Tuesday, December 27, 2011


A memorable debut for jazz at the National Theater.

Mary Stallings hit all the right notes in her Dec. 23 Prague debut at the National Theater. The American jazz virtuoso vocalist sang pitch-perfect classics from Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and others, including in her program Christmas favorites, tributes to the rich Czech musical heritage and to the great Czech leader Václav Havel.

The evening was memorable both for Stallings’ sublime voice and the historical significance of the event. Accompanied by her American pianist David Udolf and local musicians Vincez Kummer (on bass) and Marian Ševčík (on drums), Stallings infused blues, soul and gospel into her renditions of jazz standards and holiday favorites like “I’ll be Home for Christmas” and “White Christmas.” On a bittersweet day, she struck the right notes of love, appreciation, respect, celebration and solidarity.

The first-ever jazz show at the National Theater was billed as a Christmas Concert, and it was that and much more. The night was also a commemoration and celebration of the life of Václav Havel on the day of his funeral at nearby Prague Castle. As Bill and Hillary Clinton paid their respects to President Havel during the day, accompanied by current U.S. Ambassador Norman Eisen, Stallings did the same at night. Following a moment of silence, she told the near-capacity audience that the concert would commemorate President Havel, the great world citizen and statesman who fought for human freedom and dignity.

Wearing a floor-length emerald green dress and looking not at all her 72 years of age, the statuesque Stallings warmed the crowd with “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” followed by Cole Porter’s “A Foggy Day (in London Town).” She then introduced herself, calling the concert a “heartfelt evening to commemorate the memory of Václav Havel and the legacy he left with us of freedom, which we all stand for.” By the time she finished her next song, a soulful version of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” that she dedicated to Havel, there was not a dry eye in the house.

That heart-melting tribute was followed by upbeat love songs and swing standards, reminding us that life is for the living. Called back onto the stage by two standing ovations, Stallings concluded with an encore of Ellington’s “Love You Madly.” The diversity of the musical program was testament to the breadth and universality of jazz, which the artist calls the music of brotherhood.

The remainder of the program was varied and thoughtful, with songs by Ellington, Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Billie Holiday, George and Ira Gershwin, Billy Strayhorn, Bing Crosby and more. When Gershwin’s “Summertime” lyrics “You’re gonna spread your wings and take to the sky” were sung, it was hard not to think of Havel. There was a tenderness and sophistication to the program attributable to the quality of the occasion, the performer and Stalling’s feeling, shared with this writer in an interview following the afternoon sound check, that Europeans have a unique appreciation for jazz.

Commenting on what she learned from performing with jazz legends like Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Earl Hines, Stallings said that only now does she realize what a privilege and gift it was to be schooled by such great musical innovators. She said that “singing is nothing but a conversation through song,” adding that she hopes “my music will inspire others to feel.”

Stallings paid tribute to Prague’s and jazz’s rich musical heritage, praising the beauty of the Golden City. Her only off-note was her understandable difficulty in pronouncing the names of her bassist and drummer. Otherwise, she proved to be a living legacy to jazz, which she calls “America’s gift to the world.”

On this special and poignant evening, the singer delivered a wonderful gift, making those present feel so much through her artistry. We can only hope that a new holiday tradition has begun in Prague: Jazz at the National Theater with greats like Mary Stallings.

Thanks to guest reviewer Bill Cohn for this report.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Klára Jelínková gets in the spirit of The Nutcracker.

The Christmas holidays are not the best time of year to hear serious music in Prague. But they are a wonderful time to bask in the sounds of the season, especially for families. The city’s opera houses, orchestras and chamber ensembles offer a dazzling variety of holiday concerts, many programmed with children in mind. Here’s a guide to the best, starting with relatively serious fare for adults.

The Czech Philharmonic is offering two special holiday concerts with first-rate soloists. Local favorite Petr Altrichter will be at the podium for the Christmas concerts (Dec. 21 & 22), which open with Australian pianist Piers Lane soloing on Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto, make a nod to the Bohuslav Martinů Days festival with the composer’s 1950 Intermezzo and conclude with a Nutcracker suite. On New Year’s Eve afternoon, Latvian violinist Baiba Skride joins the orchestra for a pair of de Sarasate pieces, complementing a light program of Dvořák and Johann Strauss that will send everyone out for the evening humming the Blue Danube Waltz.

The Prague Philharmonia is moving to Žofín for its Christmas concert, a program of easy-on-the-ears opera arias and Christmas carols featuring two talented local singers, soprano Tereza Mátlová and tenor Aleš Briscein (Dec. 21). After warming up with some ambitious Czech appetizers, the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra will serve up a main course of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Cantata No. 1 for the First Holiday of Christmas, with conductor Marko Ivanović leading a strong quartet of local vocalists and the Prague Philharmonic Choir (Dec. 19). And the Czech National Symphony Orchestra has assembled a very good vocal quartet from the National Theater and State Opera rosters along with a mixed choir for a program of Pachelbel, J.S. Bach and J.J. Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass (Dec. 20).

The Prague Symphony Orchestra is taking Christmas off, giving the holiday over to two performances of traditional Czech holiday music at Sts. Simon and Jude: A chamber group from the orchestra and the Kühn Mixed Choir will stage Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass, and later in the day Jaroslav Krček’s impeccable Musica Bohemica ensemble will offer costumed versions of seasonal favorites (Dec. 25). The orchestra returns on New Year’s Day with an energizing program of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, conducted by Charles Olivieri-Munroe.

The Prague Symphony Orchestra is also sponsoring the best recital of the holiday season. Star mezzo Dagmar Pecková is the orchestra’s artist-in-residence this year, and she will be singing a program of Haydn and Purcell at Sts. Simon and Jude, accompanied by Vojtěch Spurnýʼs fine chamber group, Ensemble 18+ (Dec. 20).

Early music fans will find some very good gifts under the tree this year. Medieval sacred music specialists Schola Gregoriana Pragensis are singing an Advent program in an ideal setting, the 12th-century Basilica of St. George at Prague Castle (Dec. 21). Collegium Marianum has put together a program of 17th- and 18th-century Czech Christmas music featuring two outstanding local singers, Hana Blažíková and Barbora Sojková, which the ensemble will perform at its Baroque Library Hall in Old Town (Dec. 28 & 29). And Pragueʼs best Baroque ensemble, Collegium 1704, is wrapping up the year in spectacular fashion with a double bill of J.S. Bachʼs Magnificat and Zelenkaʼs Te Deum at Sts. Simon and Jude Church (Dec. 31).

The State Opera also offers an enjoyable way to spend New Year’s Eve with its traditional production of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus (Dec. 31).

For a family outing, it’s hard to top the National Theater’s The Nutcracker – A Christmas Carol, a lively and colorful amalgam of Tchaikovskyʼs timeless ballet and the Dickens Christmas classic. With the production running through Jan. 7 this year, there are plenty of opportunities to see it, including two performances on Christmas day.

The National Theater is also offering multiple performances of Jakub Jan Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass, arguably the most popular piece of music in the Czech lands during the holiday season. Whether this cultural icon translates beyond that is a matter of taste, but the performances by the Children’s Opera Prague at the Estates Theater will have some charm for every age group (Dec. 21 & 22).

The kids should also enjoy the Christmas day concert at the State Opera, a production of Czech holiday songs and traditional Christmas carols by a brass quintet and the Kühn Childrenʼs Choir.

And looking ahead, the Talich Chamber Orchestra is offering a great return to real music in the new year, backing two very good singers, Chinese soprano Lily Zhang and American baritone Richard Zeller, in a program of opera arias at Sts. Simon and Jude Church (Jan. 2).

Until then, give yourself over to the season and enjoy its musical gifts.

Mr. Culture will be taking a holiday break in the States, so this will be the last concert posting of 2011. The calendar will be kept fresh every week, so you can check for concert listings as usual. Thanks for your support and see you back here in the new year.

Photo: P. Hejný

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


December 6

The program for last night’s Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra concert promised Maxim Shostakovich at the podium, conducting three of his father’s works. Unfortunately, illness prevented Maxim from making the trip to Prague. But Ukrainian conductor Yuri Yanko graciously agreed to take his place, with satisfying results.

Yanko: A salutary stand-in.
Maxim has been a regular visitor to Prague over the past 20 years, recording a complete set of his father’s 15 symphonies with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. “This orchestra understands Shostakovich very well, and what he’s saying in his music,” he told this writer in a 2005 interview. “It’s always a happy moment for me to be conducting in Prague.” Maxim cut a commanding figure at the podium, unleashing fiery versions of the symphonies that sounded like thunderheads rolling into Smetana Hall at Obecní dům.

Yanko showed there’s another way to approach Shostakovich, particularly with last night’s program. The first half featured two uncharacteristically light works, the introduction to the ballet The Golden Age and his Piano Concerto No. 2. They served as a bright counterpoint to the second half of the program, the hour-long and decidedly less cheerful Symphony No. 8.

The dissonance between the horns and woodwinds early in the Golden Age introduction quickly identifies it as a Shostakovich piece, though in every other respect it’s a festive and colorful work, with snatches of melodies that promise some lively dancing. Shostakovich wrote it after a visit to Weimar Germany, and the score reflects the vibrant jazz and cabaret music of the period. Yanko set a brisk tempo and kept the woodwinds lucent and sharp above the droning strings, opening the evening like a bottle of champagne.

A Romantic approach.
The conductor’s version of the Piano Concerto No. 2 was the smoothest Shostakovich this critic has ever heard, without a single harsh note or rough edge. The liquid quality of the sound owed a lot to soloist Hyejin Kim, a young Korean who studied in Berlin and has made an impressive showing in international competitions. Versed in a repertoire that leans more toward Romantics like Beethoven and Schumann, she has a light, fluid touch that worked best in the andante, with its slower pace and expressive themes. Yanko toned down the orchestra to let Kim shine, so much so that at times she seemed to be leading the piece. But her performance garnered generous applause, both from the audience and orchestra musicians.

The Symphony No. 8 was more typical of Shostakovich, with a big percussion section put to full use and long passages of tortured strings that have been interpreted as the artist being crushed by the oppressive Soviet system. Yanko showed that he could build movements to the intensity that characterizes most interpretations of Shostakovich, developing powerful depth and dynamics. Otherwise he took a deliberate approach, setting a relatively calm, steady tempo and emphasizing the solo passages, layering them into the larger orchestral sound with fine precision. Especially notable was the clarity and transparency he got from such a large ensemble. And it’s hard to recall any Shostakovich work drawing to such a subdued, whispered finish.

Yanko shares one characteristic with Maxim Shostakovich: As he came out to sustained applause for his final bow of the evening, Yanko held up the score, a gesture that Maxim often makes after a performance of his father’s music. It’s a generous acknowledgment of the composer’s work and significance – and a reminder that when you’re playing Shostakovich, no matter who is at the podium, the real star of the show is Shostakovich.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


La Fabrika
November 4, 11 & 16

All eyes are on electronic impresario Miguel Azguime.

Organizers are usually happy to see capacity crowds at their concerts. So it was surprising to talk to Petr Bakla, the chief dramaturgist of this year’s Contempuls festival, after the final performance and hear him confess, “I have mixed feelings about this.”

This” was the largest audience the festival has ever drawn, chiefly on the strength of star cellist Jiří Bárta, who also packs classical halls like the Rudolfinum. It’s axiomatic in modern music circles that if something is popular, it must not be good – difficult music is for aficionados, who tend to show up in small numbers. Anything else is considered a sellout.

But Bárta proved as adept with contemporary works as he is with the classical canon, staging a fine homage to one of his teachers, Czech composer Marek Kopelent. And Bakla should feel good about his programming, which drew consistently strong crowds on all three nights of the festival. It set the bar high in the first concert, delivered a theatrical jolt in the second, and finished with a rousing electric finale.

American pianist and composer Eric Wubbels opened the festival with nine selections from Voices and Piano. The piece is an ongoing work by composer Peter Ablinger, who uses spectral analysis to create piano accompaniment for vocal excerpts of famous people (Jean-Paul Sartre, Hanna Schygulla and Cecil Taylor, among others in this performance), unearthing nuances and cadences that would ordinarily go unnoticed. As played by Wubbels, one plus one equaled more than two; pinpoint piano work created a third entity, a revealing synthesis of music and ideas.

A workout for Oka and her colleagues.
Opening night also featured Germany’s ensemble recherche, which played a new work (commissioned for the festival) by Czech composer Pavel Zemek, and Helmut Lachenmann’s Allegro sostenuto. Zemek’s piece worked a single phrase long and hard, with unsatisfying results. By contrast, the Lachenmann piece, which is 23 years old, still sounds revolutionary in its rearrangement of conventional musical ideas. It’s also extremely demanding on the players, who are required to produce a range of honks, squeals, taps and scratches, and jump up for occasional gymnastics. Pianist Jean-Pierre Collot, cellist Åsa Åkerberg and clarinetist Shizuyo Oka were superb, weaving abstract lines and crashing chords into a cohesive, compelling work that would fall apart in lesser hands. It was an outrageously good performance that had the audience whooping with approval afterward.

The second night of the festival was devoted entirely to Itinérario do Sal/Cesta soli, a vocal and visual effects piece by Portugese actor, composer and poet Miguel Azguime. Billed as an electronic chamber opera, the one-man show features Azguime serving up a steady stream of inventive nonsense babble supplemented by electronic images and sound effects. At first the piece is riveting, with Azguime’s face appearing in bizarre stylizations on the screens behind him as he seems to be spouting the pain, confusion and frustration of the modern world – a noisy and aggressive place filled with unhealthy, paranoid people. But as the effects start to repeat, their impact fades, and the wordplay projections in the final scenes seem anticlimactic.

Still, Azguime put on an inspired performance, as if the distraught character in Edvard Munch’s The Scream had come to life. And for this critic, one of the enduring images of the festival will be Azguime with his head in a bucket, a surreal figure babbling into a tiny camera that projected a giant solarized image of his earnest, frantic face.

Bárta opened the final night of the festival with five pieces by Kopelent and some of his more illustrious alumni, a group that includes Martin Smolka. Some were solo works, others for a chamber group; all were disarmingly difficult. It was obvious that Bárta had put a lot of work into preparing the pieces – his playing was for the most part at a virtuoso level. Even the effects, which included a solid-body electric cello that sounded more like an electric guitar on Gavin Bryars’ After the Requiem, came off with seriousness and clarity. Bárta may be an established star, but he’s certainly willing to extend his range and take some risks.

The French string quartet Quatuor Diotima plugged in their instruments for the finale: Miroslav Srnka’s Engrams and Steve Reich’s Different Trains. Srnka, arguably the Czech Republic’s best-known contemporary composer, writes incredibly complex pieces, and the quartet showed fine control and mastery of the material. There’s also some humor in Engrams, which came through nicely in their performance. Reich’s piece is literally a ride on the fast track, requiring the musicians to play along with brisk taped musical segments built on vocal snippets like “From Chicago to New York.” It is not the most challenging piece in the repertoire, but it is a great deal of fun to hear. And it was impressive to see the quartet make a seamless transition from a complicated Czech work for strings to American electronica, playing both with skillful aplomb.

Would Contempuls have been more successful if the audiences had stayed away in droves? By some standards. But the combination of outstanding programming and performances, and the crowds the festival drew this year, suggest that Bakla and his colleagues are doing something right. Most importantly, they are giving Prague a modern music festival in tune with contemporary currents, bringing fresh sounds and ideas to a city that could use a lot more of them.

More photos of this years festival are posted at: http://www.contempuls.cz/main.php?jazyk=EN

Photos by Karel Šuster

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Jazz Time
November 19

One of the classiest performers in Prague returns to the club circuit this weekend. After a three-year absence, Philip Nikwé is back with a fresh take on his unique blend of African rhythms and European pop, flavored with tastes of American funk and soul.

A polished pianist and singer who combines nightclub cool with street panache, Nikwé was for several years the one-man house band at the Marriott, serving up sophisticated standards and elegant original works to match the setting. He was forced to put aside performing by the birth of his son, Nell, and a nagging case of tendinitis. With child-reading duties and medical issues now under control, heʼs free to pick up where he left off – with some new flourishes.

Iʼll be playing in a trio for the first time,” he says. “We will be doing acoustic versions of my songs, which in the past have been much more electronic. And the arrangements will be jazz-oriented, very open to improvisation.”

Nikwé got started in the music business early. His father owned a nightclub in Cotonou, Benin, where Philip hung out as a boy, learning to play the piano and absorbing contemporary West African sounds. After studies in Paris and several years working the clubs in London, he moved to Prague, where he met his wife, the noted fashion designer Alice Abraham. By then, he had recorded his first album, Movinʼ Pata, which set the template for his style: engaging melodies, catchy rhythms and a sultry, romantic sound alternating with techno beats on the dance tracks. That reached full fruition on The Taste of Your Love, a 2002 release filled with great original songs like “Crumbs of Love,” “A Dreamy Night” and “Prisoner.”

Itʼs tempting to classify what Nikwé does as “world music,” but thatʼs not quite correct, at least not in the usual sense of the term, which he feels has demeaning connotations for African performers. “Why are African artists expected to sound exotic, and dance half-naked with a banana belt around their hip?” he says. That may be an overstatement, but it highlights Nikwéʼs approach to music, which has African roots but draws on a smart mix of modern Western sounds with sharp production values.

With two local players behind him – bassist Vladimir Kliment and drummer Radek Němejc – Nikwé, who constantly does remixes of his music, is recasting it this time in a standard jazz format. “Itʼs a quick but quality way to present it, with a formatted introduction and finish, and 5-10 minutes of improv in the middle, depending on the audience and atmosphere,” he says. That should give listeners an introduction to his work and a sense of how many different directions it can go.

Itʼs also a warm-up for touring. “This is a laboratory where we can try some things before going on the road next year,” he says. “Starting in the spring, weʼll be in Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam.”

And hopefully, playing more dates in Prague. Nikwé brings a refreshing intelligence and urbanity to the local music scene, along with a distinctive body of work. It will be good to have him back.

To hear some cuts by Philip Nikwé: http://soundcloud.com/search?q[fulltext]=philip+nikwe

Thursday, November 10, 2011


St. Lawrence Church
November 12

An original voice from the Mideast.

A funny thing happened to Israeli pianist Anat Fort on the way to releasing her second album, A Long Story. She recorded it in 2004 with bass player Ed Schuller, clarinetist Perry Robinson and drummer Paul Motian, a seminal figure in modern jazz. Motian liked the music so much that he recommended it to Manfred Eicher, founder of the prestigious ECM label. Eicher was impressed enough to sequence and mix the final product himself, reportedly the first time he produced an album without actually being at the recording session.

A Long Story was finally released in 2007 – thus the title – adding to the growing accolades for Fort, who started studying classical piano at the age of 6 and turned to jazz in her late teens. Her first album, Peel (1999), which featured all original compositions played solo and with various combinations of sideman, drew critical praise for its strong musical vocabulary and original voice. Both A Long Story and And If (2010) , also released on ECM, continued the arc of growing acclaim for Fortʼs strengths as a composer and skillful blend of the traditional and original in her playing style.

All of which makes her a great headliner for the opening night of the International Jazz Piano Festival, a set of three concerts at cozy St. Lawrence Church in Malá Strana, each featuring three solo pianists from different countries. Also on the bill this Saturday are Luxembourgʼs Michel Reis and Switzerlandʼs Christoph Stiefel. Fort graciously agreed to answer some questions in a phone conversation last week from her home in Israel.

When did you decide that you wanted to devote yourself to jazz?

Actually, I never was really serious about classical music. I just played because I had fun doing it, and I would improvise on the side. Playing the piano was never something that I thought I would do professionally until I discovered jazz, which was sort of at the end of high school, the beginning of my army service. And when I did, it soon became very clear that I needed to do this.

Did you study jazz in Israel before going to the U.S?

For three or four years. Then what happened was, I was at a summer session at the Eastman School of Music in New York, where I heard about William Paterson [University in New Jersey]. So I called the school and asked for an audition – I guess thatʼs my Israel chutzpah. And they said no, this is not audition time. But I convinced them, and went there the next day, and auditioned and got accepted.

Who are your jazz heroes?

All of them – and itʼs not just pianists. John Coltrane is just as big an influence on me as Keith Jarrett or Duke Ellington or Hampton Hawes; itʼs a matter of musicianship. But of course there are certain times when I listen to a lot of jazz piano, and so itʼs the people that I mentioned, and also Paul Bley, and Marilyn Crispell, and all the traditional ones too – Art Tatum and later on Cedar Walton and Red Garland and Wynton Kelly – you name it.

Critics cite a lot of other influences in your work, like Mideastern music.

I think whatever people want to hear, or can hear, they will hear. If I wanted them to hear something specific, I would probably write lyrics – but I donʼt, and thereʼs a point to that.

Thereʼs one tune that appears in three different instrumentations on A Long Story called “Just Now.” I remember clearly, when I was writing that tune, I was on the fjords in Norway. I had never been there, but I just had that feeling. It was something very Nordic that I was hearing, and it just kind of came out. When I was with Manfred [Eicher] in the studio when he was mixing the album, he looked at me when he heard that tune and said, “Tel Aviv, huh?” Well, yeah, itʼs Tel Aviv, because Iʼm from Tel Aviv. But I was thinking about the fjords in Norway. So Iʼm a lot of things, and eventually they will all come out.

What are you working on now?

An orchestral piece. Iʼm doing my doctorate in musical composition at a university in Israel, and thatʼs part of what I have to do – which is a really cool excuse to write a piece for piano and orchestra. Hopefully I will have a chance to perform it. There are already discussions about that, which would be very exciting and interesting for me. I wrote one orchestra piece that was never performed, so itʼs exciting to know that this could actually see the light of the stage some day.

So you do both jazz and classical composition?

Yeah, though I donʼt really like to categorize too much – itʼs just music, you know? Most of the work I do is for smaller ensembles, because I have a working trio, and itʼs easiest for me to write for that band. But Iʼll use any excuse to write for bigger groups, even if I just add a couple people, or a whole orchestra.

Have you been doing more solo outings lately?

Yes, which is wonderful for me, because I donʼt like to do just one thing. The fact that Iʼve had a working trio for about 12 years now doesnʼt mean thatʼs all I want to do; I always need a mix of projects. So to do a little solo work, a little trio work, some collaborations with other people, some writing, some teaching – thatʼs pretty healthy for me, and I try to keep that balance.

Iʼm also excited about coming to Prague. Iʼve never been there, except passing through the airport, and I know itʼs a great city for music. So Iʼm looking forward to this performance.

For more on Anat Fort: http://www.anatfort.com/

For a complete festival schedule: http://www.jmw.cz/

Thursday, November 3, 2011


November 4

Playing along to Sartre, Schygulla and Lucier.

American pianist and composer Eric Wubbels open this year’s Contempuls festival with a performance of Peter Ablinger’s Voices and Piano. Perhaps best-known as a member of the Wet Ink Ensemble, a New York collective devoted to creating and promoting contemporary music, Wubbels has performed extensively in the United States and Europe, and his pieces have been played at festivals around the world. Before leaving for Prague, Wubbels graciously agreed to answer a few questions via e-mail.

Of all the different types of music you could have chosen to pursue as a career, what prompted you to go into contemporary music?

Even when I was very young and playing the classical repertoire, I was always most attracted to music and sounds that were new and unfamiliar to me. I think I liked, for example, Scriabin and Messiaen before I liked Mozart and Haydn. Beyond that, as a composer, you have no choice but to be “contemporary.” And making a life in the international contemporary music scene has been extremely exciting and rewarding for me.

At Contempuls, you’ll be performing Peter Ablinger’s Voices and Piano, a cycle of short pieces he wrote as accompaniment for recorded statements by notable figures ranging from Jacques Brel to Orson Welles. How many of them will you be playing?

There is no standard set; the performer always selects a group of “voices” from the catalog. At this point, there are almost 40 pieces in the cycle, so it’s not possible to play them all in one concert. Ablinger seems to feel that an optimal version of the work includes 6-12 selections, with a mix of languages, types of figures (from the arts, politics, philosophy, etc.) and genders. In Prague Ill be playing nine selections, including [American jazz pianist] Cecil Taylor, Slovak poet and translator Mila Haugová, philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre, composer Morton Feldman, actress Hanna Schygulla and Valentina Tereshkova, the first female cosmonaut.

You’ll also be premiering a new segment featuring contemporary composer Alvin Lucier. How does it compare to the others?

Some of the pieces in the cycle have very simple piano parts, while others are extraordinarily virtuosic (to the point of impossibility!). In general, the more complex the piano part, the higher the “resolution” with which it represents the musical characteristics of the voice. The Cecil Taylor movement has maybe the highest resolution of any movement to date, while this new Alvin Lucier segment is perhaps the simplest – single notes, each with its own dynamic and registral placement, at a moderate tempo. It’s like a piano piece by Webern – compressed and essentialized, the Voices and Piano concept at its most distilled.

You say on your website that you “love these pieces.” What in particular do you find interesting or appealing about them?

They’re beautiful, original and captivating as pieces of music, and yet they have all of these other resonances, based on who’s speaking and what they’re saying. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, there is an extremely unusual aspect to them that I would call “scientific,” in that in listening to them, you come to understand (in a deep, experiential way) something that you hadn’t understood before. The comparison between speech and music in these pieces, while it seems obvious on some level, is executed with tremendous imagination, conceptual rigor and human feeling.

As someone who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic, have you found any significant differences between the contemporary music scenes in the U.S. and Europe?

Less and less, though there is perhaps more of a tradition in New York and the U.S. of “do it yourself” – that is, creating ensembles, venues and record labels, rather than relying on pre-existing ones to support you. In the past, it seemed that the grass was greener in Europe in terms of government funding, but that seems to be changing, too. In addition, the Internet has made “the audience” less of a localized thing – in my experience, you can find a sympathetic ear anywhere.

You performed at Contempuls in 2009. How are you feeling about coming back?

I’m very glad to be a part of this year’s Contempuls festival. And I can’t wait to get back to Prague – it’s a wonderful city! I’m also very excited to hear ensemble recherche play Lachenmann’s Allegro Sostenuto, which is a classic.

For more on Eric Wubbels: http://www.wubbelsmusic.com/news.html

To see him play a segment from the Voices and Piano cycle: http://vimeo.com/8401045

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Veletržní palác
November 2

A surreal melding of man and music.

Is there any instrument on the planet less hip than an accordion? That is, unless it’s in the hands of Kimmo Pohjonen, a Finnish musician and performance artist who has boldly taken the accordion places no one even thought of going before.

There was Earth Machine Music, a series of performances amid roaring engines on farms. (“Lock up your tractors! An electrifying concert with live farm machinery!”). And Accordion Wrestling, with Pohjonen providing accompaniment for body-slamming in the ring. And KTU, a collaboration with bass player and guitarist Trey Gunn and drummer Pat Mastelotto – better-known as the rhythm section of the prog-rock band King Crimson – that produced two albums and concert tours stretching from Moscow to Mexico City.

And in 2004, Uniko, a work developed with the Kronos Quartet that premiered in Helsinki, sold out three performances at the BAM Next Wave Festival in New York, and was recently released on DVD. Pohjonen will be reprising Uniko in Prague on Wednesday night with percussionist and longtime collaborator Samuli Kosminen and the Proton String Quartet, an ensemble from Finland.

Just don’t ask him to describe what it sounds like.

I can’t put it in any box or categories,” he says. “The only thing I can say is, for me, it’s like Finnish weather. It can change a lot. It can sometimes be very nasty, and sometimes very beautiful. But otherwise, I can’t really describe it.”

This foray to the outer edges of the avant-garde had a surprisingly traditional beginning. Pohjonen picked up the accordion when was 10 years old, mostly at the behest of his father, who is also an accordionist. “We were in a small village where we would go to an accordion club, and I was the only young kid there, surrounded by older people playing music that old people like,” he recalls. “It was very uncool to be an accordion player at that time.”

So much so that Pohjonen eventually dropped the instrument to pursue studies in classical, folk and world music. But even musical sojourns to places like Tanzania and Argentina left him unsatisfied. Then, in the mid-’90s, he had an epiphany.

I decided, I know the accordion best, I have to do something with it that pleases me,” he says. “So I turned to electronics and amplifiers, and started to manipulate the sound. And suddenly I heard so many great things I had never heard from that instrument! Then as I began composing my own music, I finally realized it’s worth playing.”

The electronics really took off on Pohjonen’s second album, Kluster, which he recorded with Samuli Kosminen.

Samuli is a percussionist and electronics genius, and he had the idea to sample sounds from my accordion, then play them through his electronic drums,” Pohjonen says. “It was like having two accordion players on the record, but the other one is a percussion player. I was very excited about this idea.”

So was violinist David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet, who called Pohjonen after hearing his first album to suggest they do a project together. “I told him what I was doing with Samuli, and he said it would be great to do the same thing with strings,” Pohjonen says. “So Samuli and I started to compose some new pieces – I did most of the melodies and harmonies, and he did the manipulations for strings and accordion.”

The handful of live performances of Uniko were well-received, but the Kronos Quartet’s demanding schedule has made them hard to re-create. So Pohjonen finally decided to use another string ensemble.

The two guys you can’t replace are Samuli and me,” he says. “It’s easier to replace the string quartet, because most of their parts are written. Samuli and I do a lot of improvisation, but other quartets can play the string music.”

And while Pohjonen may not be able to describe the music, he can tell you where it is likely to take you.

My concerts are like a long journey inside to many things,” he says. “It’s so great to hear the stories afterward. Somebody tells you they thought of their mother, who died long ago. Somebody else was in hell, and it wasn’t so awful – it was red, but it wasn’t so awful, it was actually a pleasure. I think that’s a great thing, that we create something onstage, and you can create your own image in the audience, and have your own journey.”

And you don’t even need to bring the tractor.

To see the performance with the Kronos Quartet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o86Uh_5MoEw

For more on Uniko with the Proton String Quartet: http://www.kimmopohjonen.com/nav.php?url=proton.html

Photo: Marita Liulia

Monday, October 31, 2011


October 30

At the age of 73, still blowin' strong.

Charles Lloyd walked onstage last night with his hands folded as if in prayer, an appropriate opening note for a concert that seamlessly blended deep spiritual undercurrents with fresh modern jazz.

Lloyd has been a force in American music for more than 40 years, noted for his facile, seductive horn work and remarkable variety of collaborations. He started out in the blues bands of B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf, moved on to play with Chico Hamilton and Cannonball Adderley, and in the ’70s recorded and toured with The Beach Boys. In the mid-’60s, he assembled and fronted a jazz quartet of future all-stars: pianist Keith Jarrett, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Cecil McBee (later replaced by Ron McClure).

The quartet developed an unlikely following among the flower power generation – they played at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1966 – and behind the Iron Curtain, where they toured in 1967. That included a performance in Prague (with McClure on bass), which is still remembered as a breath of freedom before the roof caved in with the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia the following year.

Freedom is still a hallmark of Lloyd’s sound, from his soaring tenor sax solos to the latitude he gives his sidemen. Each of the three in his current band is a star in his own right: pianist Jason Moran, a leader on eight of his own albums and recipient of a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship; bassist Reuben Rogers, who has appeared on more than 70 albums with stars ranging from Joshua Redman to Dianne Reeves; and drummer Eric Harland, who has played on even more recordings with the likes of McCoy Tyner, Terence Blanchard and Dave Holland.

Lloyd calls them “the very best” band he’s ever put together, and after last night’s performance it was easy to see why.

Moran lives in a different world. He plays smart, sensitive melody lines and fills with the group, but in solos he quickly veers into entirely different keys, time signatures and even melodies – then just as abruptly drops back into standard improv on the theme. It’s a unique, inventive style with occasional nods to keyboard masters like Thelonius Monk. But the phrasing and approach are all Moran’s, and they can be riveting.

Rogers is the man of a thousand riffs – he never seems to play the same phrase twice, which is even more impressive when you realize that he’s the rhythmic anchor of the group. He injects sophisticated jazz tempos with funk, blues and grooves, and just when you think you’ve got him figured out, he’s on to something new. No electric bass last night, but he was more than versatile on stand-up, occasionally pulling out a bow for parts that sounded like a cello.

Harland is living proof that a drummer doesn’t have to be loud to be good. He rarely beat on the skins last night; instead, he played percussion, utilizing the entire kit to invoke a full range of dynamics and create distinctive sound sculptures. It was the most intelligent use of drums this critic has seen since Kendrick Scott was here in July with the Terence Blanchard Quintet. But Harland has a language all his own, and when you can captivate a hall full of people with a solo performed almost entirely with brushes, you’re doing something special.

As for Lloyd, at 73 he sounds like a man half his age – clear, robust, fast on the runs and trills, and well-grounded in the tradition. One of the most fascinating things about seeing Lloyd play is hearing echoes of so many people that he’s either worked with or built on – Adderley, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, even blues giants like Howlin’ Wolf and Bobby “Blue” Bland. But his sound has a softer, rounded finish that gives it a modern burnish. And except to introduce the band, he rarely speaks – he lets his horn (or flute or even the piano) do the talking.

Which may be why his music feels so meditative. Lloyd dropped out of the scene for years at a time to retreat into spiritual studies and Transcendental Meditation, and there’s a depth to his music that many artists, no matter how talented they are, never achieve. That quality ran like a subtext through last night’s program, a selection of pieces from his last two albums, finally coming to the fore in “Tagi,” an encore that opened with Lloyd at the piano, reciting verses from the Bhagavad Gita.

One of them could be a mantra for Lloyd’s entire life: “Without meditation, where is peace? Without peace, where is happiness?”

For more on Charles Lloyd: http://www.charleslloyd.com/

And while the date is wrong, this appears to be an authentic clip from Lloyd’s 1967 appearance in Prague: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxVbjqqsyU8

Monday, October 24, 2011


October 23

Talk about a class act. The birthday celebration that the Czech Philharmonic gave for conductor Lawrence Foster on Sunday was everything a good gala concert should be: big stars, fine performances, camaraderie and good cheer all around. And in contrast to last year’s tribute to Sir Charles Mackerras, no speeches – just an evening of superb music honoring one of its great practitioners.

An A-list of musical friends.
Foster made an unassuming entrance on a stage jammed with musicians and overflowing with flowers for the opening piece, Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 2. Just as Mackerras championed Janáček, Foster has been the chief promulgator of Enescu’s music to the Western world. So it was a treat to hear him conduct even this small sampling of the Romanian composer. Not as bright or engaging as the familiar Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, No. 2 nonetheless has its own points of interest – regal overtones, compelling solo lines and a warm emotional underpinning. Foster brought all that to life with fine, clear layers of sound and heartfelt expression.

The orchestra shrank to about 30 players and Foster himself took a break when Sarah Chang came out for two short Vivaldi pieces, “Winter” and “Summer” from The Four Seasons. Even that brief appearance was enough to show why the violinist is in such great demand. Chang took one of the most clichéd works in the classical repertoire and gave it substance, playing with a captivating combination of emotion and authority. Now 30, Chang is well past her longtime “child prodigy” label, but still an exceptional talent.

As promised.
Though not the biggest name of the night – not yet, anyway – cellist Alisa Weilerstein made the biggest impression. With Foster and a mid-sized orchestra providing accompaniment, she more than lived up to her advance billing, playing Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme with dazzling technique and impassioned eloquence. Weilerstein is a rarity, an intensely focused player who produces a surprisingly light, finely crafted sound. She rarely looks at the strings when she plays; her head is usually tilted back and her eyes closed, like she’s receiving divine inspiration. This performance marked Weilerstein’s Prague debut, and the audience (and many of the musicians) responded with enthusiastic applause, prompting an encore of the piece’s final movement.

After intermission, the second half opened with three gray-haired eminences walking onstage: Foster and pianists Radu Lupu and Daniel Barenboim. They were all business, barely acknowledging the applause as they sat together at one piano and launched into Schubert’s Piano Fantasia in F minor for four hands, with Foster handling the page-turning duties. Barenboim set the tempo in the lower register and Lupu added seamless top melodies in a smart, fluid reading of the piece. Both men can be much more flamboyant; this was a masterful exercise in precision and control.

Barenboim and Lupu went to separate pianos as the orchestra came back onstage for Mozart’s Concerto for two pianos and orchestra in E flat major (KV 365) with Foster at the podium. If the orchestra sounded a bit heavy, perhaps it was because the two pianists played with such elegant lyricism. Barenboim was particularly graceful, playing the solo melody lines like ripples on water. The performance drew animated applause, an amusing contrast to the figures that Lupu and Barenboim cut on stage: in all-black suits with a mien to match, they looked more like undertakers than musicians. A hug from Foster and an armful of flowers finally prompted Barenboim to crack a smile.

Earlier in the week, Foster had pondered letting the orchestra play the finale, “The Moldau” from Smetana’s Má vlast, without a conductor. “It probably would sound the same with or without me,” he said. This critic has to respectfully disagree. Staying at the podium, he lent the piece a deliberate, measured tempo that it doesn’t always have. Foster has said he likes the “burnished gold” sound of the Czech Philharmonic, and it was at the forefront of his interpretation, rich with creamy woodwinds and shimmering strings.

It says something about Foster that his closest friends in the music business span a nearly 40-year age range, from young soloists he helped discover and nurture to major international superstars. Photos in the program of the conductor and his wife Angela with Arthur Rubinstein and Paul McCartney (and a jovial Barenboim!) suggest an even greater breadth of accomplishment and admiration. It’s safe to say that on his 70th birthday, Foster added a few more fans to an already long and impressive list.

For more on Lawrence Foster’s work and career: http://www.harrisonparrott.com/artist/lawrence-foster

Photos: Foster/Marc Ginot; Weilerstein/Jamie Jung