There are other ways to interpret the Messiah, but it would hard to surpass this one for emotional power and eloquence.

So it seemed only natural that, as the echoes of a “Hallelujah” encore reverberated through the church, the audience rose to its feet with a wave of applause and cries of “Bravo!” Prague audiences will give a standing ovation to almost anything these days, but this one was honestly earned and well-deserved. Luks and his ensemble provided an effervescent start to the new year, and may have spoiled their fans. Future New Year’s Eves will seem paltry indeed without an inspired performance like this one.