Monday, October 18, 2010


KAIROS Atelier
October 13

The salon is a lost form in the modern world, where instant electronics have made the idea of gathering to contemplate the edifying qualities of the arts seem obsolete. Why pause to hear and discuss a literary or musical work when you can punch it up, knock it back, give it a quick thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and move on quickly to the next fix?

Master of ceremonies Montagné.
So it’s inspiring to see former French Institute Director Didier Montagné and his partner Sara Barbierato reviving this grand tradition. Their third outing, an evening with the Prague Modern ensemble and Czech composer Miroslav Srnka, was a brilliant study of the varieties and mechanics of contemporary music. Even if you aren’t a fan of the form, the opportunity to see accomplished musicians at work and hear a composer talk about his craft – in English! – was a rare and delightful event.

The program featured six pieces for soloists and a reprise of Earle Brown’s Four Systems, which the ensemble performed at its monthly Švandovo Divadlo concert the previous week. Difficult chamber pieces are the norm for the ensemble, which made inventive use of Brown’s graphic notation. But the individual players don’t often get a chance to show their skills, which are considerable.

Cellist extraordinaire Adorján.
Cellist Balázs Adorján did a superb job with György Ligeti’s Sonata for solo cello, which might well be titled A Showcase of Cello Techniques and Effects. Adorján played with precision and authority, drawing a big hand from an appreciative audience. Bassoon player Tomáš Františ was equally adept on Isang Yun’s Monologue for Bassoon, starting soft and slow and building to Charlie Parker-like intensity.

Jan Souček showed how to push the limits of his instrument with Heinz Holliger’s Sonata for solo oboe, which would fit comfortably into an evening of free jazz. And Jindřich Pavliš, playing in his usual snap-brim hat, showed a sensitive feel for Luciano Berio’s Lied for solo clarinet.

Violinist David Danel, a talented musician who also handles the business end of Prague Modern, had an opportunity to show two sides of modern music – Morton Feldman’s soulful For Aaron Copland, and Susumu Yoshida’s Kodama I (Esprit de l’arbre), which is like an assault on the instrument, with slashing chords and sharp pizzicato. Danel showed a tender touch with the former and happily shredded his bow on the latter.

But the pièce de résistance was the running commentary by Srnka, a talented composer who doesn’t get nearly enough credit and respect in his homeland. (Though it’s worth noting that Marek Kopelent, the dean of contemporary Czech composers, thinks enough of Srnka to have come out for this event.) Srnka kept resisting Montagné’s prompting to talk about himself and his work – “I’m here to comment on the music,” he said. But he took note of the country’s lack of a first-rate modern music ensemble, which is why he agreed to serve on the board of Prague Modern, whose development he described as “crucial” to the future of Czech music.

It’s too bad Srnka wasn’t more forthcoming about his own experiences, as what little he shared was quite interesting. He spent a year studying in Paris, and described the influence on his music this way: “Mr. Kopelent tells me that my music sounds French. When I talk to the French, they tell me that they like the Eastern, primitive quality of my music.”

Danel was supposed to play one of Srnka’s compositions. “But his pieces are extremely difficult, and I didn’t have the time for serious preparation of this one,” he apologized.

Srnka wasn’t about to take that for an excuse. “You’ve played this four or five times before,” he said to Danel. “What’s the problem?”

“Maybe you can run, but running a marathon needs preparation,” Danel replied. “I didn’t want to hurt your piece.”

That didn’t sit well, either. “Well, we’re going to demonstrate something,” he told Danel. “Get your violin.”

Srnka had Danel play what he called a “trill tremolo,” a complex, fluttering lick that is impossible to fully write down. It also pushes the instrument beyond what is possible to play. “A composer has to know these limits, which is why I believe it’s important to work in close collaboration with the musicians,” Srnka explained.

That’s just a flavor of the full discussion, which offered insights for novices and experts alike. And the evening included everything a good salon should – fine performances, stimulating conversation and, of course, libations afterward.

“As John Cage said, Happy New Ears,” Danel said in closing.

“And now,” Montagné added, “let’s go to drink.”

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