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 Berlin’s Ensemble Adapter in the Gothic gloom of Emauzy Monastery.
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 Hubert Ho: http://www.music.neu.edu/faculty-staff/entire-list/hubert-ho/
For more on Ensemble Adapter: http://www.ensemble-adapter.de/
Ensemble Adapter photo courtesy of Ondřej Melecký.