Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Mr. Culture is off for a holiday break in the States, so the reviews are on hiatus until the new year. However, the calendar will be kept fresh – there’s a wealth of great seasonal music in Prague this month.

And here are some Christmas gift suggestions. Along with outstanding musicians, the Czech Republic is blessed with good music labels, and friends at two of my favorites – Supraphon and Indies Scope – were kind enough to pass along some of their latest releases for review. Once again, there’s an impressive array of original sounds and high-caliber performances. Share them with friends, and you’ll also be supporting a deserving local music industry.


Hot stuff! A clever and witty blend of jazz, rock and techno, with dashes of reggae rhythms and gypsy violin. Great dance music, but the razor-sharp production and smart arrangements make it well worth a sit-down listen. Frank Zappa is mentioned as one of the references, though what this disc really brings to mind is the high-octane ’80s new wave band Oingo Boingo. Fresh, fast-paced and good fun. (Indies Scope)

Tara Fuki/Sens

Their fourth release finds the cello/vocalist duo in a more intimate mood, forgoing flashy production and digressions into other genres in favor of meditative melody lines and gentle, yearning vocals. As always, the effect is haunting, a journey to inner depths and faraway places. Dorota Barová offers evocative improv vocals on two cuts, “Tobě” and “Moment,” and Andrea Konstankiewicz makes tasty use of her hang, a type of steel drum. Ten years after they started, Tara Fuki still has one of the most original sounds around. (Indies Scope)

Poletíme?/Jednoduché písničky o složitém životě

The band describes their music as “original banjo punk future jazz,” a good description of a repertoire that veers wildly from dance hall waltzes to Dixieland-style clap-along revelry. Gypsy flavors, touches of Balkan horns and a driving banjo fuel a raucous sound that rivals the reckless energy of Gogol Bordello. The lyrics are impenetrable Czech, but the enthusiasm is contagious. Also check out group’s newest release, Skupina dobře vypadajících mužů. (Indies Scope)

That’s just a small sampling of the incredible variety on the Indies label, where you’ll also find great groups like the Yellow Sisters, Traband, Jablkoň and Už jsme doma. See and hear more at:

Zuzana Lapčiková/Marija Panna přečistá

An imaginative crossover project that works. For this recording of Moravian Advent and Christmas songs, the smart folks at Supraphon paired Lapčiková, a Moravian folksinger and cimbalom player, with a gypsy violinist and members of her jazz quintet. The result is a bright, engaging sound that takes on new dimensions with every cut. Lapčiková’s voice is a perfect fit with the music, which ranges from spiritual meditations to holiday exuberance. This one is good listening any time of year. (Supraphon)

Collegium Marianum/František Jiránek Concertos & Sinfonias

The latest release in Supraphon’s “Music from Eighteenth-Century Prague” series features the work of an overlooked Czech composer who studied in Venice, likely under the direct tutelage of Antonio Vivaldi. So it’s not surprising that a lot of the music sounds like Vivaldi lite, or at least reflects the dominant Italian style of early 1700s. However, the solo bassoon lines are Jiránek’s own, played expertly on this disc by early music specialist Sergio Azzolini. Collegium Marianum provides top-notch backing on period instruments, led by spirited flute lines from Jana Semerádová. A smart, soothing addition to any Baroque collection. And watch for the next in the series due out imminently, a recording of Anton Reichenauer concertos by Vacláv Luks’ Collegium 1704 ensemble. (Supraphon)

Prague Philharmonia/Má Vlast

The opening concert honors at Prague Spring this year went to the Prague Philharmonia, a surprise given the orchestra’s junior status. But as this recording of their performance attests, the players were up to the challenge. Under the baton of rising star Jakub Hrůša, they gave a spirited rendition of Smetana’s seminal cycle of symphonic poems, showing a nice combination of emotional expression and technical finesse. While not a commanding or definitive version of Má Vlast, this disc offers an informed but accessible entree point to Smetana’s oeuvre – and an important historical marker for a growing ensemble. (Supraphon)

Ivo Kahánek/Chopin Scherzi & Sonata No. 3

Does the world really need another Chopin recording? Probably not, but Kahánek chose pieces that are not often recorded, and certainly has something original to say with them. In particular, his ability to find common threads in the four disparate scherzi opens some new doors. Eschewing a purely virtuoso approach in favor of a more open, dramatic style, Kahánek manages to play with both control and spontaneity. A thoughtful work, mostly for aficionados. (Supraphon)

Pavel Haas Quartet/Dvořák String Quartets in G major(Op. 106) & F major (Op. 96)

In February, Gramaphone magazine ran a photo of this award-winning ensemble on its cover with the headline, “The World’s Most Exciting String Quartet?” There was no need to add the question mark, at least for this reviewer. The quartet brings a unique energy and flavor to everything it touches, and this recording is no exception, bursting with the New World enthusiasm and inspiration that Dvořák felt in America. Unfortunately, the quartet doesn’t play in Prague often; they’re too much in demand abroad. This recording shows why. (Supraphon)

Check out other new Supraphon releases and the label’s impressive catalog at:

Monday, December 6, 2010


Suk Hall, Rudolfinum
St. Lawrence Church
December 5

Jakub Dvořák, Zuzana Hájková, Jiří Poslední and Pavel Eret. 

Confronted with another grim, grey wintry day in Prague, where does one go for succor and spiritual sustenance? To hear Mozart, of course. But that was just the starting point of last night’s cultural excursion, a classic run through the highs, lows and surreal best that Prague has to offer.

The Czech Philharmonic Quartet plays Mozart as well as anyone in town, and yesterday they were at Suk Hall, a cozy chamber music room in the fabulous Rudolfinum. First violinist Pavel Eret started the proceedings by lighting two candles on an Advent wreath, then sat down and dove into the String Quartet No. 19 in C major (K. 465), better-known as “The Dissonant” for its melancholy adagio introduction. That’s a difficult place to start a piece, much less a concert, and it didn’t quite work, sounding more droopy than dark. But the bright burst that followed took off nicely, with the quartet settling into an energetic but disciplined groove.

The group showed both technical mastery and thoughtful interpretation with the piece, exploring its darker timbres and colors, and eschewing the obvious emphases to give it a more nuanced character. The most remarkable quality of the quartet’s sound is its combination of depth and dexterity; it’s solid and full, with cellist Jakub Dvořák providing a resonant bottom, yet light enough to dance nimbly through complex lyrical passages. By the fourth movement, the music had a voice and life of its own, soaring and swirling like snow in the streetlights.

And that was just the warm-up. The quartet owns the second piece, Mozart’s String Quartet No. 17 in B flat major (K. 458, “The Hunt”), which it recorded for the Japanese Exton label. From the opening bars, the sound was completely organic, like one voice instead of four, spirited yet dignified. Pavel Eret set the bar with virtuoso playing in the first movement, and the second was a study in being tender without sacrificing quality. The third movement is an exercise in control, with many complicated layers and breaks, that the group fit together expertly. And the final movement was impassioned yet cool, a remarkable synthesis of joy and restraint.

I’m astounded,” the Professor said after the applause had died down, and I had to agree. It was an impressive performance. And it seemed even more impressive after Dr. Janovský leaned over and opined, “A little better than the Leipzig quartet.” Indeed, I had forgotten about our disappointment with the Leipziger Streichquartett, a highly lauded string quartet that visited Prague two weeks ago. The Czech Philharmonic Quartet was in fact light years better, on every level, no question, hands-down, thank you to all the angels and saints for the sophisticated caliber of music we enjoy in Prague.

The air of elegance dissipated rapidly outside, where a group of revelers was dancing beneath a tall menorah sculpture to Hanukkah music blasting from unseen loudspeakers. The Professor, being of the Jewish persuasion, was eager to join in, but that would have cut into our drinking time at U Rudolfina, a working-class redoubt a stone’s throw from the storied concert hall. The usual chain-smoking misfits were parked at the bar and tables, setting just the right lowbrow atmosphere for banging back two thirst-quenching Pilsner Urquells before setting off through the snow for our next destination, St. Lawrence Church across the river.

A bitter chill it was, to cop a line from Keats, but as we trudged through the drifts, our attention was captured by the angels and devils roaming the streets. Last night was Mikuláš, the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas, when by tradition a trio of St. Nick, an angel and a devil visit Czech homes to reward good children and punish bad ones. Many adults have vivid memories of being terrified by these visits, made to sing and then desperately hoping the devil wouldn’t take them away. Now it’s more like a yuletide Halloween, with both kids and adults running the streets in golden angel wings and blinking red devil’s horns.

St. Lawrence, a renovated medieval chapel that is one of the best places in town to hear chamber music, was full for the second night of the Atelier 90 Třídení plus concerts celebrating the group’s 20th anniversary. We arrived just in time for the opening piece, a relatively conventional sonata for flute and piano by Vlastislav Matoušek. Easy on the ears and capably performed by flutist Jana Jarkovská and pianist Lucie Čižková in matching red satin outfits, it set the stage for the second work, a vocal treatment of Psalms 23 & 121 by Věra Čermáková. Baritone Petr Matuszek and alto Markéta Dvořáková handled the two contrasting vocal lines nicely, reaching from Gregorian chants to modern dissonance with aplomb.

Two electronic pieces were chiefly of academic interest. Tape Music No. 2, by the late Zbyněk Vostřák, probably seemed revolutionary when it was written in 1969, but sounds dated now. A new work for oboe and electronics, Pavel Kopecký’s Song for Eurydice, gave oboist Vilém Veverka a good workout against a background of shifting textures, though Jaroslav Smolka’s combination of eight female voices and clarinet in the next piece, Epigrams on K.H. Borovsky, provided a more satisfying sound.

A grand showing by Goodson.
Pianist Patricia Goodson took on an interesting challenge with Hanuš Bartoň’s Music for Piano, written for her in 1998. It’s a difficult work, and Goodson showed both dexterity and fluency with its many complicated runs up and down the keyboard, and shifting moods and tempos.

Veverka returned for a short duo with cellist Petr Nouzovský, the late Isang Yun’s East-West Miniature I, which brought to mind the air raid sirens that still blast away on the first Wednesday of every month in Prague. And Marek Kopelent demonstrated why he is the current dean of Czech composers with the closing piece, a 1978 toccata. Two top-of-the-line players, pianist Daniel Wiesner and violinist Jan Pěruška, offered a riveting rendition of its piercing string lines and explosive chords on the keyboard. Though Kopelent was working under a heavy communist yoke, the piece sounds as revolutionary as anything written in the West at the time.

Needless to say, more beers were in order after such a strenuous evening. We marched through driving snow to a tourist pub near Malostranské náměstí, and might have lingered late. But the staff started closing up around us, stacking chairs on tables and throwing open the front doors to let in a steady blast of cold air. We got the message and left before devils could be summoned to carry us away.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


State Opera
December 1

No less a personage than Marie Antoinette was in the audience for the premiere of Johann Christian Bach’s Amadis de Gaule at the Académie Royale de Musique in Paris on December 14, 1799. Presumably the cast was more modest than the huge ensemble assembled on the State Opera stage for a concert version of the opera last night, which included a 50-piece orchestra, a 20-voice choir and nine soloists, several of whom came with visiting French conductor Didier Talpain. No dancers, but no complaints about the performance, a smart, satisfying slice of classic late 18th-century opera.

Maestro Talpain.
Bach’s Amadis is often mentioned in the same breath as Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) and Beethoven’s Fidelio (1805), principally in terms of the orchestration. But the overall sound and structure is also very similar; indeed, if you walked into the middle of a performance of Amadis without knowing what it was, those two contemporaries would come immediately to mind. Which is not to denigrate Bach’s music. He had a seemingly endless supply of captivating melodies, and in some respects Amadis is like a template for the next 100 years of European opera, with passages that could fit easily into later works by, say, Rossini or even Bizet.

Talpain drew a brisk performance from the orchestra, which was a melding of two regional Baroque specialty groups – Marek Štryncl’s Musica Florea from Prague, and Miloš Valent’s Solamente Naturali, which is based in Bratislava. Talpain works regularly with Solamente Naturali, with whom he has made well-received recordings of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach symphonies and Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s opera Mathilda von Guise. That may partly account for the smooth flow of the music last night, which did not have much depth but pulsed with bright lyrical energy, gliding through complicated passages like a skater on ice – an apt reflection of the snowstorm raging outside.

It’s a risky business bringing any Baroque ensemble to Prague, where local ears are attuned to the high standards set by Collegium 1704 and Collegium Marianum. There’s no way that a 50-piece pickup band playing mostly modern instruments is going to duplicate that caliber of sound. But Talpain has a very good feel for the music, and his enthusiasm and intelligence were evident in the spirited singing and playing of everyone on the stage.

The five primary soloists all needed some time to warm up, not really hitting full voice until the second and third acts. Hjördis Thébaultová, the first one on the stage (as Arcabonne), had a smaller voice than her colleagues, but good dramatic soprano skills that were impressive within her range. Baritone Pierre-Yves Pruvot (as her scheming brother Arcalaüs) provided a solid counterpart, and in the third act showed he could carry an extended aria.

 Top of the line tenor Do.
Philippe Do (Amadis) had the strongest voice of the evening, a classic romantic tenor with a slightly darker hue that contrasted nicely with the music. Katia Velletazová (as his lover Oriane) struck up a lovely duet with Do in the first act, then grew stronger over the course of evening, showing solid range and expression, if not much power. Soprano Liliana Faraon (Urgande, the good sorceress) flitted on and off the stage with coloratura lines that floated like snowflakes.

Some of the most interesting vocals in Amadis, at least for this reviewer, belong to the chorus – more traditional Baroque passages of layered, overlapping melodies. Musica Florea’s regular vocal ensemble made the most of the choral parts, combining tight, disciplined singing with strong surges of emotion.

It all made for a very pleasant evening – lightweight, certainly, the kind of music that sparkles in performance and leaves you humming afterward, but has evaporated by the next morning. Still, the care that Talpain and his large troupe devoted to the piece was obvious. And the concert performance was a smart way to go, stripping Amadis down to its essentials. The story was well-worn even in 1799. But Bachs music is still a delight to hear.

Friday, November 26, 2010


November 25

Tchaikovsky fell flat, but Kitajenko's Prokofiev was superb.

There are innumerable stories in the classical music world of stars who were born as last-minute substitutes: The scheduled performer falls ill, an understudy is thrust into the spotlight, and proves to be a major new talent. Unfortunately, that was not the case with young Japanese violinist Kei Shirai last night. But he deserves an A for effort.

The occasion was a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for violin and orchestra in D major (Op. 35), and the scheduled soloist was Slovak violinist Juraj Čižmarovič. But when he started to rehearse with the Czech Philharmonic earlier this week, he clearly wasn’t prepared – at least, that’s how the orchestra members felt. So they told him thanks, but no thanks, and called Shirai, a 27 year-old Japanese native who is studying in Vienna. Shirai had made a big impression playing Brahms in a recent concertmaster competition with the orchestra, and readily agreed to step in.

He took a train from Vienna to Prague on Wednesday, and stayed up all night practicing. The orchestra players were amazed to find him still on his feet when they assembled for a public rehearsal on Thursday morning.

A player with pluck.
But Shirai’s hard work did not translate into a brilliant performance; in fact, quite the contrary. His pitch was off, his bowing was flawed and he made some obvious mistakes. Conductor Dmitrij Kitajenko tried to help him by keeping the orchestra muted and the tempo running at a metronome pace, but that just served to highlight the problems. A Japanese violin player in the audience was so stricken by Shirai’s performance that she apologized to the people around her, assuring them that Japanese players are usually better.

The musicians were supportive, with many of the string players tapping their bows as Shirai left the stage and praising his pluck after the concert. In retrospect, it might have been better to change the program and let him play Brahms, as he suggested. But if baptism by fire counts for anything, Shirai will be back, and given a proper chance to show what he can do.

Kitajenko had a chance to display his world-famous conducting skills after intermission, leading a vibrant rendition of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5. Freed from the constraints of the first half, both conductor and orchestra let loose with a rich, full sound, plumbing the depths of the layers of strings, horns and percussion, and taking full advantage of the symphony’s roiling dynamics.

Composed in 1944, the piece melds traditional and avant-garde elements that Kitajenko balanced nicely – the undercurrent of horns going one way, sweeping string melodies another, and the woodwinds and percussion adding accents and colors. With constantly changing tempos and the interplay of so many different elements, the playing needs to be both agile and controlled, and Kitajenko was masterful in that respect, taking the sound from diffuse strings to a powerful blast from the full orchestra without missing a note of articulation.

His tempo was brisk, perhaps a bit too fast in some passages. But Kitajenko’s exploration of the many shadings and gradations in the piece was brilliant, the work of an expert in the Russian repertoire.

The conductor looked pleased with the results, applauding the orchestra himself during the curtain calls. And the players took the evening in stride. Shirai’s debut wasn’t quite what they had hoped for, but as one musician opined afterward, “He was still better than the Slovak.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Sts. Simon and Jude Church
November 23

The ensemble serves their music straight-up and dry.

It was a surprise to page through the program after last night’s Leipziger Streichquartett concert and read about the group’s many accomplishments: tours around the world, a standing series at the Gewandhaus, nearly 70 recordings and a basketful of awards. That didn’t seem to describe the ensemble we had just heard. Igor echoed what we were both thinking when he shrugged as we were putting on our coats and said, “Average.”

What accounts for the discrepancy? Maybe the boys just had an off-night; after all, nobody nails a five-star performance every time out, no matter how good they are. Or perhaps we lack the discerning ears of good critics. What seems more likely is that we’ve been spoiled by the surfeit of good string quartets in Prague. There are half a dozen that could go out and play on any stage in the world tomorrow, and win new converts to the Czech repertoire. Prague’s reputation as the conservatory of Europe is not an idle boast.

The program was straight from the Leipzig foursome’s home turf: Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s String Quartet in E minor (Op. 44, no. 2), Schumann’s String Quartet in A major (Op. 41, no. 3) and an Adagio from contemporary German pianist and composer Aribert Reimann. They should own that music, or at least offer definitive versions of it.

Instead, the performance stayed comfortably in a mid-zone, not reaching for any highs or lows. It was technically proficient but bloodless, high-caliber playing strangely absent of emotion. Perhaps this is how they prefer their music in Leipzig – dry, in both sound and temperament.

The Mendelssohn Bartholdy piece offers a lot of sweet, even playful moments, which the group didn’t take advantage of until the final movement, when they worked some of the delicate edges of the music very skillfully. There was more expression in the Schumann piece, though again, not until late, with some emotional notes in the third movement and brisk energy in the polka rhythms of the fourth. But the dramatic, passionate passages of the earlier movements never really came to life.

The group’s expertise in modern music was clear in the Reimann piece, a tribute to Schumann that was not very popular with the audience, but provided the best performance of the evening. It’s an angst-ridden work that starts with a pizzicato attack from the violins and escalates into a series of slashing, slicing phrases that burst and break, then finally taper off into soft layers of high-pitched whistles. The execution was dead-on and the bowing was strikingly good.

What the Leipzig quartet does best is create an organic sound, music that is more than the sum of four people playing together. At its best, it is an independent entity, especially when coupled with the group’s fine feel for tempo, which lends many passages a graceful momentum that literally takes the listener for a ride. If only that ride were more exciting – or had been last night.

It would be interesting to hear the Leipzig quartet do a full program of modern music. The audience would be smaller, but the guess here is that the results would be a lot more satisfying. For now, their Prague appearance served mainly as a reminder of what we have at home – which is easy to take for granted, but is truly something special.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Congress Center
November 21

Dianne Reeves knows how to put on a show. She radiates warmth and positive energy, chats up the audience, inviting everybody to dance and sing along, and is equally adept with soft, sensitive solos or big-band production numbers. And she’s got a pretty good voice, too.

A shining voice and spirit.
Actually, Reeves has an amazing voice. It’s mellowed a bit, a slightly darker timbre now than earlier in her career. But that’s only made it better, like fine wine come of age. It’s still remarkably pure and clear, polished and silk-smooth without being glossy. And supple. Like the best classical singers, Reeves can take her vocals from a gentle patter of raindrops to the big, dynamic sound needed to front an orchestra.

The program was a tribute to Sarah Vaughan, reprising many of the songs from Reeves’ 2001 release The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan. But with Latin flavors, fresh arrangements, a nod to Abbey Lincoln and two selections from Reeves’ newest release, When You Know, it had a smart contemporary feel. Reeves told some stories about the inspiration Vaughan provided early in her career, but you didn’t need to know anything about American jazz to appreciate the music, which stood quite well on its own.

That’s partly because Reeves, like Vaughan, doesn’t consider herself a jazz singer. She’s a singer, period, who knows her jazz licks but likes to dip in and out of many different genres. So after opening with “I Remember Sarah,” an upbeat tribute that Reeves wrote with pianist and composer Billy Childs, she segued easily to “Triste,” an Antonio Carlos Jobim number that Vaughan included on her I Love Brazil album. It was bright and breezy, with so much one-syllable scatting that Reeves sounded like she had taken in the Meredith Monk show last week.

Her rendition of “Lullaby of Birdland” was sweet and soulful, but the most inspirational moment of the evening was her very tender interpretation of Abbey Lincoln’s “Bird Alone.” Sarah Vaughan may have provided musical inspiration, but Lincoln was a powerful role model for Reeves. And if last night’s performance was any indication, she is still feeling the loss of Lincoln, who died in August.

Plenty of scat work over the course of the evening gave Reeves a chance to show her range, as she ran through lively vocal interpretations of percussion, strings and horns. “Speak Low” served as a vocal showcase, with Reeves gliding up and down scales and caressing rippling vibrato lines. But her best pure musical effort may have been “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” which started as a bass and vocal duet. Could the extra spark have come from George Clooney? Reeves certainly gushed enough about working with him on that and other music for Good Night, and Good Luck.

Big-band arrangements of songs like “Obsession” and “Fascinating Rhythm” highlighted Reeves’ combo – pianist Peter Martin, bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Terreon Gully – along with the Prague Philharmonia, which provided a 50-piece backing orchestra. That was an inspired choice; the Philharmonia is the youngest orchestra in town, with players who are versed in the classical repertoire but still know how to swing. Under the baton of Martin Kumžák, they were tight.

And Reeves showed a lot of class in closing, singing the introductions for the members of her group, as well as the orchestra conductor and concertmaster. It was a generous and entertaining gesture, capped by a high-volume version of “When You Know.” She came back for one encore, “Misty,” pouring out the song like honey.

You made our night, you made our tour,” Reeves told an appreciative audience. “We’re going to be flying home tomorrow on a wonderful high.” Judging from the standing ovation she received, they’re not the only ones flying high today.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


La Fabrika
November 19

From four horns, a remarkable array of sounds and colors.

There are saxophone quartets and then there is Xasax, a French/Swiss ensemble that takes the concept to an entirely new level. With just five pieces at Friday night’s closing installment of Contempuls, the group displayed a rich palette of sound and dynamics that stretched far beyond the normal limits of the instrument. And put on a very entertaining show in the process.

Playing various combinations of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, and shuffling their seating (or standing) arrangement for almost every piece, the group opened with Hugues Dufourt’s Quator de saxophones, a spectral music work. After establishing a basic structure of sequential chord progressions, the piece runs through a dizzying variety of timbres and colors, ending up at what sounds like music for UFOs. It calls for precision playing, which the group needed a few minutes to hit; after that, it was all virtuoso city.

With Saxofonový kvartet, a new work by Luboš Mrkvička, a local composer and instructor, the group embarked on a journey that started like electric guitars and segued into sputtering sonorous lines, as if someone was trying to tune in Wagner on a faint radio signal. Then the piece developed legs and took off, turning into a tumbling run of what seemed like random phrases and collisions – until all four players hit precisely the same split-second finish. It was an exhilarating ride.

The music went from two-dimensional to three-dimensional with Ivan Fedele’s Magic, an exercise in contours and colors that you could almost watch move around the stage. Some of the tones in the piece were so remarkable that if you closed your eyes, it was a bit disconcerting to open them and see four saxophones producing the sound instead of a full woodwind section.

The physicality of some modern music pieces seems gratuitous, like a distraction thrown in to break up the monotony of the sound. But Ernest H. Papier’s Axe à 4 is thoughtful fun, a carousel ride of movement and sound that starts with two soprano and two tenor players facing each other foursquare, blasting away like ringing church bells. As the music moves through a wild series of sound effects and playing techniques, the players follow suit, spinning around, dropping to a crouch, even doing a Chinese fire drill around the four music stands. When the performers put down their horns and played on mouthpieces alone, it’s hard to say what was more surprising – that they were able to squeeze out a melody, or do it with such a beguiling mix of whimsy and intensity.

The ensemble concluded with Iannis Xenakis’ XAS, one of the group’s signature pieces, an extended clarion call announcing, perhaps, the higher powers of the saxophone. There were no doubters in the audience by then; the quartet exited to whistles and echoes of “Bravo!”

The evening opened on a much quieter note, with Ensemble Adapter, a young five-piece group from Germany, playing a program of mostly German composers that included two premieres: Kore by Walter Zimmermann, and Echoes of the Sea, While I Am Taking a Bath by Prague’s own Jana Vöröšová. The winner of the Berg Orchestra’s 2009 NUBERG competition for new works, Vöröšová is one of the most promising talents in Prague, and her piece was by far the best of Ensemble Adapter’s set. It starts with a dreamy floating sensation that turns into liquid dripping, then builds to waves that swell, break and recede with impressive fluency and some nice percussive touches. Vöröšová may also be the most modest composer in town – she jumped onstage afterward to give each of the ensemble members a rose and a kiss, then jumped off just as quickly without even taking a bow.

The rest of Ensemble Adapter’s set was so slight and whisper-quiet that a French spectator shook his head in bewilderment afterward and wondered, “Is it possible Germany can change, and be very pacifist?” He quickly answered his own question: “Impossiblé!”

The evening concluded with an electronic set by Michal Rataj, a local composer and musicologist with an impressive resumé that includes studies in the UK and U.S. and a number of commissions and competition awards. Rataj worked a laptop, solo on some pieces and with a flutist and guitar players on others. Long stretches seemed like so much electronic noodling, but Silence Talking, with Lenka Kozderková Šimková on flute, had some very engaging turns. And Škrábanice (Scribble) layered the electronics with spoken text, bass guitar, chimes and the amplified sound of a pencil scratching on paper to produce a piece of surprising depth. In both sound and spirit, it was a perfect late-night close to the festival.

In just its third year, Contempuls has done an impressive job of establishing and fulfilling its primary goals: nurturing the best local talent; programming significant music that has never been performed in Prague; and presenting high-caliber foreign ensembles. It’s a notable achievement, and not just among modern music fans. As organizer Petr Bakla noted in this year’s program, “Real stars in the field have accepted our invitations. These people spend their professional lives on the road, yet so many of them had never before been to Prague with an instrument in their case. It’s cause for joy that Prague now has a place on their itinerary.”

For more on the performers:

Friday, November 19, 2010


November 18

The kind of American invasion we like to see swept through Prague last night, led by two progressive music stars: avant-garde composer and singer Meredith Monk, and rock guitar hero Adrian Belew. Faced with simultaneous must-see shows, Mr. Culture mapped out the crosstown logistics and saddled up for an ambitious evening of brain-bending sounds.

A modernist with primitive roots.
The first stop was Archa, where Meredith Monk brought three members of her ensemble for a career retrospective. The program included a touch of theatrics, but mostly focused on her music, in particular her incredible vocal gifts. Along with a remarkable range, Monk has a unique vocabulary of sounds, syllables and breathing effects that she delivers with more emotional impact than mere words could convey. Most impressive is the quality of her voice – at 68, she sounds as clear and strong as a singer half her age.

Monk opened solo, with three a cappella selections that included “Click Song,” a clever one-person duet of vocal and sound effects, and a toe-tapping excerpt from Juice performed expertly on a modest jew’s-harp. The next segment, with Monk accompanying herself on piano, showcased her extended singing techniques, with “Madwoman’s Vision” offering a dramatic display of the power a nonsense language can have when delivered with emotional conviction and specific ideas in mind.

A charming trio from the opera Atlas brought Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin onto the stage, both strong singers who support and interact with Monk with fluency and clockwork precision. Their work on “Epilogue” and “Woman at the Door” was dazzling. Clarinetist Teddy Ezra provided some flavor and atmospherics, including a solo for a brief interpretive dance performance by Monk.

While not as startling as it was 40 years ago, Monk’s work is still challenging and fresh. Her vocal lines and flourishes are consistently inventive, and the lack of intelligible words in most songs forces the listener to focus on the emotions behind the shrieks, screams and pure vocal notes, adding a different dimension to the music. And Monk draws on something still deeper; consciously or unconsciously, her contemporary techniques mimic primitive traditions. Indeed, some songs seem like straight renditions of Native American chants. At one point last night, Sniffin even let loose a series of coyote yips.

No one synthesizes ancient and modern forms quite like Monk, who also traverses a variety of disciplines – music, dance, theater, film. Though last night’s concert offered just a glimpse of her multifaceted world, it was a heady and satisfying experience.

I repeat myself when under stress.
Bolting during the applause and hopping the red line to I.P. Pavlova brought us to Retro, unfortunately for the second half of Adrian Belew’s concert. Headliners almost never start at Retro before 10; last night that time marked an intermission. #%&!!

Belew started the second half onstage by himself, doing a sweet rendition of George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” that segued into an extended effects solo. (November 29 marks the ninth anniversary of Harrison’s death.) He then took a seat while drummer Marco Minnemann put on an entertaining one-man show, capped by some flashy finesse work on the cymbals.

Bassist Julie Slick joined them for a couple cuts from Op Zop Too Wah, “Of Bow and Drum” and “All Her Love is Mine.” It was great to hear that music live, though it sounded flat, without much nuance or articulation. But then, everything sounds flat in Retro. Maybe standing closer to the stage instead of being jammed into the back of the hall would have helped.

The trio punched its way through a couple newer works, including some material from e. But what really pumped up the crowd was a dip into the King Crimson catalogue, circa the Discipline period. Songs like “Indiscipline” and “Thela Hun Gingeet” brought roars of recognition and approval, and Belew made a point of thanking the audience for their enthusiasm and energy before leaving the stage.

For this reviewer, it’s always a bit startling to see Prague concert crowds react so strongly to music that was supposedly banned during communism – especially songs thick with English-language lyrics, like Belew’s and Frank Zappa’s. Granted, about half the audience last night seemed to be guitar players from local rock groups. But it’s heartening to know that progressive music from the West was heard, and appreciated, during the dark days of commie censorship.

As for the trio, the Bears were better. But that band played different music, more power pop. This one faces a challenge in resurrecting King Crimson, as any power trio would. But Belew is clearly having a great time playing those songs, which is in fact one of his hallmarks. Grinning onstage with his latest guitar (this one a signature Parker Fly), he always looks like a kid with a new toy on Christmas. Until he starts playing. Then he’s a master of his craft, still pumping out some of the most original rock on the planet.

Further reading:

Both artists run informative and comprehensive websites.

For more on Meredith Monk and her ensemble:

To get up to speed on Adrian Belew:

And for the gearheads, here are the specs on Belew’s guitar: