Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Obecní dům
October 26

Mehldau, stretching perhaps a bit too much.

Is it possible to cross over too far? You had to wonder after last night’s performance by superstars Brad Mehldau and Anne Sofie von Otter.

Playing to a packed house, the pianist and singer unveiled their new collaboration, Love Songs, a double-CD release. One disc features original compositions by Mehldau, settings of poems by Philip Larkin, e.e. cummings and Sara Teasdale. The second disc is an eclectic collection of modern songs that the duo chose, ranging from French chansons to American and British pop. This is not the first such foray for either; Mehldau did a similar project with Renee Fleming a few years ago, and von Otter has recorded with Elvis Costello.

Their Prague concert was divided into three parts. The first half was all classical, with von Otter singing songs by Grieg, Sibelius, Strauss and 20th-century Swedish composers, and Mehldau soloing on two caprices by Brahms. The second half opened with five of the Love Songs, then segued to chansons and other pop selections from the second disc.

As always, a class act.
It took a few songs for von Otter to warm up, but beyond that it’s difficult to say much about her singing, as her voice did not carry with any clarity beyond the front third of the hall. Long ago, von Otter established herself as a world-class mezzo-soprano, and is now considered one of the finest singers of her generation. But her voice is simply not big enough to fill a venue like 1,200-seat Smetana Hall. Even the spoken introductions that she gave for many of the songs were hard to hear. The fact that the piano was miked, and she was not, added to the sound problems; for most of the evening the balance wasn’t right, and occasionally her voice got subsumed by the piano.

That said, the Strauss songs seemed a surprisingly good fit, with von Otter showing impressive range and great tenderness of expression. And the Sibelius songs were wonderful, as von Otter took full advantage of the dramatic, even operatic, flourishes. Who knew that Sibelius could spin out such lovely melodies?

As for Mehldau, it is no exaggeration to characterize him as one of the most interesting jazz artists in the world at the moment. But he is not a classical pianist. He plays classical music like he plays jazz – with his own distinctive rhythms and phrasing. It’s capable and respectful, and he makes a great accompanist for von Otter. Stripped naked, though, as it was on the Brahms, his playing sounds like what it is – a brilliant jazz performer moonlighting in another genre.

The same could be said about von Otter in the popular segment of the second half. She was obviously enjoying herself with more relaxed fare, but she is too dignified to pull off a breezy French chanson, nor does she have the chops to do proper cabaret or club-style singing. And at least for this reviewer, classical phrasing on songs by Joni Mitchell and the Beatles just doesn’t work.

So on one end of the concert, there was a jazz pianist playing classical music, and on the other, a classical singer performing pop – neither quite right, or satisfying. Ultimately, those segments of the performance seemed like filler to make an evening out of the relatively brief centerpiece, which was brilliant.

The duo performed the five Teasdale songs, meditations on love that range musically from straightforward romantic melodies to jazz treatments with off-key harmonies and bent notes. It was very sophisticated work, featuring contrasting piano and vocal lines, and Mehldau providing everything from graceful backing with soft chords to running rhythm lines that drove the song. The music occupied its own unique space, somewhere between classical and jazz, taking elements from both worlds to utilize the respective strengths of the performers. An entire program of material like that would have been stunning.

As for the technical problems, they were unfortunate, but the organizers didn’t have many choices. With 1,200 people eager to see the show (and probably more, since it was sold out), they couldn’t put it in the Rudolfinum, where it would have sounded best. The only real alternative is the Congress Center, which still feels like what it was – a communist-era convocation hall. The piano needed some volume, but you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) mike a classical singer. However, miking von Otter for the second half of the show would have been perfectly acceptable. And both von Otter and Mehldau should have had a microphone when they were talking to the audience.

But these are all a reviewer’s complaints. The fact is, 1,199 people left Obecní dům perfectly happy last night, and even had a chance to get in line for autographs from the performers afterward. The surprising number of empty seats in the second half suggests that many of the audience members were tourists, content to shell out big money for half a concert. No complaints about that, though – it’s what enables the locals to see performers like von Otter and Mehldau, who are willing to take risks.

Further reading: Mehldau has an interesting essay on his website about writing the music for Love Songs, which you can read here:

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


St. Agnes Convent
October 25

It’s always an occasion when French horn virtuoso Radek Baborák gets some of his friends together for a chamber music concert. The gathering at St. Agnes’ last night was a smart, relaxed affair with Baborák and a first-class string quartet presenting a wide-ranging program that started in Baroque and ended solidly in the 21st century.

A virtuoso with a collaborative spirit.
The quartet included players who often perform with Baborák – his wife Hana on cello, Jiří Žigmund from the Wihan Quartet on viola, and Czech Philharmonic violinist Aida Shabuová – along with Slovak violinist Dalibor Karvay. While a bit shy of the precision that a standing string quartet would have, they played with great warmth and feeling, particularly on the more emotional pieces, like Alexander Glazunov’s Idylle and Leone Sinigaglia’s Romanza.

Certainly the most captivating sound of the evening was Baborák’s horn. The Gothic performance space, which can be too airy for some string ensembles, was perfect for a solo French horn, giving it a rich, full glow that filled the space without bouncing off the walls. The effect on the opening piece, Mozart’s Horn Quintet (K 407), was almost magical, like “surround sound” that seemed everywhere, even and clear without a specific origin point.

Baborák could play an entire evening of Baroque classics and send the audience home happy, but he is an adventuresome soul with many colleagues and friends whom he likes to include in his performances. So after a winsome duet from Glazunov (Idylle and Serenade), the group played an arrangement of an oratorio by Miloš Bok, an organist, composer and conductor known for his work with church choral groups. It came off as a robust neoclassical piece with modern flavors and some interesting turns of phrase and mood. The composer was in attendance and got a nice hand afterward.

The second half was all modern music that was perhaps most noteworthy for being so accessible. Corado Saglietti’s Suite for horn and string quartet, published just this year, is a bright “cocktail of passion, nostalgia and virtuosity” (the composer’s description) that would work well as television or film soundtrack music. The ensemble had fun with the piece, including a vocal chirp that Baborák playfully contributed to the third movement.

Sinigaglia’s Romanza is a more somber work that the group rendered in a dignified, reflective manner. Kerry Turner’s Sonata is an engaging piece from the American composer and French horn player with vivid colors and inventive transitions. It employs the full range of the horn, which Baborák handled effortlessly, and includes some brief viola solos that sounded sweet in Žigmund’s hands.

Three brief encores gave Baborák a chance to introduce the members of the group and preview one of the pieces he will be playing tonight at Salon Philharmonia. Those had no sooner wrapped than half the audience began streaming into the back room to greet and congratulate the ensemble. As noted earlier, Baborák has a lot of friends.

It’s also worth noting that Baborák is a world-class player who has soloed with orchestras from St. Petersburg to Tokyo, and most recently held the principal horn seat with the Berlin Philharmonic. That he’s chosen to return to Prague and play what he enjoys, with a rotating cast of high-caliber accompanists, is a boon for local music fans and a treat to watch. Baborák is clearly having a good time with these ensembles, interacting with the players during the performance and generating positive energy that extends to the audience.

These may not be the most polished performances in town. But as an opportunity to see great musicians who enjoy playing together serving up fresh, intelligent music, you will not do better.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


October 22

Inbal showed an impressive command of Mahler.

The house was full at the Rudolfinum Friday night, and for good reason: Eliahu Inbal, one of the modern masters of Mahler, was leading the Czech Philharmonic in the composer’s Symphony No. 9.  A monumental work capable of exhausting performers and audience alike, it proved to be riveting in the hands of Inbal, who drew a moving, polished performance from the orchestra.

Mahler’s Ninth is many things – an anguished cry from a man deeply aware of his own mortality, a musical extension of his just-completed vocal work Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), a battle between romanticism and the emerging avant-garde. Inbal served up all that and more in seamless fashion, in keeping with the sentiment he expressed when he recorded the composer’s complete symphonies with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra: “A conductor can only interpret Mahler’s music in a manner faithful to the score if he portrays it as torn asunder, always struggling within itself. Elements constantly war against one another in Mahler; where there is beauty there is also ugliness, and one must often be very careful to bring out this struggle with sufficient clarity.”

That was the consistent thread throughout nearly 90 minutes, with Inbal maintaining a constant tension through the soaring crescendos, dramatic explosions, vibrant horn and woodwind passages and sudden jolts of atonality. From the opening bars, his control of the material was superb – restrained, finely detailed and above all cohesive, no small matter in this sprawling work. Particularly impressive was his mastery of the contrasting light and dark tones, often juxtaposed in a manner that would be jarring in lesser hands.

By turns transcendent, anguished, intellectual and passionate, the music is full of surprises, like a brief interplay of the horns and woodwinds in the Rondo-Burlesque (third movement) that sounds exactly like a carousel at an amusement park. Some listeners find the Ninth a good example of the composer’s tendency for overindulgence, both in the music and instrumentation. Certainly the final movement seems that way, ready to end at half a dozen different points, then suddenly picking up to reprise another theme until they’re all exhausted and gently fade away. Otherwise, this reviewer found the steady stream of inventive ideas dazzling, in particular the many horn and woodwind combinations, which never sound the same twice. Those sections of the orchestra played beautifully, especially the French horns.

And Inbal is a treat to watch at work. He’s an expressive conductor, coaxing every tiny nuance out of the players with hand gestures often more pronounced than the sounds he elicits. With his professorial look and bearing, he sometimes seems like an instructor in front of a mischievous class, waving his pointer and wagging his finger.

But there was no need for admonishment on Friday, as the orchestra played very well. Inbal looked pleased with the performance, wearing a satisfied smile when it was over and inviting many individual players to stand for applause. With all the turmoil that’s rocked the organization this year, it was good to be reminded why, when everybody takes the stage and puts political infighting aside, the Czech Philharmonic is still the standard-bearer for the nation.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Lucerna Music Bar
October 21

Simmonds, far left, with DeSalvo, Whiting and Grimm.

  Mr. Culture took a break from highbrow hobnobbing last night to get back to his roots – everyone’s roots, really. Blues is the foundation of modern pop, from the Beatles and Rolling Stones to Michael Jackson. We don’t get nearly enough of it in Prague, at least not of the caliber that Kim Simmonds and Company brought to town last night.

Simmonds is the founder and torch-bearer of Savoy Brown, a British blues band that had a good run in the States during the late ’60s and early ’70s, but never really caught on in the UK and Europe. The ever-changing lineup has always been cited as part of the problem, though that’s an understatement; not only the players, but the sound and identity of the group changed from album to album. Simmonds himself was kicked out of the band twice by his brother Harry, who was managing Savoy Brown during the ’60s. (For a complete history, check the bio page on

The latest version of the band features Simmonds on guitar and occasional vocals, the versatile Joe Whiting on lead vocals and sax, and a solid rhythm section of Pat DeSalvo on bass and Garnett Grimm on drums. The players hail from the Syracuse, New York area, where Simmonds relocated some 20 years ago.

They put on a high-energy show that’s more rock than blues, alternating between old favorites (mostly title tracks from early albums like Street Corner Talking) and new material being prepared for a CD release early next year. There was an occasional taste of rockabilly, like Tell Mama, and a lot of audience interaction, with the sparse crowd being invited to sing along and bark like dogs, and Simmonds sharing bits of the band’s history.

At one point, as he was using an electronic tuner to change from “1960s tuning” to “2010 tuning,” Simmonds opined that the music sounded better in the pre-electronic era, “when we were playing slightly out of tune.” There were moments when he seemed to be carrying on that tradition last night, but for the most part Simmonds is an accomplished and proficient blues-rock player. While not in the major leagues of guitar heroes, he has an impressive repertoire of licks and styles, and can play some commanding white-boy electric blues. Generally, though, he prefers rock riffs (think screaming, repeated high notes) and posturing – by the end of the show, he was playing on his knees.

The new song that Simmonds is hoping will hit the charts with a bullet, Voodoo Moon, wasn’t as catchy as some of the older material, like Hellbound Train. What worked best, interestingly, were covers of standards like Little Red Rooster and Wang Dang Doodle. The band can crank it up, especially on straight-up rock numbers like She’s Got the Heat, but was most impressive when they laid back a bit and let Simmonds step up with some sweet, B.B. King-style blues. They should do more of that.

But that’s not what jacks the crowds, and last night’s small turnout lacked nothing in enthusiasm. During Wang Dang Doodle, one pumped-up local, who looked like an unshaven escapee from a prison cell, danced to the front of stage waving a purple bra above his head (don’t ask). John Mayall didn’t generate that kind of enthusiasm earlier this year at Lucerna, and truth to tell, Simmonds and his band put on a better show.

A good sampling of what Savoy Brown did in Prague last night is available on YouTube, from a date they played in Hamburg earlier this month ( is a good starting point). Check it out. The band will, as Joe Whiting likes to say, “Thank y’all.”

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Obecní dům
October 20

Dramaturgists labor to construct concert programs that fit neatly together, but sometimes counterintuitive programming can be the most interesting. In February, the Prague Symphony Orchestra did a night that seemed beyond black-and-white: Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for wind quartet and chamber orchestra (K 297b) in the first half, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 (“Leningrad”) in the second. It was a revelation, a lesson in how two seemingly disparate works can complement and illuminate each other – and an evening of great music.

Rota, a romantic at heart.
On a slightly lesser scale, the Czech National Symphony Orchestra offered a similarly contrasting program last night: Italian romantic music in the first half, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the second. The weight was perhaps too disproportionate, especially with conductor Marcello Rota impressively fluent in the Italian repertoire, but less well-versed in 20th-century fare. Still, the pairing was refreshing, and the audience loved it.

The program opened with a Clarinet Concerto in B flat major by Saverio Mercadante, an acolyte and contemporary of Rossini. Though he’s considered a minor composer now, Mercadante churned out a remarkable amount of popular music in his day, including more than 50 operas. Some of his chamber works have been revived, and the clarinet concerto was a nice choice, a playful, quick-witted piece that gave soloist Giampiero Sobrino a chance to show off his dexterity. The piece gets faster and increasingly complicated as it develops, until by the end the composer seems to be daring the soloist: “Let’s see you play this.” Sobrino met the challenge nicely.

Since Mercadante laid some of the groundwork for Verdi, a piece by the latter was a logical follow-up, though the overture to Verdi’s Macbeth was perhaps not the best choice. The portentous, dramatic tone of the music and big blasts of brass came as a shock after the light-hearted fun of the clarinet runs. And because the overture is so brief, it seemed more like a wake-up call for anyone who had nodded off during Mercadante.

Great dexterity from soloist Sobrino.
The first half concluded with selections from the Rossini operas Moses in Egypt and The Lady of the Lake, atypical choices that once again gave Sobrino a chance to demonstrate his considerable skills. Rota kept the orchestra muted to showcase the soloist, who had more lead work this time, and proved adept not only with developing lines, but a final flourish that could have been lifted from a 1940s swing band. Sobrino also showed nice range on his encore, a waltz from Rigoletto.

Is it possible to hear The Rite of Spring too many times? Not for this reviewer, who finds something new to discover every time out. Last night it was the textures in the second half, which still sound as innovative and fresh as shoots in the titular season. Rota was best with those and the dramatic, crashing chords; otherwise, he didn’t bring much imagination to the piece, nor great definition.

Overall, the program was an accurate reflection of the orchestra’s greatest strength, its versatility. While not in the category of, say, the Czech Philharmonic, the CNSO stays busy on every front – performing, touring, recording CDs and film scores, and backing big-name singers like Andrea Bocelli. Founder, director and trumpet player Jan Hasenöhrl has also proven to be a marketing genius with his summer Prague Proms series, which packs Obecní dům at a time of year when it was once thought impossible.

Besides, you have to love any orchestra that includes this one-liner on the opening page of its program: “Thank you for withholding applause between movements.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Obecní dům
October 19

The Mahler anniversary year has brought many gifts, in particular the symphonies, which don’t get performed nearly often enough, mostly for logistical reasons (length, number of instruments). The Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK) took on No. 2 last night, with an all-star cast that included conductor Tomáš Netopil, singers Simona Houda-Šaturová and Jana Sýkorová and the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno. The result was, like the symphony itself, exhilarating.

Another fine outing for Netopil.
There are several stories describing the reaction of conductor Hans von Bülow upon hearing Mahler play a sketch of the first movement in 1891. The FOK program book has the best: “Bülow is alleged to have covered his ears with his hands and cried out, ʽIf this is still music, then I no longer understand it at all.” Supportive or not, von Bülow inadvertently supplied the inspiration for the fifth and final movement, by dying three years later. At his funeral ceremony in Hamburg, a chorus performed poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection), which Mahler said “struck me like a bolt of lightning.” He added some verses of his own, and turned it into an earth-shaking finale.

The symphony deals with the big issues – life, death, and the afterlife – which it announces with a huge burst of percussion about two minutes in, and never lets up. The first movement is a symphony in itself, a series of raging storms that rise, explode, quell, then roar across the stage again. The hardest thing about this is keeping it all clear and balanced, which is Netopil’s forte. The sound was crisp and transparent from the opening notes, and he took the orchestra from maximum volume to soft whispers with finesse, drawing great sonic booms from the drums and gossamer textures from the strings with equal skill.

The second movement, a much softer and cheerier Ländler, was rendered so sweetly and gracefully that the music had Houda-Šaturová swaying in her seat. The third and fourth movements, spirited and energetic without breaking the tempo, were notable particularly for the sound of the horns: round, burnished and rich in contrasting colors. On a night when many of the instrumentalists sounded particularly good, the horns stood out – even with some of them offstage, a “spatial sound” dimension the composer dictated in the score.

The final movement, a complex work that picks up many of the earlier motifs and themes, was brilliantly layered, especially the quiet introduction of the chorus. As always, the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno brought colors and layers of their own, finding great depth and variety even in the all-male sections. The soloists spend most of the night listening to the music in this symphony, coming in only for brief parts in the fourth and fifth movements. Houda-Šaturová and Sýkorová managed to make themselves heard above the din of the orchestra, and sang with feeling, which is about the best one can ask from these small parts.

In some ways, it’s a disservice to discuss such a monumental work in so few words – much more could be said. It would be better to simply hear this symphony, which the same ensemble will perform again on Thursday night. The conducting was smart and sharp, the sound was wonderfully transparent, and hearing a careful, intelligent interpretation of Mahler’s music in Prague, where it carries special reverence and resonance, was a joy.

And a great warm-up for later this week, when Eliahu Inbal will lead the Czech Philharmonic in Mahler’s groundbreaking Symphony No. 9.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Lucerna Music Bar
October 18

Making a golden debut, from left, Crump, Gilmore and Iyer.

When the band is covering Bud Powell, Michael Jackson and Andrew Hill with equal fluency between sophisticated original numbers, you know you’re watching something special. Not to mention a Steinway onstage at down-and-dirty Lucerna, surely a first.

The Vijay Iyer Trio lived up to their billing and more in their Prague debut, a nearly three-hour performance of old and new material, including selections from Iyer’s new release Solo. These boys – Iyer on piano, Marcus Gilmore on drums and Stephan Crump on stand-up bass – know their jazz and their jazz history, and can flat-out play. Their combined sound is a shifting landscape of inventive rhythm, phrases and exploration, and their solos sing.

Iyer came out like a student on vacation, in a sweater vest and high-top tennies, casual in his manner and very chatty with the audience. He started most of the songs with quiet piano solos, Gilmore and Crump joining in gradually with lead lines of their own. They rarely played conventional rhythm backing; Gilmore, a smart and talented drummer, seemed to never dash off the same riff twice in a row, and Crump, a composer who is like a one-man orchestra on the bass, did everything but play rhythm.

What’s amazing is how well this all jells. Though each member of the trio is working his own ideas in the time signature, which often changes during the course of a song, their combined sound is seamless, like a set of interlocking puzzle pieces. The overall effect is music that seems to hover on the edge between structure and improvisation, never quite floating away, but never settling into a predictable pattern, either.

This gives Iyer an incredible amount of freedom, which he takes full advantage of. His melodic flights soar so far and high that if you walked into the room in the middle of songs like Michael Jackson’s Human Nature and Stevie Wonder’s Big Brother, you would never recognize them. And there’s no pinpointing Iyer’s approach, which can veer from free jazz one minute to stride piano the next. He’ll run an idea up and down the keyboard for a couple minutes, pause over a single note or phrase to consider his next move, or let the other players get in a few licks, then run off in an entirely different direction.

A lot of the group’s freshness comes from their playing style, which is replete with thoughtful breaks and sudden attacks. Their music is as much about what notes aren’t being played as those that are. It’s like a mosaic or fractal pattern, with many small, shifting accents, pauses and melodic lines forming a cohesive and satisfying whole. Very sophisto fare, and all the more remarkable for remaining so accessible.

There’s no pretense, either, despite the group’s star status in the States. Iyer got up from the encore shaking his hands, which got more than a good night’s workout. And after the lights came up, Gilmore and Crump returned to the stage to pack up their own equipment. Amazingly, only one fan came up with a CD for them to sign.

Jazz bands rarely attract big audiences, but the way this trio plays and presents themselves, they’ll have a devoted following before long here, too.

Monday, October 18, 2010


St. Annes Church
October 16

The multitalented Ms. Fischer.
There are certainly more accomplished violin soloists than Julia Fischer, but it’s hard to think of one who is more enjoyable to see perform live. She combines technical skill and expression with a straightforward yet dynamic approach that puts her own distinctive stamp on the music while respecting, and often enhancing, its beauty and strength. The effect can be mesmerizing.

Fischer is all business on stage. For her Strings of Autumn appearance at St. Anne’s Church on Saturday night, she wore a simple black top and subdued print skirt, hair tied back in a no-nonsense ponytail. She launched into the program with no introduction; only an occasional nod to her accompanist or smile during the applause broke her demeanor of focused concentration.

Fischer opened with Ysaye’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor for solo violin, in keeping with her appreciation for works typically considered challenging practice pieces (last month she released a recording of Paganini’s Caprices). Technically it was brilliant, especially the bowing. Fischer has a delicate but deliberate style that was showcased nicely by this work, as she seemed to glide from cool to heated passages, sharp notes to sweet, without effort. The tempo was brisk, but the fine work was all clean and clear.

Pianist Milana Chernyavska joined her for the second piece, Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major, in which both instruments have a strong voice. Fischer could easily play programs where the violin dominates, and no one would complain. It’s a mark of her confidence and professionalism that she chooses works that call for balance and interplay, and in that sense she and Chernyavska are a good fit. Both performers struck a warm, lyrical tone that jelled as the piece developed, playing in a fluid, single voice by the third movement. The finale was rousing yet disciplined, a sterling example of how to build energy and momentum without sacrificing control.

Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 10 in G major is another work that gives equal weight to both instruments, and Fischer and Chernyavska gave it their own burnish, lending the music a silky feel. They were totally in synch, working the changing tempo seemingly by telepathy, playing sublime soft passages that segued almost imperceptibly into sharp, racing duets. It was perhaps not the Beethoven that some purists would approve, but it was a captivating and self-assured interpretation.

The capacity crowd called the duo out for two encores. The first, a Tchaikovsky selection, gave Fischer a chance to show off her virtuoso skills, which are dazzling. The second, a Ysaye movement, was perhaps the least satisfying piece of the evening, a bit out of balance, but again, technically impressive.

What may be most striking about Fischer is the maturity and restraint she shows, uncommon in a person so young (27). At least, that’s how it appears. Inasmuch as Fischer has been playing and studying music since the age of three, and won her first international violin competition at the age of 11, she would no doubt dispute the “young” characterization. Still, it’s remarkable to see anyone play with the combination of intelligence, poise and technical mastery that Fischer brings to the stage, much less someone who is still shy of 30.

All that, and she’s an accomplished concert pianist, too.


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.”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


AMU Gallery
October 11

No birthday cake for this 20th anniversary concert, and not much of a crowd, either. But for modern music aficionados, it was a stimulating and enriching evening of work by seven contemporary Czech composers, most of whom were in attendance.

Atelier 90 is an association that was formed in February 1990 by a small group of Czech composers who had suffered under the yoke of communist censorship. In an essay in the anniversary program book, founder Marek Kopelent writes, “We wanted to follow progressive currents in the wider musical world, and totally distance ourselves from communism.” Now 78, Kopelent is a revered figure in his field, both at home and abroad, who remains vital and active.

His piece in Monday night’s program, Ballada pro klavir (Ballad for piano), is a somber solo work that offers an aural rendering of invasion and oppression. Kopelent cites the period of normalization as the specific reference, but the scope of the music is much broader, with sharp bursts of atonal chords followed by long, low echoes that grow in intensity and complexity. In some ways, it’s a frightening piece; at one point, it sounds like an invading army is marching through the streets in iron boots, especially with Jana Potočková at the keyboard.

The opening work by Lukáš Matoušek, a chamber piece for mezzo-soprano, clarinet, viola and piano, also had some moments of dread and anxiety – not surprising, since the text was drawn from Biblical passages in the Apocalypse and Lamentations of Jeremiah. Vocalist Oldřiška Musilová did a nice job with some high, compelling lines, supported by interlocking instrumental solos, duets and trios, with the composer himself on clarinet.

Two brighter pieces lightened the first half. Vlatislav Matoušek’s Vox Clamantis is a lovely work for two female voices and percussion. He also draws on Biblical texts, though not nearly as dark (Isaiah, the four evangelists), and the singers – Matoušek’s daughter Klára and Kristýna Valoušková, probably the best modern music singer in the city – were angelic. They added some nice accents with a metal bowl, stones and other quirky percussion. Miloš Haase’s Hermés for solo flute was positively cheerful, with lilting melodies and whistles like a miniature steam train. Flutist Lenka Kozderková showed impressive technique: “Perfect lips!” another musician marveled during intermission.

A brisk second half opened with Bohuslav Řehoř’s Duetto, a vocal piece for mezzo and baritone, with a bell. A chantlike work with shifting harmonies and medieval echoes, it had a nice luster as performed by Markéta Dvořáková and Petr Matuszek. Pavel Kopecký’s Reminiscence, a piece for solo clarinet and electronics, was mostly an exercise in sonics, with some ear-piercing high notes and nice echo effects from the clarinet, supported by a computer soundtrack that sounded like an electronic fun house.

And Martin Marek’s Chvíle (While) made a satisfying finale. A duo for bass clarinet and marimba, it had some inventive turns and jazz flavors, with Kamil Doležal giving the clunky bass clarinet a good workout, and Markéta Mazourová adding glistening fills and flourishes on the marimba.

In all, an impressive cross-section of genres and styles, and a very tasty sampling of current Czech work. Some of the pieces were overly long, and it’s worth keeping in mind that these composers are only a small, AMU-centered slice of the full spectrum. But it was good to see Atelier 90 so fresh and vibrant after 20 years. Congratulations and happy anniversary to Marek Kopelent & Company; here’s to another 20.