Sunday, August 14, 2011


Berg Orchestra
August 12
L’Entrée du Roy
August 8

Suffering in St. George's Basilica.

Even for those of us who have seen it before, the Berg Orchestra’s Passion of Joan of Arc is an electrifying experience. The images in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film are as profound and unsettling as they were 80 years ago. And the contemporary score by Lithuanian composer Bronius Kutavičius offers disturbingly dark accompaniment, with passages of dramatic suffering and emotional turmoil interspersed with church bells, chants and other fragments of medieval sacred music.

The orchestra first presented the program in the spring of 2010, just four months after its world premiere in Vilnius, with the composer in attendance. It was a memorable event, with the gloomy, faded grandeur of the Lucerna theater adding to the atmospherics. But that setting paled next to the venue where the Passion was performed on Friday night – St. George’s Basilica at Prague Castle, a towering, austere structure still resonant with the architecture and aspirations of the 13th century.

St. George’s is not an ideal place for a concert, long and narrow with a screen that seemed half a kilometer away from the pews. And much of the audience could not see the orchestra, which performed on the floor, directly in front of the first few rows of seating. But once the lights went down and deep bass and cello notes ushered in the tormented figure of Maria Falconetti, the effect was hypnotic, with a spiritual drama playing out high and deep in the sanctuary, anchored by a gripping soundtrack below.

Kutavičius’s music closely tracks the narrative, mirroring Joan’s anguish as she is tortured by her ecclesiastical examiners. Long minutes of suspense end in a brutal hammer of dissonance when, for example, a vote of the judges goes against Joan, or a brief explosion of aural fireworks for lines like “You are Satan’s creature!” Given that, the relatively calm music for Joan’s execution and the ensuing riot in the final scenes seems incongruous – though perhaps Kutavičius decided to track Joan’s acceptance of her martyrdom and ascent to heaven instead of the melee on the material plane.

Conductor Peter Vrábel did a fine job keeping the music and narrative in synch, so much so that it was easy at times to forget the soundtrack was being performed live. And the orchestra was very good. Berg can be uneven, especially when it strays outside of its core modern music repertoire. But this performance was spot-on, taking on richer and deeper dimensions in the heavy stone basilica setting.

Earlier in the week, the sound was surprisingly good at the closing concert of the Summer Festivities of Early Music, performed in the Castle’s splendiferous Spanish Hall. Visually, the profusion of ceiling-high mirrors, sparkling chandeliers and regal gilding is perfect for a program of 17th-century music from Versailles. Acoustically, the hall can be a disaster, even for King Klaus’ jazz concerts. But the sound was good for the L’Entrée du Roy program, probably because there were more than 800 people in the hall – surely a record for a Baroque concert.

Collegium Marianum's Jana Semerádová.
A timpani-and-trumpet fanfare opened the performance, with an expanded version of Collegium Marianum onstage and an eight-piece wind ensemble, Arena Musicale, marching in from the rear of the hall in period costume. The two groups alternated on pieces by Charpentier and Lully in the first half, and while the wind ensemble was good, they were a minor league team compared to Collegium Marianum, which played with its usual intelligence and vivacity, showing a strong command of the material and imbuing it with great expression.

The singers, tenor Jean-Francois Novelli and baritone Arnaud Marzorati, also showed an expert mastery of the material. Sans costumes, they employed minimal declamation, focusing instead on strong vocals that carried nicely to the back rows of the hall. The program limited them in the first half – mostly introductory excerpts and dances that soon sounded repetitive. But they came to life in the second half with lively renderings of a broader selection of pieces, drawing sustained, enthusiastic applause after a brilliant closing duet, Jean-Baptiste Stuck’s Batistin.

More of that would certainly have brightened the evening. But the program was done right, starting slow and building to an animated finale with lots of percussion and trumpets ringing from the balconies. For serious Baroque fans (are there any other kind?), it was a smart and satisfying performance with punctilious attention to detail. And for the casual concert-goer, drawn perhaps more by the cachet of the setting, it was a first-rate show.

For a closer look at the venues:

Spanish Hall:

St. George’s Basilica:

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