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:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Divadlo Archa
November 15

Dream weavers Barová, left, and Konstankiewicz.

The never-ending quest for interesting alternative music led to Archa last night, where Tara Fuki was playing their first Prague concert in a long time and debuting a new disc. It was louder than usual, with Czech folk/pop star Lenka Dusilová and three members of the Vertigo Quintet adding volume and backing. But the core of the music was, as always, mesmerizing.

Part of the appeal of Tara Fuki is the clarity and elegance of the duo’s sound. Dorota Barová and Andrea Konstankiewicz are both talented cello players and singers who forged something new in 2000, when they began shaping improvisations into an original fusion of contemporary and traditional music, often incorporating text from the Polish poet Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński. Their sensitive playing and haunting melodies tap into something deeper, the subconscious world of dreams and the female psyche.

Their new release, Sens, is more musical than mystical, especially the selections they played at Archa. Barová was in good vocal form on the improvisations “Tobě” and “Moment,” the latter featuring delicate accompaniment by Konstankiewicz on the hang – technically a type of idiophone, but in sound and practice more like a laptop steel drum. The extensive use of pizzicato is a Tara Fuki trademark, and it sounded sharp on “Słowa.” Energetic bowing provided a driving bottom for “Kolorowe Szkiełka,” and the title track, with its singalong chorus, made for a rousing encore.

Dusilová’s sharp upper register works very well for her music, but seemed a bit jarring when she joined Barová and Konstankiewicz halfway through their set. The same could be said for the Vertigo Quintet trio – acoustic bass player Rastislav Uhrík, saxophonist Marcel Bárta and drummer Daniel Šoltis – who turn out some fine jazz. Šoltis is particularly fun to watch, wielding a different percussion instrument every few seconds. But the impact of another singer and three additional instruments seemed to weigh the music down rather than brighten it. The group vibe onstage for the CD christening was exactly right, but at least for this reviewer, it would have been a more satisfying evening musically to hear just Tara Fuki.

That opportunity has been rare lately because Konstankiewicz is now married and living in France, so Tara Fuki is more of a project than an ongoing band. It sounded like it last night. The vocals were entrancing and the musicianship superb, but that extra dimension was missing. Barová and Konstankiewicz capture it very well in the studio; their discs are like journeys to another place, a meditative blend of polyphonic harmonies, yearning musical lines and just the right touch of complementary colors and sound effects. When they create that atmosphere onstage, it’s magical.

So here’s hoping they spend a lot more time together, and come back soon. Until then, the new disc will do nicely. Aside from a few raw spots in Barová’s vocals, it weaves Tara Fuki’s unique spell with grace and precision, enriching an already enchanting dreamscape.

Further reading and listening:

Tara Fuki’s website, with a link to their myspace page, is at:

Tara Fuki is on the Indies Scope label, home of some of the best alternative music in the Czech Republic. Check out the latest releases at:

Sunday, November 14, 2010


La Fabrika
November 12

Fama, from left: Martinovský, Danel, Veverková and Adorján.

We were hanging at the bar during intermission Friday night when Didier arrived, late as usual. He eyed the glasses in our hands and said, “Modern music and beer.” I held my breath, waiting to see which way the arbiter of good taste and musical refinement would rule. Then he broke into a big grin.

It’s wonderful.”

It was wonderful, and maybe why the crowd was so juiced. Modern music audiences are typically small and intense, hanging on every scratch and squeak in rapt silence, then responding with polite applause. On Friday a full house hooted and cheered like they were at a rock concert, even whistling for Uli Fussenegger’s killer contrabass performance of Georges Aperghis’ Parlando.

But you didn’t need alcohol to appreciate the fine performances, starting with Prague’s own Fama Quartet establishing its bona fides with Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima. This is one of those pieces that you either love or hate, a 40-minute series of 50-plus musical fragments broken by intervals of silence, during which the performers are supposed to be mentally reciting fragments of poetry by Friedrich Hölderin. Count this reviewer among those less impressed by the music, which seems like interminable variations on a single idea, than by the skill required to play it properly.

Fama Quartet leader and first violinist David Danel said afterward that he wanted to perform the piece because it is a key work in the modern repertoire for string quartet, and thus part of building a first-rate ensemble. He deserves special credit for taking it on at this juncture, with a new viola player (Ondřej Martinovský), and Anna Veverková sitting in for regular second violinist Aki Kuroshima, whose return from Japan has been delayed by illness. But with Balázs Adorján providing his usual steady anchor on cello, there was no drop in quality. The foursome had obviously worked hard on the piece, and nailed it technically. It probably helped that the overall atmosphere of Diotima is cold, with expression depending more on individual flourishes than combined quartet work, of which there are relatively few passages.

Phenomenal focus from Fussenegger.
The second half of the evening belonged to Klangforum Wien, a collective of 23 musicians from nine different countries based in Vienna. Conductor Clement Power brought 13 of them, including the aforementioned Fussenegger, who served up a tour de force of technique and concentration with Parlando, working his bow on the big contrabass like a fevered surgeon. The piece covers a wide spectrum of both sound and style, ranging from deep profundo to high electric, and incorporating lively rhythm, rock and jazz licks. Fussenegger played it with great energy and wit.

Czech composer Miroslav Srnka is a favorite of visiting ensembles, and it was a treat to hear his Magnitudo 9.0, especially played with such imagination and flair. The piece, for two strings, two woodwinds and percussion, opens with low tremors that build to an energetic whirl, led by some catchy bass clarinet lines propelled by rolls on a bass drum. It’s a delightful work, running through a rainbow of colors and characters that were nicely drawn.

Simon Holt’s Lilith is well-orchestrated noise for nine instruments that sounds like a traffic jam underwater. Power showed a lot of finesse modulating and balancing the many elements, drawing a crisp performance from the players.

Jorge López’s Gonzales the Earth Eater is too cute to live up to its title, despite including a reference to William Burroughs’ The Soft Machine. But it offers some clever tempo changes and tasty flavors from a Wagner tuba as the two strings and two woodwinds whip up a vortex of sound, then lumber off into the sunset. The players had a nice feel for the piece, with seamless work on the Wagner tuba by Christoph Walder.

The finale, Enno Poppe’s Salz, sounds like New Orleans jazz funeral music as it might have been composed by Igor Stravinsky. The nine instruments include electric keyboards that provide funeral-home fills to start, then crank up a warped calliope sound with Frank Zappa overtones. It’s not a terribly engaging piece, but it demands very good playing skills, and the ensemble’s performance, which culminated in a ringing blast of high horns, drew enthusiastic, extended applause.

What most impressed about Klangforum Wien was its combination of formal classical training with contemporary sensibilities. The playing could be stiff at times, but the caliber and versatility of the musicians was quite good. And under Power’s direction, they could go from serious to whimsical in a heartbeat; on both sides of the podium, the control was masterful. Overall, the ensemble’s blend of sophistication and playfulness went down very well – especially with a beer chaser.

Monday, November 8, 2010


Vitkov Memorial
November 7

Star cellist Jiří Bárta got some of his friends together for a high-gloss chamber concert Sunday night that offered an eclectic program and a fascinating study in sound dynamics. It’s not every evening, after all, that you get to hear music performed in a gigantic mausoleum.

Bárta brought new life to a dead space.
A passage from Flaubert about “sublime beauty” in art set the theme, though the program might just as well have been titled “Songs I Like to Play.” Bárta opened with Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals, accompanied on harp by Jana Boušková – a nice selection, but so clichéd that there’s not much sublime left in it. If the highest function of art is, as Flaubert suggests, to induce dreaming, then Debussy’s Ballade was closer to mark, especially as played by Boušková and Radek Baborák on French horn.

The modern pieces were more interesting and provocative, starting with Ravi Shankar’s Sonata for cello and harp No. 1. Working the low registers of his instrument, Bárta produced a sitar sound for the opening passage, which segued into a playful springtime romp with straightforward cello lines supported by lustrous accents and flourishes from the harp. Boušková and Bárta also sounded very good together on Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, lending an elegant quality to its many moods and rhythms.

Boušková was in some ways the foundation of the performance, helping Bárta create an ethereal atmosphere and haunting sound on Sofia Gubaldulina’s A Letter to the Poetess Rimma Dalos. She and Baborák struck perhaps the best sound combination of the evening on Bernard Andres’ Songs From Last Season, enriching what seemed like movie soundtrack music with precision playing and skillful effects. And Boušková’s absence was notable on Jiří Hájek’s Sundial, where somehow a clarinet and three strings couldn’t quite make up the difference.

But in the end it was Bárta’s show, and he demonstrated some seriously good chops playing Luboš Fišer’s Sonata for solo cello, a somber elegy that calls for both feeling and dexterity. Bárta also turned in an impressive performance on electric cello in the finale, Gavin Bryars’ After the Requiem. Accompanied by two violins and an acoustic cello, he added another dimension to the piece with skillful bowing that deepened and enriched the sound. The program would have been stronger with more of that and less of the classical clichés.

That said, it’s entirely possible that the sound (and this review) would have been altogether different had the performance been held in another venue. The Vitkov Memorial is a functionalist behemoth that was built between the world wars to honor the Czechoslovak legionnaires. Co-opted during the 1950s as a glorified interment site for good communists like Klement Gottwald, it has at its core an enormous hall that could be God’s own chapel – about 60 meters high and 100 meters deep, made entirely of imposing marble and stone. There is absolutely no reason that acoustic instruments should sound good in this space.

And yet the opening concert of Strings of Autumn, which featured a male vocal quartet, the Hilliard Ensemble, accompanied by saxophonist Jan Gabarek, came off with just the right touch of reverberation and exceptional clarity of tone. With more and more varied instruments, Bárta’s concert had mixed results, but held some delightful surprises. Foremost was the harp, which somehow lost none of its warmth and, perhaps because it was the biggest instrument onstage, did the best job of filling the sonic space. Bárta’s cello also sounded remarkably good, clean and well-articulated even when paired with other strings. Baborák’s horn was cooler than usual, but held its sweet round tone.

Generally speaking, the bigger the group onstage got, the more the sound flattened out. However, a couple of high-volume outbursts from the clarinet and string quartet on Hájek’s Sundial revealed a nice natural echo in the room. It’s far from an ideal performance space – for one thing, the ventilation system produces a nonstop electrical hum. But judging from these two Strings of Autumn concerts, the Vitkov hall holds intriguing acoustical qualities that deserve further exploration.

And the Strings of Autumn organizers deserve credit for scheduling two of their concerts there this year. The Vitkov Memorial is not easy to reach, but the capacity crowds and very satisfying shows attest to their perspicacity, and the potential of yet another unique performance space in Prague.

For more on the Vitkov Memorial:

The National Museum's official site includes a “virtual tour” that only hints at the size of the space:


La Fabrika
November 5

Ostravská banda at an earlier tour stop in Graz.

The best concerts provide not only an evening of musical entertainment, but an opportunity to get your ears tuned – that is, adjusted to what well-played music is supposed to sound like. The opening night of this year’s Contempuls festival offered that and more, with two high-caliber ensembles playing an engaging variety of modern music, capped by Petr Kotík leading his Ostravská banda in a sterling performance of John Cage’s 1958 Concert for Piano and Orchestra.

The opening set was a collaboration between two groups: Ensemble Nikel and Ensemble Praesenz, which share roots in Europe and Israel. The six musicians, clearly versed in the modern repertoire, played with precision and audacity. Pianist Reto Staub set the tone in both those categories with the opening piece, Georges Aperghis’ Conversation X, which calls for the performer to babble a nonsense language while plinking on a piano with altered strings. Staub managed to make it sound both primitive and sophisticated.

Pro sounds from Haynes, Staub and Ťupa.
Clarinetist Richard Haynes and cellist Jan-Filip Ťupa served up a bright, chirpy rendition of Magnus Lindberg’s Steamboat Bill Junior. Toshio Hosokawa’s Für Walter – Arc Song II didn’t make much of an impression, but electric guitar player Yaron Deutsch lit up the house with Fausto Romitelli’s Trash TV Trance, which employs everything from distortion to Jeff Beck-style riffs. The guitarist is required to use a number of objects on the strings and fretboard, from a standard steel slide to an electric razor. Deutsch made it look easy.

Elena Mendoza’s Díptico also called for some unconventional techniques, with Staub plucking the piano strings and percussionist Tom de Cock bowing gongs and vibraphone keys, among other objects. Haynes and saxophonist Vincent Daoud showed nice breath control in what was not a terribly exciting piece, but an impressive display of musicianship. The last two pieces – Chaya Czernowin’s Sahaf and Rebecca Saunders’ Vermilion – are mostly soundscapes and sonic distortion, technically demanding though not a rousing finish for a set. Still, the group got enthusiastic applause for what had been a well-crafted 80 minutes of music.

Kotík was traveling with a markedly young version of his ensemble on this tour, but the group was giving nothing away in professionalism. The playing was superb, with the three percussionists getting a good workout on a circus array of instruments.

The opening piece of the Ostravská banda set featured the single best performer of the night: violinist Hana Kotková, handling the solo duties on Luca Francesconi’s Riti Neurali. The part requires the player to basically attack the score and maintain that level of intensity for about 13 minutes. Kotková showed great skill and remarkable control, piercing and slicing atop a complex orchestral structure of varying timbres.

Paulina Załubska’s brief Dispersion, which sounds like insects dancing on a high-tension line, served as a lively warm-up for the two big percussion pieces. Bernhard Lang’s Monadologie IV started with the three players – Tamás Schlanger, László Tömösközi and Ádám Maros – on relatively conventional drum kits, playing overlapping, simultaneous rhythms, most of which would not be out of place in a jazz big band. For the second half of the piece, they switched to three piles of found objects like tin cans, hubcaps, frying pans and an oil drum. It was an energetic and accessible performance that put a jolt in the crowd.

After a break to rearrange the stage, the percussionists returned for one of Kotík’s pieces, In Four Parts (3, 6 & 11 for John Cage). It’s an ambitious work that ranges from tender vibraphone lines to a grand cacophony of cymbals and drums, with an interesting internal structure but perhaps not enough variety to sustain its length.

The ensemble spread out for Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with four of the players sitting in the audience. Done right, the piece sounds as revolutionary now as it did 50 years ago, manipulating both space and time, and employing notation that gives the musicians a lot of latitude in determining the volume and duration of notes. The conductor’s job, according to Cage’s instructions, is to act as a “living chronometer,” setting not a tempo but an overall time framework. Kotík looked more like a traffic cop than a traditional conductor in that mode, but he drew an outstanding performance from the ensemble, delicate and abstract, yet firmly grounded. The audience held its collective breath during the piece, then erupted in explosive applause and whistles when it ended.

Speaking of which, it was encouraging to see such a big turnout for such esoteric fare. Modern music is an acquired taste, and there are plenty of performances in Prague that are lucky to draw 20 people. The nearly full house at La Fabrika suggests that a larger audience is out there – and confirms the quality of the programming put together by Contempuls organizers Miroslav Pudlák and Petr Bakla, composers of note themselves. It will be interesting to see if they can sustain both the quality and the audience for the rest of the festival.