Saturday, June 23, 2012


Obecní dům
June 24

A choreographed cacophony of music and movement.

Probably more bands than would care to admit it got their start in alcohol-fueled jams. For Mnozil Brass, the rambunctious Austrian septet that will take the stage at Obecní dům on Sunday night, itʼs a point of pride.

We were all studying at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna in the early ʼ90s,” explains Wilfried Brandstötter, the groupʼs tuba player. “After classes, we went very frequently to a pub right in front of the university called Josef Mnozilʼs Inn, where there was a big jam session once a month. Because we all came from brass and wind bands in Austria, we found that we had a common repertoire: 10 marches, 10 waltzes and 10 polkas. So we didnʼt even have to rehearse. We just started playing together.”

The band has evolved into a tight unit that typically tours 20 countries a year, serving up a mix of boisterous playing, physical comedy and mischievous arrangements of a repertoire that ranges from Rossini to Henry Mancini to Queen. Their approach to music is perhaps best summarized by Brandstötterʼs description of his instrument: “The other players say my tuba is an unguided missile. Itʼs a weapon of mass destruction.”

Though there is no direct model for Mnozil Brass, the group takes inspiration from one of the wackiest American bands of the 1940s and ʼ50s. “We really love Spike Jones and the City Slickers,” Brandstötter says. “Itʼs surprising how good those guys were – on point every second. Their videos are 50, 60 years old, but still very fast and very funny.”

Like Spike Jones, Mnozil Brass puts on a show that appears to be pure anarchy, but is in fact exhaustively rehearsed and choreographed. It starts with the band members bringing ideas and music to planning sessions, with no restrictions whatsoever.

We are very democratic when we come together,” Brandstötter says. “Maybe someone has been listening to Prokofiev a lot, and he says, Iʼd like to play this piece. So we try it out, and if it works, itʼs in the show.”

But thatʼs only half the performance. The other half is comedy routines that can take up to six months to put together. “For instance, in the program we are doing now, we have an Olympic competition that involves running and boxing and weight-lifting” Brandstötter says. “This really took quite a lot of time to develop, because everybody has to know what heʼs doing every second, or the jokes donʼt work.”

That show, which the band will be performing in Prague, is titled “Blofeld” – as in Ernst Stavro Blofeld, James Bondʼs archenemy. Asked what the audience can expect, Brandstötter will only say, “The show is about good and evil – with a lot of references to James Bond scenes, of course.”

Despite the emphasis on theatrics, Mnozil Brass performances are nonverbal, so they can travel worldwide with no problem. And Brandstötter and his colleagues have found that their musical vocabulary needs no translation.

Sometimes we put musical jokes in the pieces, like inserting one bar from another piece, and you can hear people laughing,” he says. “In Japan, weʼve found that people are much more educated about Western music, like Mozart and Strauss and Stravinsky, than people in Austria or America. The Japanese are so into that music, they know every piece you play – which is amazing.”

When Mnozil Brass played at the opening concert of the Wiener Festwochen last month, an audience of nearly 40,000 people reacted so enthusiastically that two members of the band never made it back onstage for the encore, with one conveniently getting trapped at a beer stand. Czech audiences can identify with the beer part; as for the rest, Brandstötter simply envisions an enjoyable evening.

The main goal of our show is to put on good entertainment that makes people feel relaxed and comfortable,” he says. “If they leave saying, Iʼve not thought about my sorrows for the past two and a half hours, then it was a big success.”

For a sampling of Spike Jones:

Photo by Carsten Bunnemann

Friday, June 22, 2012


Prague Castle
June 18 & 19

Mraz, Baron, Perry: A smart set of classic jazz.

The Castle was the hot place to be in Prague early this week, and not just because of the blistering temperatures. On Monday the finest young string ensemble in the country, the Pavel Haas Quartet, gave a spirited performance in the regal Rudolph Gallery. And on Tuesday Czech President Václav Klaus threw himself a swell birthday party on the Riding Hall Terrace, with music from an all-star jazz quartet fronted by expat bass player George (Jiří) Mraz.

Even in a country that has produced an amazing number of first-rate musicians, Mraz is a standout, a gifted bassist who was playing with major names like Mal Waldron and Hampton Hawes in Europe before relocating to the U.S. in 1968. He’s backed a virtual who’s who of jazz – Dizzy Gillespie, Tommy Flanagan, Stan Getz, McCoy Tyner, John Abercrombie and Joe Lovano, to name a few – though developed as a leader only late in his career. Mraz still seems slightly uncomfortable in that role, standing at the rear of the quartet on Tuesday and apologizing for the long breaks between songs while he and the other players kept their music from blowing away. (“Where would we be without clothespins?” he wondered aloud.)

The program was mostly Mraz compositions like “Wisteria,” “Blues for Šarka,” “Strange” and “Unison,” played in classic quartet style with changing leads and alternating solos. Pianist David Hazeltine provided tasty fills and improv on the keyboard, occasionally trading playful licks with Mraz. Hazeltine also contributed one of his own pieces, “Barbara,” an inventive progression that built to a catchy swing rhythm. Rich Perry served up lyrical lead lines on tenor saxophone, keeping the volume down and the tone sweet. And Joey Baron anchored it all with some of the smartest jazz drumming this critic has seen in a long time. Baron is a finesse player who can do more with cymbals, brushes and pregnant pauses than most drummers can attacking the entire kit.

In an era when music keeps getting faster and louder, the quartet’s set was a reminder of the virtues of classic jazz, played in a thoughtful, low-key style with understated flair. It was music for aficionados – not always perfectly executed, as some of it had a thrown-together feel. In particular, the group seemed confused about what to do for an encore, with Mraz finally offering a solo interpretation of a Moravian folk song. Overall, however, the clear, clean sound and artistry of Baron in particular added an elegant touch to a high-class birthday bash.

Playing indoors the previous night, the Pavel Haas Quartet faced two handicaps. One was the Rudolph Gallery, a long, shoebox-shaped hall with a gilded décor to match adjoining Spanish Hall and equally bad acoustics. The quartet is also breaking in a new member: second violinist Marek Zweibel, who has replaced Eva Karová.

That was a bit too much to overcome, especially on demanding pieces like Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1, “From My Life,” and Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14, “Death and the Maiden.” In passages where the instruments, especially the cello, could add depth and volume, the sound was rich and full, with powerful emotional undercurrents. But much of the time it was noticeably thin, with many of the nuances of the music lost beyond the first few rows of seats.

And the addition of Zweibel is still in a work in progress. Though a skilled player, Zweibel seemed not to be tuned as high as first violinist Veronika Jarůšková, creating a slight disconnect in the sound throughout the evening. That took the precision edge off the music, typically one of the group’s trademarks. As if all that wasn’t enough, a squeaky chair onstage added a minor distraction during the Smetana piece.

Still, the group offered smart readings of both works. Smetana opened in commanding tones that varied nicely through facile shifts in mood and tempo. Cellist Peter Jarůček dug deep for the opening of the third movement, and Veronika Jarůšková captured the searing intensity of the violin lines in the fourth. Schubert was a powerful study in contrasts, with the driving energy and passion of the piece counterbalanced by light, airy passages in the second movement and feelings of joy in the fast-paced dance of the third. The technical mastery of the frenzied fourth almost, though not quite, made up for the new second violin.

The Pavel Haas concert was a “prologue” for the Lipa Musica festival, which gets underway in northern Bohemia in September. With an emphasis on young classical performers like the Pavel Haas foursome, and crossover artists like Zuzana Lapčiková and Tara Fuki, the festival adds a refreshing note to the fall schedule. The venues may lack the grandeur of Prague Castle, but the countryside has charms of its own.

For more on the Lipa Musica festival:

For more on the Pavel Haas Quartet:

For more on George Mraz:

Photo by Jaroslav Tatek

Monday, June 18, 2012


State Opera
June 14

Passionate encounters in a plastic setting.

The merger between the State Opera and the National Theater is still in the preliminary stages, and already the cracks are beginning to show. The new production of Cavalleria Rusticana/I Pagliacci that premiered at the State Opera on Thursday night was mostly a confused jumble that elicited a rare outburst of booing during the curtain calls. Whatever else this Cav/Pag may or may not be, its certainly not the way to launch a new era.

To be fair, the production was plagued by problems beyond anyone’s control, starting with director Inga Levant’s husband unexpectedly dying the week before rehearsals were to start. Once they got underway, there were constant problems with singers dropping in and out, and divergent opinions about their quality. At least one performer who was onstage Thursday was a last-minute substitute. Frustrations built to the point that cast members were making grim jokes about giving production manager Don Nixon an office with the window nailed shut, so he wouldn’t jump out.

The double bill opens with a promising conceit. Instead of rustic villages, the operas are set in the Cinecittà film studios in Rome, opened in 1937 by Benito Mussolini, who was a friend of Cavalleria Rusticana composer Pietro Mascagni. Though this makes for some awkward moments – Nedda in Pagliacci, for example, singing of the bright sun and cheerful birdsong from a dark soundstage – it’s a neat fit with the play-within-a-play plot of Pagliacci. And it opens up the Easter theme of Cavalleria Rusticana, with the familiar story of love and betrayal unfolding amidst the filming of a Passion drama.

Cavalleria’s characters are transposed as well: Lola is a starlet, Santuzza is her maid, Turiddu is a technician, Alfio a producer and Lucio a makeup artist. If you haven’t read the program before the performance starts, this is a bit baffling at first. More disconcerting is the reduction of the characters to caricatures. Turiddu is a pot-bellied brute in a wife-beater t-shirt, Lola a vain costumed seductress, Alfio a slick executive. Granted, the opera does not leave a lot of room for character development. But the combination of artificial characters in an artificial setting takes the sting out of the verismo.

And while Cavalleria opens and closes on a Biblical set, most of the action takes place in a dressing room, and a tawdry one at that. There is simply no way that impassioned arias can have an emotional impact in such a plastic setting. Instead, what should be a series of heart-rending laments and fiery exchanges plays out like a cheap, lurid B movie – which may have been the intent. Still, with Santuzza screeching and sobbing on the floor, the effect is less tragic romance and more like watching the early films of American director John Waters, whose trash aesthetic turned low-budget productions like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble into cult classics.

Much of Pagliacci plays out in the dressing room as well, including Canio’s famous Vesti la giubba aria, delivered with agonized conviction by Michal Lehotský. It’s also where Tonio knocks Needa to the ground and tries to rape her – again, more trash than class. That’s the second graphic rape scene in a new opera production within the past week (Don Giovanni brutalized Zerlina in the first). Is there no other way to portray a sexual predator on Czech stages?

The boos that greeted Levant when she came out for the curtain calls were brutal in their own way, though understandable. Her staging was clumsy, to say the least. The chorus looked completely lost the entire night, milling about in a disorganized mob. Arguably the best duet of the evening, between Ivan Kusnjer (Alfio) and Santuzza (Nana Miriani) in Cavalleria, ended with the two of them quickly exiting, so the audience was applauding an empty stage. Those were only the most obvious gaffes in the production, which at one point uses a rubber chicken for comic effect.

The music provided the saving grace of the evening. With not enough time to prepare, conductor Hilary Griffiths focused on Pagliacci, the more straightforward of the two scores. As a result, Cavalleria was still a bit ragged. But Pagliacci was everything that music should be – passionate, nuanced, elegant and framed beautifully for the singers. They ranged from competent to weak, with Kusnjer providing some needed ballast and Lehotský getting a well-deserved hand for a solid turn as Canio.

Much is made in the program of the tyranny supposedly raging outside the film studio – Mussolini and his goons in Cavalleria, and the “Hollywood dictatorship” in Pagliacci, which is set in the present. Perhaps anticipating how little of that would be evident onstage, the program helpfully provides the moral of the stories: “The message is that false beauty, here embodied by the film (Cavalleria Rusticana) and clown (I Pagliacci) costumes, means absolutely nothing when juxtaposed with the reality that surrounds us.”

Reality definitely intruded on this production. Just not in the way anyone planned or expected.

Cavalleria Rusticana/I Pagliacci plays again on June 28. For cast and ticket information:

Photograph of Nana Miriani and Michal Lehotský courtesy of the National Theater

Thursday, June 14, 2012


June 15

A new generation explores their orchestra's roots.

The legacy of George Szell returns to Prague on Friday in the form of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, an apprentice ensemble in the mold of the great “symphonic instrument” that Szell created during his 24 years as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. Before then, during the 1920s and ’30s, Szell made his mark in Prague as opera director of the New German Theater (now the State Opera) and at the podium with the Czech Philharmonic.

A legendary taskmaster and perfectionist, Szell left an imprint on the Cleveland Orchestra so profound that nearly 20 years after his death in 1970, his later successor Christoph von Dohnanyi famously complained, “We give a great concert, and George Szell gets a great review.” Even today, the Cleveland Orchestra is still known as the “most European” of American orchestras for its clarity, precision and integrated sound.

Along with exceptional standards, Szell brought influences and traditions from the Old World that have become a significant part of orchestra’s heritage.

Though it’s hard to imagine now, there was a time when Dvořák’s music wasn’t in the standard repertoire,” says COYO Music Director James Feddeck. “Certainly George Szell made the case in the United States that Dvořák had to be a regular part of the canon. So there is a direct Cleveland-Dvořák connection, and for us to be able to continue that is a real honor.”

Feddeck will be leading his ensemble in a performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, the finale in a program that also includes works by Brahms, Elgar and Wagner. This is by no measure student fare, nor is it a new program for the ensemble, which has been playing those pieces as part of its repertoire during the 2011/12 season. “For us as an orchestra, the program represents a year-long journey of study with this music,” Feddeck says. “What the audience in Prague will be hearing is really a very polished, finished product.”

Nor is it the work of amateurs. Though the players are of high school age, and even younger in some cases, they have to meet rigorous standards. Auditions are held for openings, just as in a professional orchestra, with the winners selected by Feddeck and members of the Cleveland Orchestra, who help train and mentor individual players. During the season the youth orchestra meets once a week for rehearsals, which Feddeck conducts on a professional level.

I don’t look at the players and think, they’re just 16 or 17 years old,” he says. “I see them as musicians capable of creating music at a very high level. Despite their young age and relative inexperience, the maturity of their talent and the maturity of their musicianship separates them from their peers, and makes this orchestra really unique.”

A bold maestro.
Feddeck is hoping to compensate for the lack of experience with this tour, which will also take the COYO to Vienna and Salzburg. This is only the fourth tour in the orchestra’s 26-year history, and its first abroad. The impetus for an international excursion came from discussions held after the orchestra’s 25th anniversary, when Feddeck posed the question: What are the next 25 years going to be about? Touring offered the opportunity to both raise the orchestra’s profile and enrich the players’ training.

This will be the first time many of our students have been to Europe,” he says. “For young people devoted to this music, I can think of no more exciting and thrilling way to go than performing concerts. They will be experiencing the music in a totally new context by doing these performances in different cultures, different countries and different concert halls.”

Of course, there’s a certain amount of risk involved. Asked how he feels about venturing into Dvořák’s house to play his music, Feddeck admits it’s not the first time the question has been posed.

A number of people said to me, ʻAre you sure you want to take your orchestra to play Dvořák in Prague?’” he confides. “Ultimately I thought, yes, that does seem very much the right thing to do. Because I believe there’s no better way to honor a culture, a city, and the people of a city, than to perform their music. And to perform their music in a way that, I’m hoping will be evident to the audience, shows how much time we’ve spent trying to unlock the meaning of the Eighth Symphony.”

Still, there is always more to discover, and Feddeck anticipates finding new inspiration at the Rudolfinum.

I know that something truly magical awaits us in Prague,” he says. “To be able to perform Dvořák in such a place can only bring a rich experience.”

For more on the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra:

For a complete program and ticket information:

Photos: Top, courtesy of the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra; Feddeck by Roger Mastroianni

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Estates Theater
June 9

Ubiquitous sex with a touch of S&M.

Eschewing tradition, the National Theaterʼs new Don Giovanni is an opera for the 21st century: Coolly postmodern. Strikingly self-conscious. Unbridled in its appetites and morally adrift. As a slice of contemporary theater, itʼs smart, sleek and well-staged. Whether it works as a Mozart opera is another matter.

Faced with the challenge of putting a fresh face on a 225-year old grande dame, the SKUTR directing team of Martin Kukučka and Lukáš Trpišovský took a page from the playbook of Robert Wilson, putting their characters in exaggerated whiteface makeup, mirroring the foreground action with busy silhouettes in the background, and replacing the literal with the abstract.

Except for the sex. Randy, nonstop, four-on-the-floor, hands-up-the-skirt lechery that leaves nothing to the imagination. Thereʼs fellatio during the overture, a touch of S&M (“Beat me, Masetto,” Zerlina begs, lifting her skirt to offer her bare bottom) and a tabletop rape during the first act. At one point, Leporello is in the audience plying women with drinks, so Don Giovanni can hit on them.

This moral paucity is reflected in a bleak urban landscape dominated by burned-out buildings and harsh fluorescent lighting. In this world, the characters are abstract absurdities – the women all in white tights and childlike dresses with Bride of Frankenstein hair, the men in snug generic jackets and baggy pantaloons, with Don Giovanni and Il Commendatore crowned by outrageous pompadours. Dispatched in a neatly executed sword fight, the Commendatore remains on stage for most of the evening, his ghost keeping a baleful eye on Don Giovanniʼs heartless scheming and suffusing the atmosphere with guilt.

Thereʼs hardly a scene in the production that isnʼt filled with extraneous characters offering wordless comment or refracting the narrative. While Don Ottavio sings of his devotion to Donna Anna, Don Giovanni is in the background ravishing her. Groups of modern dancers flit on and off the stage, mimicking the action. During Leporelloʼs “catalogue” aria, for example, a single male dancer couples and uncouples with a series of women.

Though stylish and psychologically perceptive, the layers of metaphor and meaning can become confusing – especially in the second half, when a Mini-Me version of Don Giovanni joins the cast. At one point, he watches Eadweard Muybridge film clips in the background while Don Giovanni tries to seduce Donna Elviraʼs chambermaid in the foreground, with the Commendatore looking on. The audience for the film clips grows until it includes nearly all the singers and dancers, their chairs turned to watch Don Giovanniʼs final reckoning – about as self-referential as you can get without putting the directors themselves in the production.

That said, Kukučka and Lukáš Trpišovský deserve plaudits for sheer inventiveness; from the opening erotic pas de deux to Don Giovanniʼs cryptic demise (no descent into hell in this one), they offer fresh ideas and approaches at every turn. That, along with the harsh physicality of many scenes, is not always a comfortable fit with Mozartʼs timeless, enchanting music, which conductor Tomáš Netopil rendered in buoyant fashion at the June 9 premiere. Netopil is a skilled interpreter of Mozart, and his lustrous, perfectly paced reading of the score supported strong singing by Jana Šrejma Kačírkova (Donna Anna) and Lenka Máčiková (Zerlina). Svatopluk Sem was outstanding in the title role, singing with a confident swagger that extended even into the curtain calls.

Give the National Theater credit for being willing to give a revered icon a radical makeover. The question is, will anyone get it? Most of the Czech critics reacted to the production as if stray dogs had crapped on their front lawn. That reaction seemed more defensive than thoughtful, as if they had been charged with safeguarding Mozartʼs legacy. But Don Giovanni has been a staple at the Estates Theater for more than two centuries after it premiered there. It will take a lot more than flashy theatrics and cranky critics to change that.

Don Giovanni plays again on June 29 & 30. For cast information and tickets: 

Photo of Svatopluk Sem and Lenka Máčiková courtesy of the National Theater

Monday, June 11, 2012


National Theater
June 12

A seasoned performer with worldwide appeal.

Jazz singer and pianist Freddy Cole is a proʼs pro, a natural performer who got his start in the business early – very early. As the younger brother of Nat “King” Cole, he grew up in a household where Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Billy Eckstine were regular visitors. He began playing in Chicago clubs as a teenager, then got formal musical training at Juilliard and the New England Conservatory of Music before settling in as a regular on the New York nightclub circuit and launching an international touring career. At 80, Freddy hasnʼt slowed down a bit; he was in Poland last month, will be going to London after his Prague gig, and has other dates scheduled in Germany, Switzerland, Russia and Chile this year. His enduring popularity reflects the wide appeal of his music, a smart, sophisticated treatment of the American songbook presented with style and an engaging stage presence. Prior to coming to Prague, Freddy talked about his work and career in a phone conversation from his home in Atlanta.

In 2010 you released Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B, a tribute to Billy Eckstine. What was your relationship with him?

I sort of grew up with him. He was very good friends with my brothers, so consequently in time he and I became very good friends. I canʼt tell you how many years I knew him, but it was a long time.

What did you learn from him?

Where should I begin? Just watching him, you could pick up different little things – nuances with your hands, how he approached the music. He was a very classy man.

Did the CD accomplish what you had hoped?

Well, you can never do enough with a person like that, he was such a giant in the business. We looked at a lot of his songs, and found that we were just scratching the surface. There is a lot of whatʼs called the American songbook played on the radio now, but you very seldom hear Billy Eckstine. It puzzles me. But when you start to play his music, it brings back memories for so many people.

Youʼve been playing abroad for a long time. Do you find yourself introducing new material to foreign audiences, or are they already familiar with a lot of it?

Itʼs a little of both. Mostly, what I try to do is play something that they know. Thereʼs no sense in me coming over there to play some avant-garde stuff that has people sitting there scratching their heads. I try to play something that they know within the realm of what I do.

You could have retired a long time ago. What keeps you on the road?

The music. The music keeps me going. As long as Iʼve got the strength, and I can do it, Iʼll continue to do so.

After all these years, how do you keep your sound fresh?

Iʼm always listening to music, and Iʼm always adding stuff, doing something different here and there. You never can tell – I might like the chord structure in one song, or the lyrics in another. Thatʼs the beauty of jazz, you donʼt have to play it the same way all the time.

What can we expect to hear at your Prague concert?

Weʼll be doing several things from the newest album, Talk to Me, and some other things – you can never tell. Our repertoire stretches from Broadway to the blues.

Do you work from a set list?

No, I really donʼt, because to me it kind of gets in the way. If the music is not going over, why continue to do the same thing? Switch up and do something else. It keeps people guessing, keeps them on the edge of their seats. You canʼt do that with a set list.

When you played Prague Spring in 2008, you were at Lucerna Music Bar, a rock ʼnʼ roll club. How do you feel about going from there to the most prestigious stage in the country, at the National Theater?

Iʼll be very, very happy to play there, just like I was happy enough to play in the juke joint. You know, Iʼm a saloon singer. As long as Iʼm singing, the world is all right and everything is swinging.

And what do you hope the audience gets from your performance?

Joy and happiness. Keep hope alive, keep jazz alive.

Photo by Clay Walker

Sunday, June 10, 2012


June 8

Smiles all around after an unforgettable Kaddish.

Eliahu Inbal finished his tenure with the Czech Philharmonic in dramatic fashion on Friday night, conducting a thundering performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish symphony. With a large orchestra, two choirs and a soprano soloist providing explosive accompaniment for a riveting narrative by Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar, it was a night for the ages.

The evening started on a calmer note with a deft rendering of Ravel’s Scheherazade song cycle. Full-bodied yet beautifully transparent, the piece was an engaging showcase for singer Pavla Vykopalová, with Inbal layering subtle shadings and warm tones to complement her dusky soprano. A regular on the National Theater and State opera stages, Vykopalová has a rich, round voice with no sharp edges, even in the upper registers, that drew generous applause from the musicians as well.

Vykopalová was also the beneficiary of a perfect balance that Inbal struck between the singer and the orchestra; not once was her voice overwhelmed by the music. That’s difficult to achieve, and a reminder of Inbal’s high professional standards and skills. Watching him some nights over the past few years has been like attending a clinic in how to conduct a symphony orchestra.

Bernstein’s Kaddish is an overwhelming piece on every level, and deliberately so. Conceived as a traditional Jewish prayer set to “expressionistic and Schoenbergian” music, as Bernstein described it, the work immediately took on profound overtones when it was finished in 1963, in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The narrator not only prays and mourns but inveighs against God, demanding to know how He can allow suffering and persecution in the world. Pisar came to the piece after Bernstein’s death – though with the composer’s encouragement – writing a new, updated “Dialogue with God” that recounts his experiences in Auschwitz in horrifying detail.

The symphony opens with minimalist background music for the narrator, but quickly roars into a full maelstrom during the narrative breaks, with atonal horns and swooning strings underpinned by as many as eight percussionists at a time. A full mixed choir adds searing, apocalyptic vocals that washed down from the empora like acid rain. In the later passages, as the rage and terror die down, a solo soprano and children’s choir provide moments of solace. But the overall effect of the piece is like being slammed by a tidal wave, with the orchestra seemingly on the verge of tearing itself apart at times.

Inbal knit all this together with superb control, punctuating lines like “Never again!” with outbursts of volcanic intensity, then taking the sound down to fine gradations – murmurs from the choir, metronomic tapping from a single percussion instrument. The fireworks were spectacular, the quiet moments somber and contemplative, and the interplay between the narrator and the music finely honed. Inbal never serves up anything less than a sharp performance, but to achieve that with literally hundreds of performers on and offstage (the Kühn Children’s Choir had to sing from a balcony in the audience) was a particularly impressive feat.

One could argue that the Kaddish is not a symphony at all, but a series of sound effects that underscore and amplify a sustained lament, with comparatively little music at the core. And Pisar’s contemporary references to Iran and Islamic jihad were a bit confusing in a 50-year old piece. But there was no denying the power of the work in Inbal’s hands. And the Czech Philharmonic provided him with A-list support in Vykopalová, the Kühn Children’s Choir and the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno.

Like so many concerts in Prague, this one ended with a standing ovation. That particular response has never made sense to this critic – if every concert is superlative, then none is superlative. But in this case, it was well-deserved, not just for Friday’s concert, but for the fine job that Inbal did under often difficult circumstances the past three years. As a satisfying finish to a turbulent time, it was a note-perfect performance.

Photo courtesy of the Czech Philharmonic

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


Muzeum Kampa
June 4

Mute onlookers for a John Cage knockoff.

Where to go to come down from Prague Spring, with its heady nights filled with musical stars? As luck would have it, to the refined gallery space of Muzeum Kampa, where the Isang Yun Trio – cellist Petr Nouzovský, oboist Vilém Veverka and harpist Kateřina Englichová put on a superb display of virtuoso musicianship on Monday night.

The long summer daylight was still bright on the Vltava as the concert started, with occasional tour boats passing just a few meters from the windows lending a surreal touch during the performance. Inside, the atmosphere was more somber, with a group of headless, life-size statues looking over the shoulders of the players. The piece, Magdalena Bakanowicz’s “Figures,” looks like the tortured souls from Olbram Zoubek’s “Victims of Communism” memorial at the foot of Petřin Hill broke loose, took a mud bath in the river, and wandered into the museum.

Whistling strings.
The opening work was equally solemn – Alexander Knaifel’s Lamento for solo cello. A Russian composer noted for turning out long, sometimes unplayable works, Knaifel put together what sounded like a complete inventory of sounds the cello can make in the lower registers in this piece. It opens with sharp, stabbing chords that build to machine-gun intensity before settling into a series of sustained notes, tones and whistles that grow more afflicted. Nouzovský handled it with aplomb, balancing the raging turmoil of the sound with a measured tempo and skillful bowing.

Jana Vöröšová is one of brightest young composers in the Czech Republic, a NUBERG competition winner who always has fresh, imaginative ideas. For this concert, she reworked two songs from her 2005 cycle Bouillon, a kaleidoscopic treatment of texts by the French writers Jacques Prévert and Henri Michaux. Originally composed for soprano and harp, they were performed by Veverka and Englichová, with Veverka delivering snatches of the text in brief, biting outbursts. The remainder of the vocals were transposed into long, compelling oboe lines that he handled smoothly, while Englichová provided expert runs and fills on the harp, occasionally using a small hammer on the strings to great effect.

If she had a hammer...
The work of two other local composers was less satisfying. Ondřej Štochl’s Šerosvit (Chiaroscuro) mimicked the visual art form with slow-moving, ephemeral textures and occasional half-melodies. Though not especially engaging, the piece required precise, sophisticated playing that the entire trio handled with fine attention to detail. Tomáš Pálka’s Single Line of Silence took inspiration from the anniversary year of John Cage, opening with a bouncing orange ping-pong ball and concluding with soloist Veverka scattering a handful of coins on the floor. With so many gimmicks – the score was spread across four stands, and at one point he had to tap the oboe against a wine glass – it was hard to take the music seriously. But the difficult technical demands and flamboyant gestures were perfect for Veverka, a gifted player who loves to strut his stuff.

The trio concluded with a piece by their namesake, Espace II. Yun, an avant-garde Korean composer who died in 1995, employed a wild mix of elements in his “sound compositions” – traditional Korean music, twelve-tone techniques, rich ornamentation and more. Espace II sounds like a collision of those elements, with overlapping lines, textures and melodies emerging, interlocking in interesting ways, then fading out. The full trio had to play with considerable finesse to make it all come together coherently. In lesser hands, the piece could be a disaster. With this trio, it was brilliant.

That’s no surprise. Veverka, Englichová and Nouzovský are among the finest players in the country on their instruments, and together comprise a formidable chamber group. In fact, they were in the Prague Spring festival two years ago, playing an equally challenging program at the Rudolfinum. Konvergence, the group that organized Monday’s concert, offers a comparatively modest showcase. But these musicians are stars wherever they play.

And the players:

Kateřina Englichová:
Petr Nouzovský:

Photos by Ondřej Melecký

Sunday, June 3, 2012


May 29, 30 & 31

A fine Fidelio from Hrůša, center, and the Philharmonia.

From the opening notes, it was clear that something special was underway in the performance of Fidelio at the Rudolfinum on Wednesday night. Conductor Jakub Hrůša established a commanding tone with the Prague Philharmonia in the overture that never let up, making the orchestra the strongest, most agile voice on a stage filled with good opera singers.

I’m hearing colors I’ve never heard before,” veteran soprano Carol Wilson, who has sung the role of Leonora many times, said at a press conference the previous day. For Prague audiences used to the special chemistry that Hrůša has with the Philharmonia, which he leads as chief conductor and music director, the vibrant colors, deep dynamics and sensitive control that characterized the Fidelio performance were nothing new. But the conductor does most of his opera work abroad, chiefly for Glyndebourne. So seeing him work with a cast of singers, even for a concert performance of Beethoven’s only opera, was a revelation.

Hrůša’s support for the singers was outstanding, recalling another comment Wilson made: “It helps to have a really good conductor who is working with you, not against you.” The music caressed the singer’s voices and emotions through the more delicate passages, and added propulsion and urgency to dramatic scenes like Don Pizzaro declaring that Florestan must die, sung with authority and flair by Adam Plachetka. Occasionally the orchestra overwhelmed the high soprano of Kateřina Kněžíková and the duskier voice of Wilson, who quite frankly sounded past her prime. Otherwise, it was that rarest of accompanists for the singers, a collaborator who not only showcased their best work but supplemented it with stylish brushstrokes.

And who knew the Prague Philharmonic Choir could sound so good? A visitor could have walked into the closing minutes with no knowledge of what was being performed and immediately recognized not just the signature chords, but the noble ideals and soaring aspirations of a Beethoven chorale. More than a powerful finale, it was a full blossoming of the energy that drove the entire production – passionate yet controlled, rich in ideas, bursting with enthusiasm and true to the composer. Beethoven could not have asked for better.

Moravec, reaching back.
The quieter moments at the Rudolfinum this past week were just as compelling. Ivan Moravec, who at 81 still has the fine touch that ranked him among the great pianists of the late 20th century, reached back to some of his earliest recordings in his Tuesday night recital. Those records, made for the Connoisseur Society in New York in the 1960s, were critical in launching his international career.

A pair of Debussy Préludes still sounded fresh, as did subtle shadings of Ravel’s Sonatine. True to Moravec’s style, the pieces were more lyrical than impressionistic, a quality particularly evident in three Debussy Estampes, which had a rich, full-blooded sound. The high point of the evening was a trio of Chopin pieces. Moravec’s 1991 recording of Chopin Nocturnes (on Nonesuch) is considered definitive, and he showed why with a glowing rendition of the Nocturne in D flat major, Op. 27 No. 2. That was followed by a ballade and barcarolle, both sensitively phrased and well-articulated, carried by the precise rhythm that underpins all of Moravec’s work.

The final notes of the barcarolle brought the audience to its feet, yelling and applauding wildly – less for the performance, perhaps, than as a sign of the esteem in which Moravec is held. One doesn’t go to his concerts for flawless playing, or the brilliance of his early work. Hearing Moravec perform now is like stepping back in time, to an earlier era of classic interpretations and dignified styles and the restraint that comes with respect for the composers. The sound is pure, elegant and in its best moments, absolutely mesmerizing.

Vasilyeva, fluent and focused.
Still in the early stages of her career, 26-year old Russian violinist Marianna Vasilyeva weaves spells of her own with technically dazzling and sophisticated playing that belies her age. Czech pianist Miroslav Sekera provided accompaniment for her Thursday recital, which opened with a dramatic version of Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major. Vasilyeva followed that with a skillful rendition of Wieniawski’s Fantaisie brillante, Op. 20, a piece that she inhabits with great focus and intensity while finding tender moments, particularly in the later passages.

Ysaÿe’s Poème élégiaque, Op. 12 is more about style and color, which Vasilyeva played just short of florid, tempering emotion with authoritative control. Hubay’s Fantaisie brillante, Op. 3 on themes from Carmen is a technically challenging piece that she managed to have some fun with, running playful trills on top of the “Toreador.” And she built Saint-Saëns’ Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28, another technically demanding work, with care and precision, climaxing with a set of seemingly effortless virtuoso flourishes.

Vasilyeva is physical player, roaming the stage and employing a lot of body language, often setting herself and stepping into more difficult passages. There are certainly young players of comparable skill, though none with the breezy confidence and light-hearted intelligence that she brings to her performance. That’s no accident. Vasilyeva started playing professionally at the age of 11, and quickly caught the eye of Mstislav Rostropovich and Valery Gergiev. This was her second appearance in Prague Spring after winning the festival’s 2010 competition. Judging by what she showed on Thursday, it won’t be the last.

Photos by Ivan Malý