Monday, June 27, 2011


Smetana Trio
June 22
Ivan Moravec
June 21

Carrying on: Páleníček, Čechová and Vonášková-Nováková. 

It’s always an edifying experience to hear chamber music at St. Agnes’ Convent, with its soaring performance space and monumental mix of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Flashes of lighting and bursts of thunder put an electric edge on a June 22 performance there by the Smetana Trio – a group that generates plenty of electricity on its own.

Founded in the 1930s, the Smetana Trio was one of the pioneers of the Czech chamber music sound, which balances exquisite formal discipline with deep, resonant expression. The group’s proud tradition was established by its first pianist and artistic director, Josef Páleníček, and is being carried on by his son Jan, a cellist. Playing with him are violinist Jana Vonášková-Nováková and pianist Jitka Čechová, a star in her own right who has won a number of international competitions and soloed with orchestras across Europe.

The group opened with Vítězslav Novák’s Trio in D minor, a seminal work in the Czech piano trio canon. Despite its origins in Moravian folk music, the 1902 piece has what Novák later called “the darkest Baudelairian pessimism,” which the trio rendered in full melodramatic tones. More satisfying was Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor, a technical tour de force that the ensemble handled with impressive fluency, weaving the complicated time signatures and kaleidoscopic themes into a seamless, fluid whole.

The formal program concluded with Brahms’ Trio in C minor (Opus 101), which the group played with elegance and precision. The commanding tone may have been overbearing for what can be a lighter work, but the balance of the three instruments and signature combination of rigor and spontaneity were superb. Still, the best music of the evening came in the encores, excerpts from two Dvořák piano trios. The second in particular, from the “Dumky,” was breathtaking in its delicate beauty – a sterling sampling of Czech music as only Czech musicians can play it. Piano trios all over the world perform the “Dumky,” but rarely with this level of feeling and technical finesse.

That combination is characteristic of the Smetana Trio, which routinely wins awards for its releases on Supraphon (including several for its 2006 recording of Dvořák piano trios that included the “Dumky.”) Even in Prague, no other chamber group plays with the intelligence and intensity of this ensemble; every note is thoughtful and heartfelt. When the Smetana Trio is on, they craft aural sculptures like no one else of their generation.

A consummate craftsman.
Another generation of Czech music was onstage at the Rudolfinum the previous night, in the form of Ivan Moravec. A pianist of international standing for more than 40 years, Moravec celebrated his 80th birthday with a recital of Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Chopin.

The classic formalism of the Czech style is still very evident in Moravec’s playing, as is the craftsmanship he brings to his work, which extends to the instrument itself. (For years, he was known for bringing a small bag of voicing tools to his concerts, to ensure that the piano was tuned according to his specifications.) And as a gifted veteran performer, Moravec is beyond fluent; the music seems to flow out of him directly onto the keyboard, perfectly smooth and unbroken, almost without effort.

That said, Moravec’s best days are clearly behind him. The Bach and Beethoven were straightforward and unremarkable. The Debussy Pour le Piano suite had some flashes of color, but for the most part was delivered in a monotone. The three Chopin selections (a nocturne, polonaise and scherzo) were a bit heavy for this critic’s tastes, though Moravec came back with three brief Chopin encores (a mazurka and two preludes) that picked up in both pace and tone.

At this point, it’s probably unfair to critique Moravec musically. He’s been plagued by a series of illnesses and injuries that have forced him to cancel concerts in recent months. And for anyone to be performing at his age, with the poise and skill that he showed last week, is a feat in itself. Besides, his playing is clearly not what packed the Rudolfinum. The adoring crowd had come for an event, a tribute to a world-class musician who was touring internationally when most Czechs weren’t even allowed to leave the country. In that respect, it was a memorable evening.

And as Moravec leaves the stage, if the torched is being passed to groups like the Smetana Trio, then Czech music is being well-served.

For another take on Moravec’s June 21 recital:

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Various Venues
June 23 – 25

The place to be in Prague this weekend.

The biggest music party of the summer gets underway tonight, and it’s a humdinger: More than 150 bands from 20 countries playing over three days, starting in 20 clubs tonight and continuing on seven outdoor stages over the weekend. The range is staggering, with the usual rock, jazz, blues and folk supplemented by Belgian electronica, Portugese fado, Balkan brass, Catalonian fusion, Cuban punk protest and – get this – Afghan rappers.

That almost looks like more than we can take,” says United Islands founder and chief dramaturgist David Gaydečka.

He may not be exaggerating. Last year’s festival attracted so many people that by mid-Saturday afternoon, it was nearly impossible to get on or off Střelecký Ostrov. And in the run-up to this year’s festival, Gaydečka says, “We’ve had about twice the number of hits on our website that we had last year.”

A lot of those are coming from southern Florida, where the expat Cuban population has been closely following the drama surrounding Porno para Ricardo, a Cuban dissident band that was invited to make its European debut at United Islands. Even though organizers on both ends secured the proper paperwork, the Cuban government refused to issue visas for three of the four band members. The founder of the group, Gorki Águila Carrasco, was already out of the country, so he will be at the festival, backed by the Prague-Lithuanian “hardcore yoga” band Alaverdi.

Imprisoned for two years and constantly harassed by the Cuban police, Carrasco sent this message ahead of his appearance: “The Castros and Castro fans can just put it where the sun don’t shine. Porno para Ricardo is coming to play!”

That’s just one of many great back stories about United Islands, which is in its eighth year. The basic concept of the festival has not changed: Put as much free music as you can possibly jam into one night of clubbing and two days of outdoor concerts on Prague’s river islands, and let ’er rip. But unlike other music festivals, most of which are struggling to survive in these trying times, United Islands just gets bigger and bigger. That’s due mostly to strong support from the main sponsor, Česká Spořitelna, and from the city and state governments. But United Islands has also developed a self-generating quality, according to Gaydečka.

There’s like an internal motor feeding things,” he says. “Every year after the festival, people get inspired and say, ʻWhy don’t we do this at United Islands?’ They come to us with ideas, and we’re open to new ideas.”

The festival has taken on some interesting cultural and political dimensions this year, with a broader sampling of world music – in particular, Spanish or Spanish-flavored bands from Portugal, Brazil and Catalonia – and a revolutionary backbite that ties in nicely with the “Week of Freedom” currently being celebrated in Prague. Venting their outrage along with Carrasco will be A-N-G, aka Afghan New Rappers, a group of London-based Afghani gangsta rappers; Deolinda, whose hit song “Parva que Sou” (What a fool I am) has become the anthem of a disaffected generation of young Portugese; and Russkaja, a Gogol Bordello-type dance band that Gaydečka describes as “a group of angry Russians from Austria.”

There are simply too many other bands to offer a comprehensive list of recommendations in this space. The best strategy is to follow your taste.

The main island, Střelecký Ostrov, will host the rock and world music stages, where headliner bands like the UK’s Archie Bronson Outfit and Audio Bullys will perform. The Friday night lineup also includes Canja Rave, a male/female duo known as the Brazilian version of White Stripes. There will be a lot of gypsy music on Saturday afternoon, along with an appearance by Polkaholix, a “polka rock” band from Berlin.

Kampa is the place to go for alt-rock and blues. A lot of the talent on those stages will be local, but there’s nothing wrong with catching great acts like Juwana Jenkins & the Mojo Band. Kampa will also have an open mike stage on Saturday, with many aspiring amateurs playing in 30-minute slots starting at 10:45 a.m. For jazz, head to Jazz Dock, where there will be free music both inside and on the rooftop outside on Saturday, and Slovanský Ostrov, where some very tasty big band music is scheduled for Saturday afternoon.

And a couple practical suggestions: First, do not attempt to drive anywhere near the festival. Trams 6, 9, 12, 17, 18, 20 & 22 will get you close, and on Saturday, the 6, 9 and 22 will drop you at a special stop right in the middle of the bridge overlooking Střelecký Ostrov.

And even though all the music is free, you can help support the festival by buying a Partner Pass for a very reasonable 100 Kč. For that you get a map, schedule, full catalogue of the performers (in Czech), free beer coupon, CD sampler and, most important, one of those ribboned passes to hang around your neck that all the cool people wear at concerts.

For tonight’s club schedule:

For a complete weekend schedule:

For more on the Week of Freedom:

Friday, June 10, 2011


June 9

A rare mix of style, intelligence and taste.

Famous singers come to Prague all the time, and there was certainly no shortage of big names in the just-concluded Prague Spring festival. But none of them inspire the adulation that Cecilia Bartoli does. From the moment she starts singing, it’s clear that along with a special voice, she has a unique performance style that creates a powerful bond with her audience, generating the kind of rapturous reception she received last night.

Bartoli was in town with Jean-Christophe Spinosi and his Ensemble Matheus for a two-part Vivaldi program. In the first half, she reprised favorites mostly from her 1999 release The Vivaldi Album; in the second half, she and Spinosi dusted off more forgotten Vivaldi arias from operas like La Silva, Catone in Utica and Argippo, which premiered in Prague in 1730. The new material is still so fresh that Bartoli sang it from scores.

Even with her voice well-known from CDs and performances on DVD, it’s breathtaking to hear her live. The sound quality is immediately captivating, but Bartoli’s range, fluency and command are what sets her apart. The very idea of a coloratura mezzo seems implausible...until you hear her sing “Tra le follie...Siam navi all’onde algenti” from L’Olimpiade, reeling off an extended run of coloratura lines with warmth and precision and not the slightest hint of strain. She can drop an absurdly low note one moment and be at high C a few bars later without any break or pause, smooth as satin.

Dramatic, delicate, full, graceful, round, sharp – Bartoli’s stylistic repertoire is stunning, and it all sounds perfectly natural.

Emotionally, she can hold an entire hall enthralled, caressing tender, achingly beautiful melodies in selections like “Sposa, son disprezzata” (from Bajazet), or “Zeffiretti che sussurate” (opera unknown), in which she trades enchanting lines with a solo flute. A passionate performer, she fully inhabits the pieces. A touching rendition of “Gelido in ogni vena” (from Farnace) brought instantaneous cheers and applause, which took Bartoli 10 or 15 seconds to hear and acknowledge, as she slowly came out of character. But she knows how to have fun, too; a spirited high-speed run through “Anch’il mar par che sommerga” (from Bajazet) ended with Bartoli and Spinosi laughing and hugging as the audience basked in the sheer energy and enjoyment radiating from the stage.

Bartoli has done a brilliant job of claiming a forgotten oeuvre as her own, and the electric quality of the first half of the concert made all the Italian opera written after Vivaldi sound tedious. But that energy didn’t quite transfer to the second half, which sounded a lot like the familiar Vivaldi of concerto fame. In fact, there was at least one direct quote from The Four Seasons in the new material, which included an orchestral sinfonia and a concerto for two violins. 

There was no drop-off in the caliber of the performance – Bartoli showed great range and sensitivity across six arias, finishing with a high-pitched dramatic flourish in “Se lento ancora il fulmine” (from Argippo). But with much of the vocals in standard mezzo range and the music more predictable (to modern ears, anyway), the thrill of discovery was gone.

The French half of the dream team.
Ensemble Matheus was first-rate, a very good Baroque orchestra with unusually rich, full dynamics. Some groups sound anemic on period instruments, but this one manages to preserve a deep timbre without losing any of the silken effervescence of the strings. Spinosi favors a bright gloss and buoyant – almost bubbly – tempo that propels the pieces and is a good match for Bartoli’s style and approach. That bright tone doesn’t always work; on dramatic pieces like “Gelido in ogni vena,” the ensemble sounded emotionally out of synch with the darker colors in Bartoli’s persona and voice. Otherwise, this is a collaboration that lives up to its billing as the “Vivaldi Dream Team.”

And Bartoli is a generous performer, happily sharing the spotlight with soloists (on flute, oboe, violin and trumpet last night) and reaching out to the audience, physically and emotionally. Her enthusiasm for the material is infectious, and her open, enthusiastic manner puts an inviting and accessible patina on some very intelligent, sophisticated work. None of these elements are uncommon. But to see them all together in one package is remarkable. No one can be that talented and smart and elegant and down-to-earth, all at the same time

Until you see Cecilia.

For more on Ensemble Matheus (in French and English):

Monday, June 6, 2011


Lucerna Music Bar
June 7

Putting a contemporary edge on traditional blues.

It’s always an occasion when Charlie Musselwhite comes to town. At 67, Musselwhite is America’s reigning blues harp player, a veteran who learned his trade on the south side of Chicago and has lived a hardscrabble life that informs every note he plays. His concert at Lucerna this week also marks his Prague debut, a signal event for serious blues fans.

Born in small-town Mississippi, Musselwhite was raised in Memphis, where he first put a childhood toy to serious use.

I’ve played harmonica as far back as I can remember – seems there was always a harp around the house,” he says via e-mail. “I like all kinds of music, like hillbilly and rockabilly and gospel and jazz, but blues sounded like the way I felt. When I was about 13, I already had lots of blues records and had been listening to blues on the radio and following the street singers in downtown Memphis. One day, it just occurred to me to start making up my own blues. Since I already had a harmonica, and was somewhat familiar with how to get something out of one, I liked to go out in the woods by myself and make up my own blues on harmonica.”

Like a lot of people in the South in postwar America, Musselwhite eventually went north looking for work. He landed in a musical hotbed that inspired a generation of young musicians, from Paul Butterfield to the Rolling Stones.

I arrived in Chicago from Memphis in 1962, when I was 18 years old,” Musselwhite recalls. “I didn’t know a soul. I was just looking for a job. The first job I got was driving for an exterminator, and I drove him all over town. So I learned the city real fast. I also discovered the blues scene by seeing signs in the windows of bars advertising the likes of Muddy Waters or Elmore James. At night I would go there and hang out. It was never a problem for me, I fit right in. I already knew how to drink, and being from the South just made me one of the guys from down home.”

Nearly 50 years later, Musselwhite has over 30 albums to his credit, including signature works like Ace of Harps and In My Time. His latest, The Well, is also his most personal. He wrote or co-wrote all the songs, which deal unabashedly with subjects like his alcohol addiction, time in the Cook County jail and the 2005 murder of his mother, Ruth Maxine.

It wasn’t really a plan,” Musselwhite says. “That’s just how it turned out after my producer, Chris Goldsmith, asked me to write all the tunes for the album. And when I write, I write about what I know. I draw from my life experiences.”

Was it tough revisiting the death of his mother?

Sure,” he says. “Dealing with the death of one’s mother is not easy, and murder is just about unbearable to contemplate. But I didn’t want to write a sad dirge, so you can actually tap your foot to ʽSad and Beautiful World.’ And Mavis Staples joined me on the song, which meant a lot to me. Mavis is a close and dear friend, and she has so much depth and substance – I thought she was perfect for the song. I wrote it for my mom, and I know she wouldn’t want me to be sad. Now, every time I hear Mavis’ voice, it makes my heart smile.”

Musselwhite is bringing his band: Matt Stubbs on guitar, Mike Phillips on bass and June Core on drums. “We’re sounding better than ever,” he says. “We’ll be playing some tunes from The Well, some older tunes and some I’ve never recorded that we have so much fun performing, the audience can’t help but have fun, too.”

That audience is remarkably diverse; Musselwhite counts everyone from convicts to jazz aficionados among his fans. What explains the broad appeal of his particular style of the blues?

I don’t know,” he says. “But my guess is that not being afraid to experiment has opened more doors for me. I like to call it ʽfinding new ways to be traditional.’”

For more on Charlie Musselwhite:

Friday, June 3, 2011


Infernal Comedy
June 2
Atonality and Abstraction
May 30 & 31

Prague Spring could do very well rolling out the same old classical warhorses every year. So it’s been refreshing to see the festival broadening its portfolio, with breathtaking results over the past week.

A charming, ruthless killer.
Last night’s performance of The Infernal Comedy, a tour de force for American actor John Malkovich, offered a bracing reminder of how exciting first-rate work can be. The acting, singing and playing by the Orchester Wiener Akademie were all superb, and more than that, woven together so ingeniously that the piece was one of those rare creations – a true hybrid, a synthesis of familiar elements into something strikingly fresh and original.

Malkovich portrays Jack Unterweger, an Austrian serial killer who cut a bloody swath through his homeland and, after he was released from prison in 1990, several other countries. Unterweger turned to writing, becoming a popular author while he was behind bars, and The Infernal Comedy opens with him on a book tour. But writer and director Michael Sturminger sets the timing of the tour after Unterweger’s death (by suicide) in 1994. So in a Sunset Boulevard-like twist, the entire evening is narrated by a dead man.

Unterweger not only shows no remorse for his crimes; he embraces them as his ticket to fame. “I’d rather be a killer than no one,” he says just before strangling one of the singers for the third time. The role of a lecherous psychotic is a natural fit for Malkovich, but what really makes his performance so chillingly effective is his persuasive charm, the way he draws the audience in with a polite, even self-deprecating persona that can turn in an instant to a cold-blooded killer.

All this plays out in front of a virtuoso Baroque orchestra, conducted by Martin Haselböck, playing some of the loveliest music of the period by composers like Gluck, Gasparini, Haydn and Mozart. Most of the selections are arias, sung last night by Bernarda Bobro and Aleksandra Zamojska, that either obliquely or directly intersect with the unfolding narrative. Bobro and Zamojska deserve medals – not only for their singing, but for the abuse they take over the course of the evening. Malkovich’s character molests or murders them almost every time they come onstage. The violence would be overwhelming were it not for the music, recalling the pioneering work done by Stanley Kubrick pairing the horrific and the sublime in A Clockwork Orange.

The piece has some intriguing Prague connections. The final aria, Ah, lo previdi!, was written by Mozart for his Prague patron and admirer Josefina Dušek. And Unterweger committed one of his murders here. Malkovich milked that as he recapped the killings, noting, “one of which occurred in Prague” – and then pausing for a meaningful stare at the audience. Such was the power of his performance that if the morning headlines had included news of an overnight strangling, it would have been no surprise.*

Kandinsky's impression of the concert.
The emotions evoked by the two-part “Tribute to Atonality and Abstraction” earlier in the week were rather cooler, but no less stimulating. The two performances – one at the Rudolfinum on Monday night, the second at Museum Kampa the following day – commemorated a seminal concert staged by composer Arnold Schönberg in Munich in January, 1911. Among the attendees was Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, who heard in Schönberg’s atonal experiments an aural counterpart to the new ground he was breaking in abstract expressionism. Inspired, Kandinsky started an intense correspondence with Schönberg that helped lay the groundwork for the revolution in early 20th-century art.

Schönberg’s String Quartet No. 2 opened the program on Monday, played by the young Zemlinsky Quartet, who were perhaps in over the heads with such material. But pianist Siegfried Mauser brought some order to the composer’s chaotic Three Piano Pieces (Opus 11). And a very good chamber ensemble of Czech and American musicians provided solid backing for the two singers in Mahler’s Song of the Earth, local tenor Jaroslav Březina and hometown favorite Dagmar Pecková. The mezzo-soprano was almost unrecognizable in a diaphanous gown and new orange hairdo, but her rich, dusky voice was as compelling as ever.

Adept at singing Schönberg.
Austrian soprano Anna Maria Pammer, who lent some authority to the string quartet on Monday, sounded even better at Kampa on Tuesday performing two sets of Schönberg songs. The vocal demands of those pieces are severe, and Pammer showed great control and technique, particularly in keeping the more strident passages piercing rather than shrieking. Mauser provided strong accompaniment, as well as an intelligent reading of the sole movement of Mahler’s Piano quartet in A minor. The six members of the chamber group who came to play Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) were brilliant, handling the dark shadings of the first half and Romantic turns of the second with equal aplomb. The powerful resonance of the closing notes inspired the audience to bring the players back for three curtain calls.

This kind of programming is both rare and rarefied, and would have been welcome under any conditions. That the concerts brought performers of such outstanding caliber to Prague was a thrill – and, in the best tradition of crossover art, a treat for both the eyes and ears.

* Update: A third connection was added when Malkovich had a mobile phone, laptop and other items stolen from his hotel room during his brief stay in Prague. He alluded to the robbery during his performance – this critic thought it was part of the script. The theft happened at the Mandarin Oriental, one of the swankiest places in town. But that's no reflection on the hotel; people in this city will steal anything, anywhere. For further proof, check out this clip of President Václav Klaus pocketing a pen:

For more on the Schönberg commemoration:

Thursday, June 2, 2011


I went to the house but did not enter
National Theater
June 2 & 3

Modern-day angst in mundane settings.

The vivid modernist colors that have characterized this year’s Prague Spring festival take on darker hues going into the final weekend, with the Hilliard Ensemble giving two performances of Heiner Goebbels’ 2008 stage piece I went to the house but did not enter. An avant-garde work that blends the vocal talents of an early music quartet with 20th-century literary texts, I went to the house defies easy categorization – which is just the way Goebbels wants it.

I like it most when an audience can never be completely sure what it is attending,” he told the Italian arts magazine Il Giornale della Musica prior to a performance in Bolzano, Italy. “A concert? A performance? A theater piece? Each format asks for a different perception mode. It is already such a difference if we hear music or hear text. This performance is exactly about the insecurity between these two categories.”

Insecurity” seems like a perfect term to describe Goebbels’ selection of texts, starting with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot. Excerpts from Maurice Blanchot’s The Madness of the Day, Kafka’s Excursion to the Mountains and Beckett’s Worstward Ho round out an all-star lineup of modern anxieties and existential hand-wringing. In characteristic fashion, Goebbels runs the opposite way with the music, an atonal take on the medieval a cappella singing that the ensemble typically performs in churches. As one critic noted, “It is music that manages to sound both old and new at the same time.”

This highly charged content unfolds in three relatively mundane settings that have nonetheless left powerful impressions on viewers. One pronounced himself “deeply, almost irrationally transfixed” by the combination of surrealistic activities in realistic spaces, playing out in ritualistic rhythms and tones. Not to mention the barbershop quartet treatment of Kafka.

If making all this work onstage sounds like a daunting task, then you know exactly how the Hilliard Ensemble felt before the August 2008 premiere in Edinburgh. The group went so far as to pen an apologia for The Guardian, noting that they usually perform behind a stationary set of music stands, and confessing, “To find ourselves taking part in an unashamedly theatrical work which requires us not only to sing, but also to recite complex texts while actually moving about a stage, has been a seismic shock.”

But the stage fright is long gone, according to baritone Gordon Jones.

Like any new venture, working on stage brought its own set of problems and challenges: how to move, memorizing long passages of words and music, how to maintain our musical togetherness when separated by greater distances than usual,” he says. “We have come to grips with these, though we are still aware that we are a vocal ensemble who find themselves in a stage show rather than a group of four actors who also sing. Having said all that, we enjoy performing the piece enormously – the challenges have been worthwhile and rewarding.”

The Hilliard Ensemble was in Prague in the fall, opening the Strings of Autumn festival with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek at one of the city’s most imposing venues, the massive Vítkov Memorial. This time they will be performing at the nation’s cultural cornerstone, the National Theater – a dissonance that matches Goebbel’s music. But the group is eminently adaptable, according to Jones.

I think we are by now used to strange venues,” he says. “We’ve performed in hydroelectric power stations, Greek amphitheaters, disused armaments factories. They all have their own atmosphere and, even more importantly, their own acoustics. That’s what really matters to us.”

One bit of advice for seeing I went to the house, offered by Goebbels in his Il Giornale della Musica interview: Try to relax in the uncertain spaces that his works invoke, rather than attempting to decipher the indecipherable.

What you will see is as much an experience as what you will hear, and I couldn’t say which is more important,” he said. “My set designer Klaus Gruenberg and I try to create images to open the imagination rather than images which are supposed to have a precise and therefore narrow meaning.”

The title, taken from the Blanchot text, sets the tone and approach: “Already in this one line you hear his strategy of disappointing the expectations of the reader. My preference is also to disappoint the expectations of the audience – and raise new ones at the same time.”

For more on the Hilliard Ensemble:

For music and stills from the performance:

For a complete history of the work, check the Archive section on Heiner Goebbels’ website:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Robert McDuffie
May 27
MoEns Ensemble
May 26
Marianna Vasiljeva
May 22

One of the great joys of Prague Spring is the sheer variety it offers – especially this year, with so much modern music in the mix. Some highlights of the past 10 days:

A classicist at heart.
Robert McDuffie was as good as advertised Friday night, holding up both ends of a Baroque-meets-modern double bill with consummate skill and style. McDuffie is an intense player, focused and attentive to every note, and given to liberal use of body English. He also runs the band, in effect conducting as he plays. The result is a much more integrated sound than one normally hears from a visiting soloist doing a one-night stand with a local ensemble.

That was clear in the opening movement of Philip Glass’ The American Seasons, with seamless melts from solo violin lines to the full orchestra. The piece is a pastiche of Romantic melodies, trademark Glass riffs and repeating rhythms, with an occasional rock backbite. It didn’t quite work – there’s no way a 28-piece European chamber group is going to nail Glass’ pulsating bass lines. But McDuffie was very good, especially at imbuing the melodies with a rich emotional quality.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was a revelation. This critic would have said there was no way to breathe new life into such a well-worn standard. But it sounded completely fresh, even exciting, like a work heard for the first time. McDuffie’s unflagging enthusiasm for the piece came through in his impassioned playing, and the Prague Philharmonia ensemble added character and depth. The Four Seasons was also a great showcase for McDuffie’s violin – a 1735 Guarneri del Gesu that sounded ordinary in the Glass piece, but pure and golden playing the music it was made to play.

McDuffie is that rare combination of a well-trained classicist with modern sensibilities. He plays the music straight, with enough flourishes to mark a piece as his own, but with proper respect for how it’s supposed to sound. It’s not often an American comes to town who can play like a European. That’s saying something.

Painting sounds.
Graphic designer Milan Grygar has always claimed that he can “hear” his drawings and paintings, and he had a very good group playing them last Thursday at Museum Kampa. Grygar himself directed four rehearsals of the MoEns Ensemble, Prague clarinetist Kamil Doležal’s modern music group. Local composer and pianist Miroslav Pudlák sat in with the group and was at the keyboard for the opening Modrá partitura, a four-handed collision of crashing asymmetrical chords.

The other four pieces were in the same vein – mostly atmospherics, with sustained, single-note string and horn lines punctuated by explosions of percussion and piano chords. At times, the novelty of the instrumentation was more engaging than the music. Znaková partitura featured two musicians playing the piano from both ends – one banging on the keyboard, and the other plucking the strings.

Which is not to denigrate the quality of the performance. MoEns includes some of the city’s best modern music players, and they lent precision and definition to what could have been mud in lesser hands. Unfortunately, the accompanying slides of Grygar’s drawings didn’t add much, partly because the slides (or maybe the drawings themselves) were not terribly interesting, and partly because the room was still flooded with late-afternoon light, making them hard to see.

Still, there was plenty of Grygar’s work hanging on the walls to contemplate. And as a multimedia event exploring the connections between painting and music, the concert was quite good, the type of thing one might see in Berlin. An enthusiastic crowd of about 200 turned out, with many lingering afterward for autographs and photos with Grygar.

A surfeit of skill.
The hot date on Sunday 22nd was with two Russians: Marianna Vasiljeva, the winner of last year’s Prague Spring violin competition, and Dmitri Shostakovich, whose Concerto for violin and orchestra No. 1 provided an ideal showpiece for her considerable skills.

It was easy to see why Vasiljeva won the competition – she has a commanding voice, especially for a 25-year old, and plays with an impressive combination of technical finesse and emotional expression. At times, her age showed. She would hit every note of a lengthy, complicated run with dazzling fluidity, then in the next passage seem hesitant and unsure. But those moments were brief, and for the most part Vasiljeva had the sound and technique of a budding virtuoso. She will definitely be a talent to watch.