Prague Proms Open
A Holocaust Remembrance
Proof positive that star power transfers to music was on vivid display last night at Obecní dům, where an overflow crowd turned out for Prague Proms’ annual Hollywood Night. Czech TV cameras jammed the aisles and balconies as the spotlights fell on conductor Carl Davis, who led the Czech National Symphony Orchestra through two hours of songs and suites from films ranging from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Mamma Mia!
|A flamboyant maestro.|
Davis is the perfect choice for this sort of fare. An American who moved to London in the early ’60s, he is a longtime composer of television and film music, with credits that include soundtracks for The French Lieutenant’s Woman and the restored version of Abel Gance’s Napoléon. He is also a bit of a raconteur at the podium, cracking wise and chatting up the audience between songs, and enthusiastically leading the cheer “Who you gonna call?” in the theme from Ghostbusters. His flamboyant wardrobe adds just the right touch of glitter.
The sound was about what you’d expect for orchestral versions of songs like “New York, New York” and “As Time Goes By” – spirited and fun, even bombastic at times, a bit rough around the edges but smartly played. Davis brought some nice arrangements that he managed to infuse with a sparkling effervescence, and he’s no slouch when it comes to real music. The second movement from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 (from The King’s Speech) and a pas de deux from Swan Lake (from Black Swan) would have stood up in any regular-season concert.
Vocalist Lance Ellington added a nightclub patina to numbers like “Moon River” and “Come Fly With Me,” though songs like “A View to a Kill” were mostly a reminder that a lot of bad music was written for the James Bond movies. The electric guitars came out for the 007 theme, and the orchestra was in full rock ’n’ roll mode for the finale, an Abba suite from Mamma Mia!
Quite frankly, the allure of music from mainstream pap like Titanic and Cats (cheating a bit there) escapes this critic. But about 1,200 people who think otherwise clapped and stomped their feet and had a rousing good time last night. Just one note to Davis, who likes to provide lengthy introductions to the songs: No one in Casablanca actually says “Play it again, Sam.” That was Woody Allen.
True to the spirit of summer festivals, Prague Proms offers a variety of music, including back-to-back sets by five groups of young Czech jazz stars who showed some impressive chops at Jazz Dock a few nights earlier. Still a bit overloaded from United Islands, this reviewer only caught the first three, any of whom could headline their own evening. David Dorůžka offered a reminder why he is the premier guitarist of his generation, and Beata Hlavenková turned in a very tasty performance with her trio. An intelligent and accomplished pianist, Hlavenková rolls out sophisticated arrangements in loose structures that leave a lot of room for improvisation. She likes to sing along with herself, a quirk that doesn’t always work but can add some sweet grace notes.
|Crossing over with acumen.|
The opening band, the Epoque Quartet, deserves a lot more attention than they get. A crossover string quartet in the vein of America’s Turtle Island Quartet (some of whose music they cover), the group serves up razor-sharp performances in a style that manages to be both energetic and disciplined. Classically trained quartets often sound like they’re slumming when they switch genres, but this foursome loses nothing covering Pat Metheny or standards like “You’ve Changed.” Violinist and singer Gabriela Vermelho added some spice to the set with her soft but penetrating vocals.
And there’s room for just a quick acknowledgment of the fine program that local pianist Patricia Goodson and American composer Laurence Sherr presented in their Holocaust Remembrance at St. Lawrence Church the previous evening. Along with works by Ilse Weber and Viktor Ullmann, both of whom lost their lives at Auschwitz, there were two pieces by Sherr and two from Rosy Wertheim, a little-known composer who barely survived the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam.
|Remembering for the right reasons.|
Sherr’s Elegy and Flame Language (an adaptation of a poem by Nelly Sachs) neatly captured moments of meditation, discovery and despair. The latter, performed by a solid chamber ensemble, included some fine vocal work by mezzo-soprano Kristýna Valoušková. But the real discovery of the evening was Wertheim, whose Satie-like compositions were an intriguing combination of engaging melodies and inventive structural turns. Goodson offered sensitive interpretations at the keyboard, with cellist Petr Nouzovský adding some plaintive lines to the second piece, Intermezzo II.
Memorial concerts can be overbearing, but this one felt more redeeming than depressing, in keeping with the goal expressed by the organizers in the program notes: “We seek to honor [the composers’] suffering, but not to limit their contributions, which transcend the horrors of the Holocaust.”
For more on Carl Davis: http://www.carldaviscollection.com/
To hear the Epoque Quartet: http://www.epoquequartet.com/audiovideo-en.php
Patricia Goodson’s website: http://www.patriciagoodson.com