Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Various venues in Ostrava
August 26 – September 3

A thoroughly modern composer and educator.

Given the iconoclastic nature of the Czech Republic, itʼs only fitting that the best music festival of the year is being held not in Prague, but in Ostrava, a proud industrial center in northern Moravia.

Ostrava Days would be a remarkable event no matter where it was held on the strength of the program alone: Nine consecutive nights of modern music by Xenakis, Cage, Ligeti, Feldman, Stockhausen, Rihm and a raft of lesser-known composers, along with more than 20 commissioned works and world premieres. The performers include vocalists Salome Kammer and Katalin Károlyi, the S.E.M. Ensemble and JACK Quartet from New York, conductors Johannes Kalitzke and Roland Kluttig, and resident orchestras Ostravská banda and the Janáček Philharmonic.

The concerts cap a three-week institute, held biennially since 2001, that brings an international mix of roughly 30 international students to Ostrava to study with contemporary composers. Lecturers in previous years have included Louis Andriessen, Tristan Murail, Alvin Lucier and Kaija Saariaho; this yearʼs faculty includes Bernhard Lang, Phill Niblock, Rolf Riehm, Carola Bauckholt and the founder and artistic director of Ostrava Days, Petr Kotík.

Kotík is a notorious figure in the Czech Republic, a flutist, conductor and composer who studied in Prague and Vienna and nearly started a riot with a piece that he premiered at the 1964 Warsaw Autumn festival. He moved to New York in the early 1980s and returns only reluctantly to Prague, which he dismisses as a musical smetiště (garbage heap). His message to students in the opening classroom session of Ostrava Days 2009 was equally off-putting: “This is not a school and we are not going to teach you. Nobody can teach you how to become a composer. We donʼt have any kind of structure here, and every one of us is going to proceed independently.”

And he wasnʼt kidding. “Weʼve had students come and spend most of their time playing ping-pong,” Kotík said after this yearʼs Ostrava Days press conference. “And then they show up at the next festival with a very good piece.”

Experience is what students who are serious about getting their work performed gain. “We have an orchestra booked for two hours of rehearsal time in the morning, and if youʼre not done by the end of that time, too bad, theyʼre not going to stay longer for you,” Kotík explained. “So thereʼs a certain amount of pressure, which many of them are experiencing for the first time. Itʼs not a pampered life, like when youʼre studying in school.”

New views from the JACK Quartet.
Experience is also the main attraction for audiences, though without the pressure. The performance schedule always features a vibrant mix of solo, chamber and orchestral works, pieces by former students and festival instructors, and this year, a 12-hour electronic music marathon. Nothing is too weird, esoteric or sophisticated to put on the program. And the very large Philharmonic Hall can accommodate pieces and ensembles that would be logistically impossible elsewhere. In 2009, the brilliant Hungarian ensemble Amadinda covered a gymnasium-sized floor with percussion instruments – all homemade. And for this critic, hearing Edgar Vareseʼs Ameriques performed live by a 140-piece orchestra was a life-changing experience.

Ostravaʼs gritty ambience adds a unique dimension to the festival. Prague may not be the musical dump that Kotík imagines, but thereʼs no question that the opening night multimedia concert is going to be a lot more interesting in the imposing Coal Mine Michal than, say, at the Rudolfinum.

Tickets to all the concerts are ridiculously cheap, and reasonable accommodations are easy to find. Ostrava also has a surprising number of good restaurants, and the most famous strip of bars and pubs in the country on Stodolní ulice, “the street that never sleeps.”

Itʼs not a classic late-summer vacation. But for an adventurous musical excursion, you will not do better.

For more on Ostrava Days and a complete schedule: http://www.newmusicostrava.cz/en/ostrava-days/

Photos: Petr Kotík, OCNM Archive; JACK Quartet, Caroline Savage.

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