Thursday, March 31, 2011


Obecní dům
March 27 & 30

It’s been a busy week for the Prague Symphony Orchestra, which premiered a new symphony by Czech composer Sylvie Bodorová last night. With its dramatic percussion and cacophony of dissonant horns and strings, Bodorová’s ambitious new work provided an unexpected bridge to the orchestra’s Sunday concert, the first of several benefit performances to aid recovery efforts in Japan. (The Czech Philharmonic and Prague Philharmonia are staging benefit concerts this coming weekend.)

Bodorová: Symphonic synchronicity
Con le campane is the first symphony by Bodorová, 56, a prolific composer who has drawn commissions from around the world. Over the past 30 years, her work has been performed on every continent – including, as her website proudly notes, Antarctica. For this piece, she added a contemporary drum kit and conga drums to the usual array of orchestral percussion instruments to infuse primal beats into modern music structures.

The symphony opened with a six-note conga phrase that ran throughout the first movement, mimicking a human heartbeat thumping strong and steady amid a tumult of gongs, church bells and processional strings that rose insistently, building to a fever pitch and finally exploding in a noisy cascade.

Though Con le campane was written long before the March 18 disaster in Japan, it immediately invoked images of the tsunami – overwhelming, inexorable, all-consuming. Had Bodorová set out to write soundtrack music for the stunning videos of the giant wave sweeping and destroying everything in its path, she could not have done better.

The intensity was pitched even higher in the second movement, appropriately titled Breakdance, a tumbling frisson of contrasting string and horn layers propelled by an all-out percussive assault that sounded at times like a jazz jam. The layers were complex, with the horn and string sections playing in different keys and time signatures simultaneously, and Maestro Jiří Kout did a masterful job holding it all together. The third movement offered a respite of sorts, with soothing woodwinds and calm, textural strings accented by heroic trumpet lines. Then it was back on the A Train for the final movement, a vertiginous, jazz-inflected swirl of sounds that once again invoked the huge sweep of massive forces, this time on an even grander, more momentous scale.

Bodorová took the stage afterward to enthusiastic, extended applause. Premieres of new musical works are not uncommon in Prague, but premieres of new works by female composers are still relatively rare – so it was good to see her receiving accolades and flowers. And while her symphony may not earn a permanent place in the Czech repertoire, it was a remarkable bit of synchronicity, arriving at just the moment when a powerful, percussive work would have special resonance.

Ambassador Chikahito Harada: Arigato
The program for the benefit concert three nights earlier seemed a bit incongruous – the first three movements from Smetana’s Má vlast, and Dvořák’s New World Symphony, Czech favorites that would appear to have little to do with Japan. But as the program noted, and orchestra director Ilja Šmíd explained in his opening speech, those pieces are perennial favorites among Japanese audiences and programmers, who request them whenever the Prague Symphony Orchestra tours Japan. The orchestra’s connection to the country is quite strong; just last year it played in Sendai, parts of which were wiped off the map by the tsunami.

So it wasn’t surprising to hear more impassioned playing than usual, with an animated Kout drawing a powerful yet sensitive sound from the orchestra. The Vltava section of Má vlast in particular had an endearing quality, a pathos burnished by a smooth, liquid flow. And Kout’s handling of Dvořák, though a bit ragged in spots, produced the most emotionally compelling performance of the composer’s signature symphony that this reviewer has ever heard in Prague.

It brought the audience to their feet – an impressive sight, as the 1,100-seat hall was completely full. The event raised 390,000 Kč (about $22,500 USD), and the concerts this coming weekend will likely raise even more. Šmíd also added a stirring positive note in the program, expressing his certainty that when the orchestra visits Japan two years from now, there will be few traces of the disaster: “The enormous industriousness and hard work of the Japanese people, as well as their decency and humility, guarantee it.”

For more on Sylvie Bodorová:

For updates on the other benefit concerts:

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