Thursday, September 29, 2011


Miraculous sounds from the diminutive Midori.

The sheer volume of talent that rolled through the Rudolfinum over the past three weeks was neatly captured in the tag line for Dvořák’s Prague: “40 Stars, 22 Concerts, 1 Festival.” At times, it was dizzying trying to keep track of the rotating cast of orchestras, conductors and soloists. This critic joined the action about halfway through the festival, and came away delighted, disappointed and ODed on Dvořák.

Far and away the most interesting soloists were Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky and Japanese violinist Midori. Both are acclaimed masters of their instrument who defy the normal laws of playing.

Even more impressive in recital.
It was particularly interesting to see Lugansky, whose previous appearances in Prague have been with symphony orchestras. This time he gave a solo recital, which afforded him an opportunity to stretch out on a series of short Chopin pieces and Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage and Transcendental Etudes. He started smooth as ripples on water with both composers, flowing into keyboard runs so fast that his hands became a blur, and on the final Liszt piece, building to a fiery passion without sacrificing any technical command. Lugansky can wring more out of a single note or pregnant pause than many pianists find in an entire concerto; at other times, there seems to be more sound coming from the piano than two hands can possibly produce. It’s amazing to see live.

Playing Beethoven’s Concerto in D major Op. 61 with the Czech Philharmonic, Midori also seemed to be making music beyond the capacity of two hands and four strings. But she was on the other end of spectrum, weaving intricate melodies and extended trills so fine they could have slipped through the eye of a needle. On every level – stylistically, technically, emotionally – it was a virtuoso performance, particularly with the sensitive support of conductor Petr Altrichter. The orchestra never once overwhelmed Midori, matching her quiet delicacy on repeating phrases and swelling to Beethovenesque volume only during solo breaks. And her encore, the fugue from Bach’s Sonata in A minor, left one violinist in the audience breathlessly declaring, “I saw a miracle tonight!”

German cellist Jan Vogler, playing Schumann’s Concerto in A minor Op. 129, didn’t live up to his billing. He arrived on stage late and not in tune, and seemed to be having an off-night playing as well. It was unfortunate; Vogler is certainly better than that, as is the Prague Philharmonia, which sounded lackluster and colorless under the baton of Benjamin Wallfisch. The British conductor struck a lively tone and tempo with Martinů’s Partita for string orchestra, but had no feel for Dvořák’s Czech Suite Op. 39.

Hipster Hardenberger.
Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, on the other hand, was a revelation, pulling a brilliant performance out of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne with a cool, controlled style. Two Beethoven pieces – the Coriolanus overture and Symphony No. 5 – were everything Beethoven should be, bursting with life and energy and noble ideas. The turns of phrase and fancy breaks were dazzling, and even in the high-volume passages, the orchestra’s sound was clear and clean. Trumpet soloist Håkan Hardenberger came onstage looking like he had stepped out of a jazz club, with hipster glasses and a long purple waistcoat. He did a credible job on Haydn’s Concerto in E flat major, but sounded even better in his encore, a soft, slow jazz take on Rodgers and Hart’s My Funny Valentine.

It’s surprising that no one has offered Canadian conductor Julian Kuerti a permanent position, given the poise he showed with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic. Individual sections of the orchestra sounded better than the entire ensemble on Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, suite No. 2, though that seemed to be mostly a function of its size – nearly 100 players jammed onto the Rudolfinum stage, too many to allow for any definition or dynamics. The size and volume also overwhelmed piano soloist Olga Scheps, whose soft touch was lost in big blasts of Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 2 in D minor. Scheps’ style seems too lyrical for the harsh Russian repertoire; it would be interesting to see her again with a Romantic piece and a quieter orchestra.

And as noted in this space last week, Maestro Muhai Tang made an impressive showing with his Zhejiang Symphony Orchestra. In an interview before the concert, Tang did his best to lower expectations, noting that the orchestra has only been playing serious Western music for two years. But technically the players were sharp, and with the addition of seasoned soloists on traditional instruments, the Chinese pieces were a treat – bright, clever and colorful. 

The same might be said for the entire Dvořák’s Prague festival, which in just its fourth season has become a worthy fall counterpoint to Prague Spring. Tradition doesnt come as quickly; the festival will need time to build its standing and bona fides. But with a solid youth marketing program in place and the budget to sign big stars, Dvořák’s Prague seems well-positioned for a long run. 

For more on the performers in this years festival, see:

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Various Venues
September 26 – November 10

Jason Moran, Eric Harland, Charles Lloyd, Reuben Rogers

Can it really be seven years since Strings of Autumn got the boot from Prague Castle? It seemed like a disaster at the time, but the festival has gone on to become one of Pragueʼs best success stories, selling out a lively mix of classical, jazz, traditional and experimental concerts every fall in a variety of imaginative venues.

It retrospect, Iʼm really glad it happened,” says Strings Artistic Director Marek Vrabek. “We wouldnʼt be the force we are now if we were still trying to explain to the Office of the President why we did this or chose that. Weʼre independent, and we can go anywhere and do anything. Thatʼs what I like most about the festival – our freedom.”

What audiences like most is the taste of international flavors that Strings of Autumn brings to Prague, and the boldness of its programming. This year, major singing stars open and close the festival: jazz diva Dee Dee Bridgewater and mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, respectively. In between thereʼs American hip-hop, Corsican polyphony, progressive jazz from Israel, a tribute to Paul Robeson, a multimedia update of traditional Finnish music and a special appearance by American sax legend Charles Lloyd, who made musical history with a seminal concert at Lucerna in 1967, during the brief flowering of Prague Spring.

And the festival continues to expand in new directions. Thereʼs a dedicated weekend for kids and families this year at Divadlo Minor that will offer music and theater performances along with art and dance workshops for the younger set. The “Spotlight” slot, reserved in prior years for a single band or performer on the rise, has been expanded to a one-night “mini-festival” at Roxy that will feature eight bands on three stages, plus DJs and a closing jam session. The latter is a combination of inspiration and smart marketing.

I like the openness of the jazz clubs when I go to New York, the melting pot of different genres and ideas and influences, and I wanted to create that kind of atmosphere here,” Vrabek says. “Weʼre also trying to build an audience for the future, and a club night is a good way to draw in new, younger people who donʼt normally attend the main concerts.”

This yearʼs schedule leans a bit toward jazz, but thereʼs no arguing with the quality of the names. Dee Dee Bridgewater (State Opera, Sept. 26) has been a sensation on stages worldwide for more than 40 years, and was a big hit at the Strings of Autumn fundraising gala in April. This time sheʼs bringing her own band for a tribute to Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Abbey Lincoln. Charles Lloyd (Rudolfinum, Oct. 30) has been an influential force in jazz since the 1960s, when he brought a band to Prague that included Keith Jarrett on piano and Jack DeJohnette on drums. His New Quartet features three A-list American players: pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland.

Avishai Cohen (Hybernia Theater, Oct. 12), the Israeli bass player, singer and composer known for constantly breaking fresh ground in jazz, comes with a trio and a new release, Seven Seas. Robert Glasper, an American piano player and composer who straddles the worlds of jazz and hip-hop, will headline the Spotlight night at Roxy (Nov. 5) and play a dedicated set with his trio (Roxy, Nov. 6).

Vivica Genaux
On the classical side, Vivica Genaux, a gifted interpreter of Baroque and bel canto, will be singing with Pragueʼs outstanding Collegium 1704 ensemble (Estates Theater, Nov. 10). She and Collegium 1704 Artistic Director Václav Luks are collaborating on a program of Vivaldi, Hasse and a relatively unknown 18th-century Czech composer, Josef Mysliveček. Earlier in the festival, Austrian violin virtuoso Thomas Zehetmair will give a solo recital of Paganini and Isaÿe (St. Anneʼs Church, Oct. 3).

Rounding out the mix are a musical tribute to American singer Paul Robeson by British opera singer Willard White (Vinohrady Theater, Oct. 20); a taste of Mediterranean polyphony from A Filetta, a Corsican male vocal quartet (Czech Museum of Music, Oct. 25); and an electronic take on traditional Finnish music by accordionists Kimmo Pohjonen and Samuli Kosminen and the Proton String Quartet (Trade Fair Palace, Nov. 2).

For all that, one of the most significant accomplishments of this yearʼs festival is the support of new patrons, Karel and Michaela Janečkovi. Strings of Autumn couldnʼt survive with corporate sponsors like O2, but this marks the first time that private individuals have stepped up to make a major financial commitment to the festival. Itʼs a moment that Vrabek has worked toward for a long time.

Thereʼs no tradition of private support for the arts in this country, so this is an important step for us and I think a very good signal for the arts,” he says. “Government funding will continue to shrink, and you can only make so much from ticket sales. So itʼs critical to attract affluent, influential supporters who believe in the value of culture. We still have a long way to go, but itʼs good to see that our efforts are starting to pay off.”

For a complete Strings of Autumn schedule:

Thursday, September 22, 2011


September 21

Tangʼs tutoring has produced impressive results.

The latest Chinese juggernaut rolled through Prague yesterday in the form of the Zhejiang Symphony Orchestra, led by international man of mystery Muhai Tang. Or so one might have thought, given the snaky bodyguard in shades who was at Tangʼs side much of the day, whispering in his ear. But onstage the conductor was his usual ebullient self, and his orchestra put on quite a show.

The Zhejiang ensemble was until recently a “folk orchestra,” providing music for dance and theater performances and holiday celebrations. Under Tangʼs tutelage, it is being recast as a Western-style symphony orchestra with big ambitions. Though most of the players are strikingly young, and have yet to tour China, the orchestra is currently on a six-country tour of Europe sponsored by Geely, an even more ambitious Chinese automobile manufacturer. (Mission: “To make the safest, most environmentally friendly and energy-saving cars and see Geely cars go all over the world.”)

In deference to the Dvořákʼs Prague festival format, the orchestra performed two Western standards: Mozartʼs Piano concerto No. 23 in A major and Dvořákʼs Symphony No. 5. Both were smart, spirited and technically flawless, though noticeably lacking in character. Which isnʼt a criticism; itʼs simply what one can reasonably expect from an inexperienced group of Eastern musicians still learning their way around Western music. Local soloist Martin Kasík seemed to sleep through the Mozart concerto, but woke up the crowd with a witty and dexterous encore, Klement Slavickýʼs Toccata.

The Chinese pieces on the program were brilliant. The evening opened with Wanchun Shiʼs Festival Overture, an explosion of aural fireworks augmented by piercing solo lines from two traditional horns, which flew through the piece like chirping birds. Soloist Danhong Huang charmed the audience with BBK, a traditional piece for gaohu (a bowed string instrument); flute specialist Guoji Jiang turned in a dazzling mouth-flute performance on Whistle Ciocarlia Romania; and the orchestra brought the house to its feet with the final encore, Yuan Liuʼs Train Toccata, a cinematic work with cascading horns, train-on-track sound effects and a burst of singing at the end.

Tang showed the same masterful control and polish that he has with orchestras all over the world. He currently holds conducting or artistic director positions with ensembles in Hamburg, Belgrade and Brisbane, and four different orchestras in China. If last night was any indication, the lessons in Western music that heʼs bringing to his homeland are being well-learned by disciplined, enthusiastic young players. Earlier in the day, Tang graciously agreed to sit for a brief interview.

Did you always want to be a conductor?

No, I was in love with composition, and studied composing at the Shanghai Conservatory. But you couldnʼt choose your profession during the Cultural Revolution, and they decided that I should be a conductor. Then I didnʼt have any time for composing, even though I still love it.

In 1978, you received a scholarship to study in Munich. How hard was it to study abroad?

At that time it was very difficult. Chinaʼs door had opened just a little bit, not like today. It was a very hard time to do anything, and I was very lucky to get the scholarship. Then later, [Herbert von] Karajan helped me by giving me a chance to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic. Iʼve been fortunate – at important moments of my life I always got some help, like gifts from heaven.

How is classical music different in China?

European classical music is very welcome in China, millions of children are learning the piano and violin. And with Western orchestras now coming regularly to China, they are learning how a good orchestra sounds. But also very important for us is the spiritual side of the music; how can we connect over so much time and distance with the Old Masters of Europe? We are missing that foundation, which is one of the reasons we are doing this tour. If these young musicians play this music, they should see the countries, meet the people and learn about their lives, because the music reflects all this.

Youʼve worked in the West for a long time. Does that make you a cultural diplomat?

Yes, absolutely. And I think there should be respect from both sides. We respect the European music and traditions, but Europeans canʼt say “We are the best” anymore. That time is over. Iʼm sorry to say it; I donʼt want to offend anybody, but thatʼs the reality. So I think there should be a lot of respect for Chinese musicians, and I think we should work on building a common foundation, learning how to live together and play together. Itʼs not “I serve you.” We all serve the music.

What impression do you hope your orchestra makes on European audiences?

I think Europeans should be proud that their music is being played by these young musicians from China, and love them and support them. Weʼre not in competition with our colleagues in Europe. The Czech Philharmonic has been together for 100 years; the orchestra Iʼm conducting tonight has only two yearsʼ experience playing this music. So we are showing what we can do in two yearsʼ time, and we hope the audiences will enjoy it. Itʼs not about judging or comparing. Itʼs about happiness of the spirit, and I hope the audiences feel that.

For more on the Zhejiang Symphony Orchestra:

Saturday, September 17, 2011


September 19

An impressive performer both on and off the stage.

German cellist Jan Vogler takes center stage at Dvořák’s Prague on Monday night, playing Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor Op. 129 with the Prague Philharmonia. This will be his first appearance with the orchestra and British conductor Benjamin Wallfisch.

Vogler, 47, is a formidable talent. He started playing at the age of 6 and won the principal cello position with the Staatskapelle Dresden at the age of 20, becoming the youngest concertmaster in the orchestra’s history. He left that position in 1997 to embark on a solo career, and has developed a remarkable repertoire that ranges from early music (Bach, Mozart) through the Romantics (Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák) to the 20th century (Shostakovich, Piazzolla). His 2009 recording Experience: Live from New York even includes a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun.”

Offstage, Vogler has been no less impressive, taking classical music into new venues and communities and founding the Moritzburg Festival, a chamber music festival in Saxony that celebrated its 19th outing in August. Earlier this month, in recognition of his work as an ambassador of classical music, Vogler received the Erich Kästner Award from the Dresden Press Club, which honors individuals who have made “an outstanding contribution to further the ideals of tolerance, humanity and international understanding.”

Vogler talked about the award, his other activities and his upcoming Prague concert in a recent e-mail conversation.

Has the Moritzburg Festival developed the way you hoped it would?

In the beginning, it was just an opportunity to meet, discuss music and spend time with fantastic colleagues and great works of chamber music. Now it’s both a workshop for the artists and a festival for our wonderful audiences from around the world. And more and more, I see that the beautiful natural setting of Moritzburg plays an important role. It creates a special concentration during the work and gives a magical setting for our concerts.

You joined an elite group as this year’s recipient of the Erich Kästner Award. What are your feelings about winning the award?

It gives me a feeling of support and trust. I feel very honored, and I feel a responsibility to work further on creating music that brings people together. I am very fortunate to have an audience that stimulates me to work very hard on the cello, but also to get involved in the musical life of Germany, and give my energy to help create enthusiasm for classical music.

You performed at one of the most significant civic events in Germany in recent years, the reopening of the Dresden Frauenkirche in 2005.

I will never forget this concert: Onstage with the New York Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel in the Frauenkirche, and feeling the historic dimension of this event. It was a true reconciliation between all the parties of the Second World War. There was an atmosphere in the air that gave me assurance that music can indeed reach very far into society, and can even heal the wounds of war.

Where is home for you now, Dresden or New York?

Both! The combination is ideal for me. Dresden is a symbol of the tradition of music in Germany, and inspires me in a calm, steady way. New York connects me with the world, and helps me to see the bigger picture of my profession and the world in general.

Was it your proposal, or a request from Dvořák’s Prague, to play the Schumann concerto?

It was the choice of the festival, but it is especially nice to play the Schumann in Prague. It has a special place in my heart, and a great variety of emotions has kept me working on it for the past 25 years.

How do you approach the Schumann piece – what qualities do you try to bring out in the music?

It has wonderful lyrical passages, but also heroic and suddenly very intimate ones. It is a challenge for every cellist and musician to combine the distinct style of Schumann’s music with a grand scale of color and expression.

Any special feelings about performing at the Rudolfinum?

There is a certain energy that lives in the traditional temples of classical music in Central Europe. The Rudolfinum is one of these places that inspire the artist to give his very best.

Next month you will be going to Cleveland to play Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, not with the Cleveland Orchestra, but with CityMusic Cleveland, a program that sponsors free concerts in inner-city neighborhoods. Why did you accept that invitation?

I like the mission of the orchestra, to play for a variety of audiences and bring music to different neighborhoods in Cleveland. It brings me back to the roots of why I wanted to play the cello in the first place to show the beauty of music to many different people in the world.

For a look at the Moritzburg Festival:

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Rudolfinum and St. Vitus Cathedral
September 8 - 24

The Brno Philharmonic's Aleksandar Markovic

The new season gets a kick-start this month from Dvořák’s Prague, which in just three years has nicely filled the vacuum left by the demise of Prague Autumn. For the festival’s fourth outing, Director Vladimír Darjanin and Executive Director Jaroslav Manda have assembled an A-list group of soloists, a bracing mix of local and visiting orchestras and tastes of the old and new in the form of the Vienna Boys’ Choir and the Zhejiang Symphony Orchestra from China.

The festival is also branching out in both programming and venues.

“For the first time, we have a concert outside the Rudolfinum: The Czech Philharmonic will play Dvořák’s Requiem at St. Vitus Cathedral,” says Manda. “This is something we will do every year from now on with one of the larger Dvořák works, like the Stabat Mater or Saint Ludmila Oratorio.

There is also a new series called “Debut,” four recitals featuring performers under 30 who are on their way to becoming classical stars. The impressive lineup includes pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, who opened the BBC Proms this year with Jiří Bělohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra; Dmitry Rasul-Karayev, who won the Debussy International Clarinet Competition in Paris last year; Josef Špaček, the new concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic; and Daniela Baňasová, a prize-winning Slovak mezzo-soprano.

For aficionados, the primary attractions of the festival are seeing ensembles that rarely visit Prague, and interesting matchups of orchestras and conductors. Asked for his favorites this year, Manda mentioned the following:

Vienna Boys’ Choir: “We created a classic Vienna program – Haydn, Mozart and Schubert – and invited the Prague Chamber Orchestra to play with them, so this will be a very special concert,” Manda says. Adding to the mix is the conductor, Aleksandar Markovic, who has been doing some interesting work with the Brno Philharmonic, where he currently holds the posts of chief conductor and music director. Markovic has conducted the Vienna Boys’ Choir twice before. “They are like a river,” he says. “Each time you see them it’s different, but with constant, exceptional quality.”

Filharmonica Della Scala: “Not an easy orchestra to get, we are very glad they are coming,” says Manda. For its debut appearance in Dvořák’s Prague, the cousin of the famous opera house orchestra will be performing Italian opera selections and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, the “English,” under the baton of one of its regular conductors, Daniel Harding.

Zhejiang Symphony Orchestra: “We know the conductor [Muhai Tang] very well, he was at our festival in 2008 with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, where he is the artistic director and principal conductor,” Manda says. Another orchestra making its debut appearance in the festival, the Zhejiang ensemble will play an Eastern work (Shi Wanchun’s Festival Overture) and show what it can do with Mozart and Dvořák.

Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo: “We’ve been talking to this orchestra for a long time about coming to Prague, and when they finally agreed, they were changing their chief conductor,” Manda says. “So we got a young Canadian conductor [Julian Kuerti], and we’re very happy about the program – I think it’s the best in the festival.” No Dvořák, but who’s going to argue with a Rachmaninov piano concerto, Gershwin’s An American in Paris and one of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé suites?

Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra: The Netherlands’ best, but what Manda is really thrilled about is French Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. “He’s one of the most exciting young conductors in the world today,” Manda says. “This will be his first time in Prague, and we are really happy to have him at the festival.”

Among the many outstanding soloists, three are especially noteworthy. Nikolai Lugansky, who will give a solo recital of Chopin and Liszt pieces, is the single best pianist this critic has seen during his time in Prague. Jan Vogler may be the classical world’s most versatile cellist – who else has selections by Shostakovich and Jimi Hendrix on the same album? He will be performing one of his signature pieces, Schumann’s Cello concerto in A minor, with the Prague Philharmonia. And no one blends virtuoso technical skills with distinctive personal expression like Midori, who will be playing Beethoven’s Violin concerto in D major with the Czech Philharmonic.

That’s a lot of star power for a young festival, but perfectly in keeping with the organizers’ goals. “We don’t want to present concerts that you would see during the regular season,” Manda says. “Our idea is that after the festival, people should feel like they’ve been to something special.”