Monday, April 30, 2012


Prague Castle
April 25

Challenging dynamics in a resplendent setting.

Before a single note was played at the Castle on Wednesday night, an interesting sound experiment was in the offing. Chairs for the Prague Philharmonia orchestra and Prague Philharmonic Choir were set up on the floor of Spanish Hall rather than a stage. This didn’t do much to help sight lines – for anyone more than a few rows back, the orchestra was largely invisible – but it promised a fresh approach to overcoming the halls notoriously bad acoustics.

There was only one piece on the bill: Dvořáks Spectre’s Bride, an 1884 cantata for orchestra, choir and three soloists – in this case, soprano Mária Porubčinová, tenor Ladislav Elgr and baritone Ivan Kusnjer. Using text by Czech folklorist and poet Karel Jaromir Erben, the work recounts the Slavic legend of the abandoned maiden whose lover returns for her from beyond the grave in dramatic, colorful detail.

Tomáš Netopil, music director of the National Theater Orchestra and one of the country’s finest young conductors, was a perfect choice to lead the performance. He has a native feel for the Czech repertoire and a fine touch balancing the nuances and interplay of vocals and orchestra.

Daylight was just starting to pale in the high, elegant windows as Netopil launched into the piece with characteristic energy, quickly establishing Wagnerian dimensions for a musical narrative that veers from soft, tender laments by the soprano to wild explosions of Gothic horror. He drew a powerful, authoritative sound from the versatile Philharmonia without sacrificing any of the fine elements in the piece – sweet woodwinds, crisp horns, rippling strings, which in the solos and section passages offered some of the most enchanting music of the evening.

Standing behind the orchestra on risers backed up against the wall, the chorus was just as strong, thundering through the increasingly turbulent score with surprising precision and clarity – surprising, that is, given the space. Even a chorus of voices can’t hold together in Spanish Hall, where the sound breaks up by the time it’s reached the last rows of seats. But with the wall as a baffle, and more grounding than a stage affords, it had unusual integrity, giving the choral passages the kind of bite one normally hears only at Prague’s better chamber music venues.

Soloists, whatever their talent, are not so lucky. While the aesthetics of Spanish Hall are stunning, singing there is like yelling into a big tin can. Porubčinová compensated for that with a powerful delivery that carried and held up nicely, but sacrificed shadings for volume. Elgr was not very strong in his exchanges with Porubčinová, and in his solo parts was occasionally drowned out by the orchestra. Kusnjer fared the best, partly because he had the best voice and partly because a baritone seems to be the best timbre for the space. His narratives with the chorus were riveting, an irresistible surge of sound, like an ocean tide.

As daylight faded to pink, pale gray and finally slipped into twilight, the room darkened and the performance grew more dramatic, with just a few tasteful spotlights focused on the orchestra and singers, and the music growing more urgent and compelling. As Porubčinová offered her final prayers, the sound took on a radiant glow – not unusual for one of Netopil’s outings at the National Theater, but a rare accomplishment at the Castle. He brought the piece to a calm, soothing finish, bringing in the final choral and orchestral notes as gently as a cat’s paw.

In all, a superb evening: A seldom-performed Dvořák piece in a regal setting, led by a sharp conductor who knows how to blend fire and ice, and get the most out of his ensemble and singers. And a sound experiment that turned out to be a success. No one will ever mistake Spanish Hall for the Rudolfinum, but the Prague Philharmonia orchestra and organizers showed that with some care and intelligence, serious music can work there.

For a panoramic look at Spanish Hall (including chubby tourists):,-6.41,70.0

Photo courtesy of the Prague Philharmonia


Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Prague Conservatory
April 17
Emauzy Monastery
April 12

Great to see Hubert Ho in town for a performance of his latest piece, The Garden of Forking Paths, at the conservatory on Tuesday night. Ho, an American Fulbright scholar who studied in Prague in 2006 with the dean of contemporary Czech composers, Marek Kopelent, is now a lecturer and composer at Northeastern University in Boston. Also an accomplished pianist, Ho creates work grounded in a strong sense of form that brims with fresh sounds and ideas.

Fresh ideas from America.
Forking Paths was an audacious sonic romp, starting with a sustained cello bottom cut by a series of syncopated blasts from the strings and French horn that turned into a cascade of unpredictable sounds. The music ran up and down contorted scales, turned inside out, spun around and generally went through more dynamics than a nine-piece chamber ensemble should be able to produce. Most impressive was how it developed and held a strong internal integrity, despite the wild variations in tone, timing and timbre. As Czech composer Martin Marek noted after the performance, “It had shape.”

The remainder of the program, a collection of new pieces based on the work of Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, was less successful. Dutch composer Matijs de Roo got the evening off to a rousing start with Imaginary Beings, an inventive pairing of a string quartet with an amplified acoustic guitar. The string passages were smart and sharp, incorporating a range of styles and techniques, and guitarist Ivan Boreš lent a rock ’n’ roll flavor to the opening licks and fills.

Diego Soifer’s Youwarkee was a pleasant surprise, a lyrical confection for solo flute dressed up with modern playing techniques. Boško Milaković’s A Bao A Qu, a piano trio, unfolded in three disjointed movements that never quite jelled into a cohesive whole. Elia Koussa’s version of A Bao A Qu was like a sound bellows for seven instruments, starting with low rumblings rising to wheezing moans and odd sonorities that relied mostly on the players changing seats for variety. Chinese Whispers, a piece by Mika Pelo for a nine-piece chamber ensemble, floated some interesting woodwind and string combinations, but never developed any legs.

The performances, however, were uniformly good. Prague Modern’s rotating cast of players was particularly strong for this concert, featuring standouts such as flutist Daniel Havel, cellist Petr Nouzovský, double bass player Ondřej Melecký and clarinet player Jan Brabec.

Melecký is also active in Konvergence, a lesser-known Prague modern music ensemble that has been running an exchange program with like-minded groups in Austria and Germany. That series concluded last week with a performance by Berlins Ensemble Adapter in the Gothic gloom of Emauzy Monastery.

Outstanding Adapters.
Illness reduced the visiting troupe to three players, who nonetheless showed fine technique on a selection of challenging pieces that included a strong nod to Czech composers. Flutist Kristjana Helgadóttir and percussionist Matthias Engler, playing vibes, opened with a sophisticated treatment of Marek Kopelent’s Canto Intimo, a minimalist tone poem that juxtaposes sharp flute lines with warm vibe tones. Helgadóttir followed that with a precise but playful rendering of Miroslav Srnka’s A Prima Mad for solo flute, which utilizes audible breaths as part of the composition. It’s a witty piece that demands a careful balance of serious concentration and light-hearted humor, which Helgadóttir handled with aplomb.

Clarinet player Ingólfur Vilhjálmsson joined Helgadóttir for Sergej Newski’s Glissade, another study in contrasts. Their tones were spot-on, though the piece itself never develops any real excitement. Vilhjálmsson did a superb job with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s In Freundschaft for solo clarinet, which like many of the composer’s pieces demands a physical performance – turning this way, then that way, throwing phrases forward, left and right, even twirling around. Vilhjálmsson played it with intelligence and skill, finding subtle sound variations in what can otherwise seem like a silly exercise. And Helgadóttir and Engler wrapped the program with a brisk treatment of Richard Barrett’s Inward, a lively percussive exchange.

In all, a great week for modern music fans and a reminder that some of the most interesting music in Prague is to be found in small, overlooked venues – befitting a city that even in the 21st century, still keeps its secrets.

For more on Ensemble Adapter:

Ensemble Adapter photo courtesy of Ondřej Melecký.

Friday, April 13, 2012


National Theater New Stage
April 15 - 18

Witty banter at last year's festival with
 Werner Lambersy, Nedim Gursel and Michel Deguy.

A break from the music scene this week to take note of Pragueʼs premier literary event, the Prague Writersʼ Festival, which opens on Sunday night. This yearʼs theme, “Only the future exists,” raises some provocative social and political questions, with readings and discussions focused on the future of Islam, America and the Czech Republic. And PWF President Michael March has cast those conversations in apocalyptic terms.

The future is being taken away as all the social institutions put in place after World War II are being deconstructed,” he says. “Instead of people feeling positive about the future, thereʼs a tremendous sense of fear and dissatisfaction that has to be explored. Thatʼs the work of poets and novelists.”

Now in its 22nd year, the festival has always been a wide-ranging event, in both content and form. Topical themes and writers who come from all over the world – this year, India, China, Egypt, Spain, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, Portugal, Great Britain, the United States and the Czech Republic – generate a lively array of ideas and opinions. And the audience is part of the process, as fans get to meet and talk to the authors at social functions before and after readings and panel discussions. Itʼs a highbrow intellectual gathering without the usual pretense of such affairs, a down-to-earth encounter with big names and universal concerns.

This yearʼs festival has branched out into a number of multimedia events. There are film screenings at the Municipal Library (Saturday at 4:00 & 6:00), a tea ceremony at the New Stage preceding a discussion with Chinese poet Duo Duo (Tuesday at 7:00), and a jazz and poetry night at Prague Crossroads featuring American poet Jerome Rothenberg, Norwegian poet Jan Erik Vold and a jazz trio (Tuesday at 7:00).

There should be plenty of verbal fireworks at the discussions. Rothenberg will be joined by Indian novelist Anita Desai and Turkish essayist Gündüz Vassaf for a consideration of Americaʼs future at the American Center (Wednesday at 5:00). And three highly opinionated authors will wrestle with the future of Islam at the New Stage (Tuesday at 6:00): Egyptian novelist Hamdy El-Gazzar, an eyewitness to the events on Tahrir Square; Spanish exile Juan Goytisolo, who has lived for the past 25 years in Marrakesh; and British playwright and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, whose ethnic roots are in Pakistan.

Kureishi was appalled by Islamic fundamentalism when he visited Pakistan,” March says with a mischievous grin. “We already have 10 ambassadors signed up to attend that discussion.”

The political overtones of the festival reflect Marchʼs approach to literature as a living entity rather than something bound in hardcover or locked in an e-reader. He deliberately seeks out authors who have delved into current events and social issues – dissidents, exiles, provocateurs – and encourages them to speak their minds.

We ask the authors to talk from their own experiences,” he says. “Thatʼs what they bring to the festival – ideas and a vision formed by personal experience that can serve as a guide for the rest of us. They donʼt come to Prague to promote their books and sign contracts. They come to share their experiences, meet their peers, spend a few days absorbing the local culture and take what theyʼve learned back with them.”

Which is not to say that PWF eschews the normal trappings of a literary festival. There are plenty of authorsʼ books on sale, along with book signings after all the readings. Many of the readings and discussions are in English, and those that are not offer simultaneous translation in English and Czech. Best of all, generous funding from the city and private sponsors keeps prices low – except for opening night, no more than 150 Kč for most events, even less for students. And almost all the afternoon events are free.

An international event of this caliber is rare in Prague, a city blessed with stunning architecture and a rich music culture, but too often handicapped by a notorious narrow-mindedness. Itʼs a tribute to March and his team that theyʼve been able to keep the festival not just alive, but flourishing as an annual gathering of first-rate thinkers and stimulating ideas. Open your mind, broaden your horizons and join the conversation.

Photo courtesy of the Prague Writers' Festival

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Prague Castle
March 31

A seductive star in an elegant setting.

The hype preceding Lang Langʼs performance at a gala concert on Saturday was such that one had to wonder: Does he have the chops to back it up?

The answer is a qualified yes. Lang Lang is a gifted player, one of those rare musicians who has so completely mastered his instrument and the music that virtuoso skills are more a foundation than a peak, freeing him to develop a distinctive voice and soaring levels of expression. Even the word “interpretation” falls short of describing his ability to color, caress, burnish and otherwise shape a piece into something uniquely his own.

Stylistically, Lang Lang feels the music more than plays it. He rarely glances at the keyboard, eyes closed much of the time as he sways with the melodies and caps the final notes of a movement with a delicate, raised hand or dramatic sweep of his arm. In his best moments Lang Lang seems to become what heʼs playing, the music flowing through him just as it does through the keys and strings.

Of course, you can get away with this sort of thing when youʼre playing J.S. Bach, Schubert and Chopin – or Chopin études, anyway. Lang Langʼs discography encompasses a more challenging repertoire, and certainly there is no arguing with his technical proficiency. A few presto passages during Bachʼs Partita No. 1 and the études were enough to demonstrate his remarkable dexterity. Still, this is a far cry from, say, Boris Giltburg giving a recital of four difficult pieces by Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Schumann and Listz, or Nikolai Lugansky playing Listzʼs Years of Pilgrimage and Transcendental Études.

But the program is not where Lang Langʼs appeal lies. His star power is in his ability to emotionally connect with his audience, which cuts across genres, composers, even national and cultural boundaries. Whether heʼs playing Chopin or a traditional Chinese song, Lang Lang approaches the music with a gentle touch and great sensitivity, imbuing it with a seductive quality that holds his listeners spellbound. Then thereʼs the persona – spiked hair, boyish good looks and a disarming grin that had half the women in the crowd swooning before he played a single note.

While there are more authoritative interpretations of Bachʼs Partita No. 1, Lang Lang displayed impressive versatility in giving each of the six movements a different flavor. He opened with a straightforward “Preludium,” added some tasty spices to a blazingly fast “Allemande” and “Courante,” and finished with a fancy flourish in the “Gigue.” What serves as a classic warm-up piece for most pianists became a mini-showcase in Lang Langʼs hands, an intelligent and imaginative display of his skills.

His legato style – often, there are not even breaks between movements – was perfectly suited to Schubertʼs Sonata in B flat major. Lang Lang gave it a graceful quality, playing every note like ripples on water, offering gentle variations in color and tone. Even in the heavier passages, there was barely a hint of a harsh note. He has such soft hands that the music floats from the piano like snowflakes.

Surprisingly, he seemed least comfortable with the Chopin études. Aside from some painterly brush strokes in the contemplative passages, it was a workmanlike reading, notable mostly for Lang Langʼs distinctive rhythm and phrasing. Staring off into space as he varied the tempos from excruciatingly slow to dazzlingly quick, he seemed to be taking direction from some divine conductor.

Leaping to their feet as the final echoes of Chopin were still reverberating throughout the hall, the crowd called Lang Lang back for three encores. Two were Liszt pieces that were obviously more familiar ground, played with liquid elegance. But the most interesting was a Chinese song, The Moon Chased by a Colorful Cloud, that was a delightful amalgam of Eastern music played in a Western style.

If there were any hesitant hearts left in the audience, he won them over by stepping into the audience after being given a large bouquet of flowers and presenting them to the honoree of the evening, Czech opera singer Ludmila Dvořáková. Whatever else one may think of Lang Lang, heʼs a class act.

Videos and much more about Lang Lang at:

Photographs courtesy of Dvořák's Prague