Friday, February 3, 2012


St. Lawrence Church
January 29

At the party in Ostrava, a good use for all that hot air.

Everyone should have a birthday like Petr Kotíkʼs. To celebrate the composer and conductorʼs 70th, Ostravská Banda, the modern music group that he founded, feted him with concerts in Ostrava and Prague over the past week. And its American counterpart, the S.E.M. Ensemble, has one planned in New York next week. Quite a tribute to the most irascible character in Czech music.

A minimalist composer who was schooled in Prague and Vienna and has been a fixture on the New York contemporary music scene since the early ʼ80s, Kotík is also the founder and artistic director of Ostrava Days, a biennial gathering of composers, students and devotees of modern music. Ostravská Banda grew out of that event, which has hosted renowned composers like Louis Andriessen, Tristan Murail and Kaija Saariho. Prague would seem to be a more likely setting for such an esteemed group, but Kotík has a well-known antipathy for the city, dismissing it as a musical “garbage heap.”

There were no such complaints for his Sunday afternoon birthday concert, which was held at one of Pragueʼs sweetest chamber music facilities. St. Lawrence Church is also one of the smallest, which meant that vibes, percussion and other large instruments had to be set up offstage, and the musicians played literally elbow-to-elbow. A crowd of about 100 enthusiastic friends, supporters and modern music fans filled the seats – with, as usual, Kotíkʼs 90-year old mother, Paula Jerusalem, sitting in the front row.

A number of composers wrote pieces specially for the occasion, and three of them were in attendance. Petr Baklaʼs Three Instances, a smart treatment of an insistent phrase, was expertly played by violinist Conrad Harris and pianist Daan Vandewalle. Phill Niblock, recording the proceedings from the front row, contributed Baobob (Dwarf Tree Version), a drone piece delivered with ringing authority by the entire ensemble. And Kotík himself stood atop a milk crate to conduct Bernhard Langʼs Monadologie XVII (She Was One...for Petr Kotík), a cascade of sophisticated sound textures that blossomed into a celebratory cacophony.

Alvin Lucier, Christian Wolff and Alex Mincek also contributed short pieces. Peter Graham wrote one that was performed by Kotíkʼs young son Benjamin, who got a big hand for pulling some nails-on-a-blackboard sounds out of his tiny violin. Ostravská Banda violinist Pauline Kim Harris joined him for a charming and considerably more conventional duo by Telemann. And Renáta Spisarová, the executive director of the Ostrava Center for New Music, was joined by two other vocalists, Yvetta Ellerová and Strýčková, for a lovely trio of original and traditional folk songs.

Modern music performances are typically serious affairs, but this one was light-hearted with touches of humor. The concert was being recorded, which meant that a set of microphones had to be rearranged before every piece – completely unnecessary for John Cageʼs 4ʼ33”. But the technician dutifully set up the mikes around the Steinway. Pianist Joseph Kubera sat silently at the keyboard for the proscribed time, then took a bow to some appreciative laughter and generous applause. And Kim put the perfect finishing touch on the concert by conducting a short piece of her own, For Peter, that ended with the final line of Happy Birthday.

For once, Kotík seemed at a loss for words after the performance, fumbling through a running blend of Czech and English to acknowledge and thank everybody who had come to celebrate with him – and express astonishment that so many had come from so far away. That was a measure of not just the man, but what he has accomplished in his field, particularly with Ostrava Days, one of the most innovative modern music events in Europe.

Not bad for a guy who started his career on the garbage heap.

Photo courtesy of the Ostrava Center for New Music

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