Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Prague Conservatoire Concert Hall
May 17

Adding aural luster to the new concert hall.

Today marks the 27th anniversary of Amadinda’s first performance in Prague, an occasion the ensemble celebrated with a bravura performance last night at the Conservatoire’s new concert hall. Along with the group’s unique synthesis of primal rhythms and modern music, the program offered a reminder of Amadinda’s impressive accomplishments and standing in the global music community.

Two traditional pieces provided bookends for the concert. The first was the group’s namesake – Amadinda, a sampling of Ugandan music performed on an instrument of the same name, a twelve-key “log xylophone.” The piece is a rapid-fire tattoo of polyrhythms, laid down last night by three players: Amadinda founder and artistic director Zoltán Rácz; founding member Zoltán Váczi; and percussionist and composer Aurél Holló, who joined the group in 1991. Holló provided the rhythm foundation in a number of the songs, and he set a blistering pace for the closing piece, Otea, a wild taste of Tahitian dance music that the players embellished with some lively growling and yelling.

The second piece was an acknowledged masterwork, John Cage’s Third Construction. Composed in 1941, it’s a teeth-rattling ride with a rotating rhythmic structure played on an unorthodox set of instruments that includes tin cans, metal bowls, a wooden box, a conch shell, an Aztec teponaztli (a type of slit drum), a quijada (donkey jawbone) and a drum roar (a metal wire suspended from a drum’s center that produces a deep metallic groan). The clockwork precision of the performance was mesmerizing; many viewers in the hall sat transfixed, some with their mouths open in astonishment at the sheer energy exploding from the stage.

The first half concluded with Gamelan-bound, a bright, upbeat piece by Holló. The title is a reference to a type of traditional Indonesian music that relies heavily on drums, gongs, metallophones and xylophones. Holló was even more inventive, adding objects like a bike horn, Jew’s harp, whistles and hollow plastic tubes (in Day-Glo colors) to infuse the complex rhythms with a playful sense of free-spirited experimentation.

A perfect vocal fit.
The second half of the performance featured two pieces written expressly for the ensemble. The first, Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel (With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles), was composed by György Ligeti in 2000 for Amadinda and Hungarian mezzo-soprano Katalin Károlyi. A cycle of seven songs with text from the works of Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres, the piece has extreme swings of mood and tone, from gently sweet to bitingly sarcastic. Károlyi was more than impressive handling the tough vocal demands, slipping seamlessly in and out of different characters, caressing some lines while biting off others. Her clear voice and smart diction and intonation are an ideal fit with the ensemble, which was also dazzling, with four players juggling more than 70 different instruments.

Steve Reich composed the Mallet Quartet for Amadinda in 2009. Reminiscent of many of his earlier minimalist works, it’s a three-movement piece for two vibraphones and two marimbas, with distinct strains of progressive American jazz – or is it that contemporary jazz players have been influenced by Reich? Either way, the players did a fine job of handling the pulsing rhythms and delicate interlocking melody lines, though the piece never developed the electricity that characterizes Reich’s best work. The same was true of the encore, Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood, a 1973 composition for five pair of tuned claves. It was sharp and note-perfect, but didn’t pack much of a punch.

No matter; this was a world-class ensemble marking a significant moment, not only in its own history and development, but for the venue. The new Conservatoire hall, opened just two months ago, is a beauty, a 333-seat gem with clean stylistic lines and tight, dynamic acoustics. How string and horn ensembles will sound remains to be seen (and heard), but the range and resonance last night was superb – sharp without being harsh, full on the deep end and crystal-clear on the high end. Initially, the idea of shoehorning a small hall into the Conservatoire courtyard seemed a thoughtless bit of surgery. But the result is a neat fit and a fine concert facility that should fill an important niche in Prague.

The only down note was the number of empty seats in the hall. Modern music is never an easy sell in Prague, so it was no surprise that the audience was predominantly local music cognoscenti, like composers Martin Smolka and Michal Nejtek. But for a group of Amadinda’s caliber not to fill a small hall in this city is embarrassing, to say the least. Kudos to Prague Spring organizers for being willing to take a risk. And to local audiences, a clang of metal percussion and a bit of advice: Wake up!

For more on Amadinda:

To see Amadinda performances on YouTube:

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