Saturday, February 26, 2011


National Theater, Estates Theater,
State Opera, Hybernia Theater
February 28 - March 15

 A dose of heady comedy in Haydn's Lo speziale.

It’s bonus time for opera-lovers, as the Czech Republic’s 10 major theaters showcase their best productions over the next two weeks in Prague. Starting with Martinů’s Miracles of Mary at the National Theater tonight, and concluding with the State Opera’s La traviata on March 15, the Opera 2011 festival will offer a tasty variety of titles and an opportunity to see fresh interpretations of works both famous and obscure.

Founded in 1993, the festival gives singers, directors and other artists working in the country’s regional theaters an opportunity to come to the capital city every two years and show what they can do. Like all performing arts ventures these days, Opera 2011 is pressed for funding – so much so that as recently as September, festival director Lenka Šaldová was considering canceling it.

We were afraid we wouldn’t have enough money, so I was ready to drop it” she says. “But the National Theater said, don’t give up, we’ll let you use our theaters for not much money. And the Ministry of Culture told us that were one of the most important festivals in the Czech Republic.” The Ministry eventually backed that sentiment with about $1 million Kč in funds, and the City of Prague has also pledged support – although in classic City Hall fashion, it won’t say how much until the festival is over.

But ultimately, it wasn’t the money that tipped Šaldová’s decision.

It was the message from the theaters about how important this festival is to them,” she says. “They’re all facing financial difficulties too, but they said, we really want to come and present our work. It’s a very prestigious event for them. So that gave us the motivation to go ahead.”

Ticket sales have been brisk, which Šaldová attributes to better advertising and marketing this year, though surely familiar titles such as Carmen, Otello and The Tales of Hoffmann have helped. On the lesser-known end of the scale, Dvořák’s seldom-staged Jakobín is on the program, as is Puccini’s second opera, Edgar, and an early Haydn work, Lo speziale (The apothecary).

This year’s festival also includes a strong interactive component. Audiences will be asked to rate all the performances, and the one that garners the highest score will win an award. There are Q&A sessions scheduled with directors and singers, and before every performance, either the conductor or director will introduce the production.

Unfortunately for foreigners, this will all be in Czech. The only English-language accommodation will be subtitles for Miracles of Mary and La traviata; otherwise, all the operas will be performed in their original language, with Czech subtitles only. 

But this is certainly no barrier to enjoying a good night of opera. As Šaldová notes, “There was a time when people were reluctant to come to the festival, thinking maybe it wouldn’t be good. But now that they’ve seen it can be really good, they wait for it, and enjoy the chance to see new singers and new titles.”

With a little planning, so can you. Below are some of the recommended highlights, and a link to ticket information. But move fast, as many of the performances are nearly sold out.

Carmen (National Theater, Feb. 28) This production from the Moravian Theatre Olomouc is directed by Michael Tarant, who made a splash at earlier festivals with his versions of Dalibor, Simon Boccanegra and The Greek Passion. The talented Czech mezzo-soprano Barbora Polášková sings the title role.

Jakobín (Estates Theater, March 1) Magdalena Švecová, who did an impressive job with the National Theater’s most recent production of Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta (The Bartered Bride), directs this tale of family turmoil and political intrigue from the J.K. Tyl Theater of Plzeň.

The Tales of Hoffmann (Estates Theater, March 2) Chinese tenor WeiLong Tao, who has been performing on European stages for the past 20 years, sings the lead role in this production from the North Bohemian Theatre of Ústí nad Labem, conducted by Miriam Němcová.

Otello (Estates Theater, March 3) Iron man Tao returns less than 24 hours later to take the lead role in Verdi’s fiery drama. This co-production of the South Bohemian Theater České Budějovice and Theater Passau also features German soprano Fréderique Friess as Desdemona.

Werther (Estates Theater, March 4) A first-class production from Ostrava’s Moravian-Silesian National Theatre, with Jiří Nekvasil directing, Robert Jindra conducting, and American tenor Steven Harrison and Slovak mezzo-soprano Zuzana Šveda leading a strong cast of singers.

The Apothecary (Hybernia Theater, March 14) Lékarník in Czech, Lo speziale in Italian – by any name, a modern take on a 1768 opera buffa by Joseph Haydn, from the National Theater Brno.

For full program details and ticket information:

Friday, February 25, 2011


Sts. Simon and Jude Church
February 22
Palác Akropolis
February 23

A divine performance amid the angels and saints.

The best feature about Prague culture is its endless variety. The city’s position at the geographical center of Europe makes it a crossroads for everybody from Russian opera stars to Latin tango bands. And Prague’s deep cultural history and traditions nurture a strong local music base, along with pockets of fans for every conceivable type of sound.

Case in point: Two nights of concerts this week that juxtaposed Bach choral works with African trance music. Could any two genres be further apart? Or more deserving of being appreciated for their unique and wildly different attributes? Yet for an open mind and ears, there was a seductive common thread.

The brilliant work of Collegium 1704 has been lauded many times in this space, but like Prague’s ubiquitous květiny (flower shops), the group always has something fresh and vital to offer. This time it was fabulous choral work in a smart selection of J.S. Bach cantatas and motets. The opening piece for two choirs, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (BWV 225), was captivating from the first bars, with conductor and artistic director Václav Luks drawing a lustrous, spirited sound from the 12 singers. If the vocals overwhelmed the music at times, there were enough quiet moments to compensate, in particular fine solo work from alto Markéta Cukrová, and very tasty playing by the two oboists.

For the next two pieces – Komm, Jesu, Komm (BWV 229) and Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 33) – Luks used eight singers arranged in mirrored quartets, with the bass singers in the center and the tenor, alto and soprano voices extending to the wings. The effect was mesmerizing, particularly on Komm, with its dazzling interlaced vocal lines. Accompaniment by two strings (cello and contrabass) and an organ gave the music a vibratory pitch that was hypnotic. With angels cavorting in the background and saints watching from on high, it was like being transported to God’s own concert hall.

The ensemble added two voices and two flute players for the final pieces, Ihr werdet alle heulen (BWV 103) and Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227), which were not quite as impressive as Komm and Allein, but a tour de force nonetheless. Jesu in particular is a complex dramatic work with tricky phrasing and breaks that Luks handled with seamless aplomb. The vocal trios were entrancing, and the full choral sections offered a study in how to balance technical finesse with vibrant emotional expression.

From the Congo, music that puts a spell on you.
Fast-forward 250 years to Central Africa, and you find traditional tribal rhythms being married to modern electronics by groups like Konono No1, a good-time jam band of anywhere from 6 to 16 people. At Akropolis Thursday night, the group fielded two percussionists, one banging on a stripped-down drum kit and the other hammering a pair of congas and blowing on a police whistle; three electric likembé (a traditional instrument also known as a “thumb piano”) players; and a female vocalist and vibes player who spent much of the evening at the front of the stage, artfully swiveling her hips.

Part of Konono’s appeal is its dirt-poor aesthetic. The band likes to boast that many of its rhythm instruments and most of its sound system was salvaged from junkyards – and it sounds like it. Muddy, rough-edged and infectiously danceable, Konono’s music comes off the stage like a freight train on a joy ride. There seems to be some nifty likembé playing in the mix, but it’s hard to tell through all the distortion and raucous percussion, which dominates and often overwhelms everything else.

Ah, but the rhythms! Konono hits a groove and stays there for 20 minutes at a time, or even longer, and the mind-numbing repetition is just the point. This is Bazambo trance music, which will run all the rational thoughts out of your head if you go with it, and strip your sensory input down to a single, driving beat. Close your eyes and you could be deep in the jungle, immersed in a tribal ritual of cleansing and celebration and cathartic abandon.

Which is to say, in a state not very different from blissed-out Baroque. One cranks you up and the other slows you down, but both are transformative in their effects. This hallmark of great music cuts across all eras and genres, as noted by no less an authority than Chuck Berry, one of the founders of modern rock ’n’ roll, when he sang, “Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.”

Rachot, which produced the Konono No1 concert, brings a lot of interesting music to Prague. Check its upcoming schedule at:

Sunday, February 20, 2011


February 18

A precocious talent.

Sayaka Shoji was just 16 years old when she won the prestigious Paganini Competition in 1999, the first Japanese player and the youngest person ever to do so. She doesn’t look much older now, nor any bigger. In her diminutive, delicate hands, the violin looks more like an oversized viola.

But the minute she sets bow to strings, all age and size considerations quickly dissipate. Shoji plays with remarkable maturity, producing a crisp, authoritative sound well beyond her years. Her style is clean and well-defined, informed partly by the high energy and dramatic body language she puts into each piece. Technically, she’s impeccable, especially her bowing technique. And her dexterity is dazzling.

Taking the stage on Friday night in a floor-length, bright red wrap skirt, Shoji showed impressive command from the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s difficult Concerto for violin and orchestra in D major. She blazed through the complicated runs in the first movement, took the sharp edges off for the sensitive passages of the second movement, then went back into hyperdrive for the final movement, building a fiery momentum that matched the big blasts from the orchestra. If some of the notes started to blur in the final movement, her spirited playing and obvious mastery of the material more than made up for it.

It takes nothing away from Shoji to note that she plays the 1729 Recamier Stradivarius, which would sound good in almost any pair of capable hands. And there are subtle signs of her age – her posture, which seems to limit her expression, and her voice, which though strong is still unformed in some ways. But there is no denying her prodigious talent, and her striking style, which combines a high degree of professional skill with youthful pizazz.

During intermission, a local violinist said she found Shoji a bit off; tired, perhaps, or just not on her best game for Tchaikovsky, or that particular night. That’s possible, though in some ways it’s a disconcerting thought: As good as Shoji was, she can be even better.

A well-traveled master of his craft.
Her partner for the evening was also first-rate. Korean conductor Myung-Whun Chung is respected around the world for his skills at the podium, which have won him invitations from major orchestras in Berlin, Vienna, London, Paris, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland – and that’s only a partial list. He is currently chief conductor and music director of the Seoul Philharmonic.

Chung conducted both Tchaikovsky and Brahms on Friday night without a score. His economical style belies the full, deep sound he draws from the orchestra, which can be bright at times, and at least on this visit, lacked some of the fine points that other conductors like to develop with Czech orchestras. But the music has a tremendous, irresistible sweep under his baton, the strong voice of someone fully knowledgeable about and in command of the material.

The Tchaikovsky concerto had a lot of pop and more colors than one typically hears in the piece, particularly from the horns. Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 was less colorful but had excellent clarity and thundering impact, particularly in the final movement. To this reviewer’s ear, some of the sections came together better than others. But Chung’s ability to draw specific sounds out of individual sections of the orchestra was an impressive reminder of what a world-class conductor can do.

The only complaint about the concert is that the program was standard fare; the Tchaikovsky concerto in particular is performed regularly in Prague. Shoji’s repertoire includes Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Paganini and Szymanowski, and Chung has won awards for his recordings of works by Messiaen, Shostakovich, Duruflé and Fauré. Next time, how about something a little more adventurous?

Sayaka Shoji’s website:

Monday, February 14, 2011


February 11

A musical dynamo with something original to say.

One of the most impressive performances of the young year was turned in Friday night by German pianist Lars Vogt, who joined the Czech Philharmonic for a dazzling rendition of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor (Opus 54). The piece itself was almost incidental, as Vogt showed not only complete mastery of his instrument, but an ability to craft phrases and find nuances that turned the poetic fantasy into something distinctly his own.

Vogt’s repertoire ranges from Haydn to Hindemith, with much of it solidly in the Romantic era – Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven. He was the first-ever Pianist-in-Residence with the Berlin Philharmonic (2003-04), and has recorded Schumann, Grieg and Beethoven with Sir Simon Rattle, who calls Vogt “one of the most extraordinary musicians of any age group that I have had the fortune to be associated with.”

Logrolling among high-level musicians is nothing new, but it’s easy to see why a conductor of Rattle’s stature would be impressed. Vogt is one of those rare players who seems born to his instrument, playing with innate grace and fluidity. His hands glide across the keys as smoothly and seamlessly as the music seems to flow out of him, sure but never harsh, perfectly controlled yet supple. It’s an elegant style, though still flexible enough to accommodate a large vocabulary of references, textures and colors.

Much of Vogt’s interpretation of the Schumann piece was straightforward, respectful of the concerto’s thematic development and lyrical beauty. He added his flourishes primarily during the solo piano passages, turning some into silk, purring and ringing his way through others. To contemporary ears, there were flashes of jazz, cabaret and modern music in the sounds and rhythms, especially the explosive finale. It was a highly intelligent performance that the orchestra recognized by doing something it rarely does – taking a background role in the piece, playing at a subdued level that kept the soloist in the spotlight.

So it wasn’t surprising that Vogt’s first acknowledgment when he finished was to the orchestra, hugging conductor Lawrence Foster and applauding the players before turning to the audience to receive extended, enthusiastic applause. And he was generous with his encore, a long, meditative intermezzo (by Brahms? It was hard to hear his introduction) that held the audience entranced, holding its collective breath.

Better in the broad strokes.
Foster, an American of Romanian descent, also seems to be a Romantic at heart, drawing warm tones and lush sounds out of the orchestra during the lyrical parts of the program, but showing less skill in others. In the opening piece, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s well-known Hebrides overture, the beauty of the cave and sense of solitude were strong, but the crashing waves lacked pop, especially toward the end, when the piece got ragged and even seemed, for a few seconds, as if it was going to fall apart. The Hebrides was mostly a reminder of why the Czech Philharmonic is the country’s premier orchestra, putting an authoritative burnish on a last-minute substitute (for the originally scheduled opener, Smetana’s sketch for the witches’ scene in Macbeth.)

The concluding trio of Liszt symphonic poems was much the same, strong in the lyrical and emotional passages, but otherwise uneven. The broad strokes that Foster favors, especially in the horns, are good for invoking drama but not very suitable for creating colors, which are one of the chief attractions and strengths of these works. The Liszt pieces had their moments, but regular Czech Philharmonic listeners know that the orchestra is capable of sounding much better.

Still, a good pairing of guest performers, and in Lars Vogt, a reminder that even with familiar, timeworn works, great artists always find something fresh and original to say.

For more on Lars Vogt:

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Břevnov Monastery
February 4

Markéta Cukrová at a December Collegium 1704 concert.

Asked in the late 1950s about the revival of interest in 18th-century Italian music, Igor Stravinsky said, “Vivaldi is greatly overrated, a dull fellow who composed the same concerto 600 times in a row.” Had Stravinsky been at Břevnov Monastery on Friday night to hear Collegium 1704 perform a selection of Vivaldi concertos and cantatas, he no doubt would have arched his eyebrows and shot a sour “I told you so” look. But for the crowd of Vivaldi enthusiasts who packed the monastery’s regal Teresian Hall, it was another night of enchantment.

Václav Luks and his ensemble handled Vivaldi with the same spirit and aplomb they bring to all their performances – which is to say, with intelligence, precision and uptempo enthusiasm. Luks chose five concertos from L’Estro Armonico for the program, which sounded a bit flat at the start, as if the relatively small space had compressed the sound into one dimension. But it opened up quickly, and by the third piece the music had taken on the depth and richness that is characteristic of the group.

The concertos were composed for one, two and four violins, and Luks took full advantage of his ensemble’s talents, rearranging the lead players and drawing some lush harmonies and lively runs from the various combinations. The violinists were not uniformly sharp, but the momentum of the music carried the pieces past specific notes and phrases, into that seductive realm where Vivaldi’s charms – repetitive though they may be – are irresistible, and you can’t help but let go and be carried away.

Alto Markéta Cukrová took the lead on two vocal pieces. On the first, Longe Mala Umbrae Terrores, she seemed uncomfortable with the language (Latin) and some of the trickier lines, not moving far out of a middle range and glossing over occasional flourishes. She was better on the concluding selection, Cessate, omai cessate, apparently more comfortable with the language (Italian) and generally stronger and clearer, especially on the extended high notes. Her reprise of a section of Cessate for the encore was particularly heartfelt.

One of the intangibles of Collegium 1704 performances is the attitude of the players, a focused group who combine discipline and vivacity as well as anybody on the early music circuit. That was especially evident at this concert – light lifting compared to the more nuanced and complex works the ensemble typically presents, which gave the players a chance to let loose and rock out, in a Baroque sort of way. By the end it was obvious how much fun they were having, an attitude that the audience picked up on and reciprocated with cheers and whoops. (Vivaldi does that to some people.)

This was Collegium 1704’s first appearance at Břevnov, in a room that normally hosts smaller ensembles of three or four players. It is a very good space for voices, and drawing room-clear for several instruments. But the 14-piece group that played there on Friday might have been a bit much, with the sound bordering on boisterous at times, even occasionally overwhelming Cukrová. No complaints from the audience, though, which would happily have cranked the volume even higher, and listened to the same concerto, over and over, late into the night.

Collegium 1704 maintains a very good website at:


Obecní dům
February 3

A prodigious talent with a workmanlike approach.

There are rock ’n’ roll and jazz players who are less flamboyant than Fazil Say, the Turkish-born pianist and composer who has cut a prolific swath through the classical music world over the past 16 years. His dramatic hand and arm flourishes, proclivity for reaching inside the piano frame, and habit of seemingly conducting himself with one hand while playing with the other were all on display Thursday night in his appearance with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. The only thing missing was flaming lighters held aloft during the standing ovation he received after steamrolling his way through Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B minor.

Say, 40, is an accomplished concert pianist who has appeared on stages from New York to Tokyo, and at some of the most prestigious festivals in Europe. He’s also a versatile composer who can churn out everything from ballet and film scores to pieces like Paganini Jazz, a contemporary riff on the violinist’s 24th Capriccio. But when Say walks onstage, he looks more like an auto mechanic, hair pulled straight back and sleeves pushed up like a man ready to go to work.

From the very first bars of the concerto, Say was off and running with his own distinct rhythm and phrasing, setting a pace that at times made it seem like the orchestra was racing to catch up. Say hammers on the keys, particularly on the downbeats – his own set of downbeats – and literally explodes into the runs. The technique is dazzling, though he missed some notes in the first movement, as if his hands couldn’t quite keep up with the lightning speed of his brain.

So it was surprising to hear the control he showed during the softer passages of the second and third movements, where in a heartbeat he was able to back off, tone down and play with great sensitivity. By the third movement he was in full synch, with no sacrifice of accuracy for his blazing dexterity. And certainly the audience didn’t mind a few missed notes, responding instead to the fire and intensity of his performance with an extended ovation.

For an encore, Say played one of his own pieces, “Black Earth,” an intriguing, Middle Eastern-tinged work that requires him to reach into the piano and manipulate the strings with his left hand while playing the keyboard with his right. He showed more subtlety, variation and invention during those few minutes than during the entire concerto – not surprising, perhaps, when a musician is playing one of his own pieces rather than trying to freshen a well-worn classic. Though brief, “Black Earth” opened up entirely new dimensions, suggesting much more to Say than an iconoclastic concert pianist.

A fireball at the podium.
Conductor Petr Altrichter had to wipe his face with a handkerchief after the first Tchaikovsky movement, but he doesn’t need Fazil Say to work up a sweat. A former chief conductor with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, Altrichter is highly energized at the podium, sometimes reaching to his knees to pull the sound he wants out of the orchestra. He showed a great feel for the opening piece, Dvořák’s Suite in A major, balancing the dynamics nicely and capturing its lyrical enthusiasm and joyful spirit.

The closing selection, Borodin’s Symphony No. 2, starts with an ominous blast anchored by deep bass and cello undercurrents that Altrichter kept running throughout the piece like dark waves, layering the string melodies and horn, wind and harp accents on top in contrasting colors. For this reviewer, Borodin’s chamber works are more interesting than his symphonic pieces, which are comparatively straightforward in their structure and orchestration. The third movement of this symphony even veers toward schmaltz, but Altrichter kept it on-point, maintaining the urgency and power that propel the piece.

And if there was any doubt about Fazil Say’s rock star status, all one had to do was stand in the lobby at intermission and see the crowd that gathered as he posed for photos and signed autographs. The Prague Symphony Orchestra has been bringing soloists out for these meet-and-greet sessions lately, and it’s a nice touch, giving fans a chance to see their heroes up close after watching them perform, and take home an autographed CD. Next thing you know, they’ll be bringing lighters.

For more on Fazil Say: