Thursday, March 31, 2011


Obecní dům
March 27 & 30

It’s been a busy week for the Prague Symphony Orchestra, which premiered a new symphony by Czech composer Sylvie Bodorová last night. With its dramatic percussion and cacophony of dissonant horns and strings, Bodorová’s ambitious new work provided an unexpected bridge to the orchestra’s Sunday concert, the first of several benefit performances to aid recovery efforts in Japan. (The Czech Philharmonic and Prague Philharmonia are staging benefit concerts this coming weekend.)

Bodorová: Symphonic synchronicity
Con le campane is the first symphony by Bodorová, 56, a prolific composer who has drawn commissions from around the world. Over the past 30 years, her work has been performed on every continent – including, as her website proudly notes, Antarctica. For this piece, she added a contemporary drum kit and conga drums to the usual array of orchestral percussion instruments to infuse primal beats into modern music structures.

The symphony opened with a six-note conga phrase that ran throughout the first movement, mimicking a human heartbeat thumping strong and steady amid a tumult of gongs, church bells and processional strings that rose insistently, building to a fever pitch and finally exploding in a noisy cascade.

Though Con le campane was written long before the March 18 disaster in Japan, it immediately invoked images of the tsunami – overwhelming, inexorable, all-consuming. Had Bodorová set out to write soundtrack music for the stunning videos of the giant wave sweeping and destroying everything in its path, she could not have done better.

The intensity was pitched even higher in the second movement, appropriately titled Breakdance, a tumbling frisson of contrasting string and horn layers propelled by an all-out percussive assault that sounded at times like a jazz jam. The layers were complex, with the horn and string sections playing in different keys and time signatures simultaneously, and Maestro Jiří Kout did a masterful job holding it all together. The third movement offered a respite of sorts, with soothing woodwinds and calm, textural strings accented by heroic trumpet lines. Then it was back on the A Train for the final movement, a vertiginous, jazz-inflected swirl of sounds that once again invoked the huge sweep of massive forces, this time on an even grander, more momentous scale.

Bodorová took the stage afterward to enthusiastic, extended applause. Premieres of new musical works are not uncommon in Prague, but premieres of new works by female composers are still relatively rare – so it was good to see her receiving accolades and flowers. And while her symphony may not earn a permanent place in the Czech repertoire, it was a remarkable bit of synchronicity, arriving at just the moment when a powerful, percussive work would have special resonance.

Ambassador Chikahito Harada: Arigato
The program for the benefit concert three nights earlier seemed a bit incongruous – the first three movements from Smetana’s Má vlast, and Dvořák’s New World Symphony, Czech favorites that would appear to have little to do with Japan. But as the program noted, and orchestra director Ilja Šmíd explained in his opening speech, those pieces are perennial favorites among Japanese audiences and programmers, who request them whenever the Prague Symphony Orchestra tours Japan. The orchestra’s connection to the country is quite strong; just last year it played in Sendai, parts of which were wiped off the map by the tsunami.

So it wasn’t surprising to hear more impassioned playing than usual, with an animated Kout drawing a powerful yet sensitive sound from the orchestra. The Vltava section of Má vlast in particular had an endearing quality, a pathos burnished by a smooth, liquid flow. And Kout’s handling of Dvořák, though a bit ragged in spots, produced the most emotionally compelling performance of the composer’s signature symphony that this reviewer has ever heard in Prague.

It brought the audience to their feet – an impressive sight, as the 1,100-seat hall was completely full. The event raised 390,000 Kč (about $22,500 USD), and the concerts this coming weekend will likely raise even more. Šmíd also added a stirring positive note in the program, expressing his certainty that when the orchestra visits Japan two years from now, there will be few traces of the disaster: “The enormous industriousness and hard work of the Japanese people, as well as their decency and humility, guarantee it.”

For more on Sylvie Bodorová:

For updates on the other benefit concerts:

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Congress Center
March 26

A little older and heftier, and still the greatest duo in jazz.

Glad you came back,” Chick Corea said to a packed house after intermission last night. “That’s good.”

It was more than good. It was great, a rare and fine evening with two superb jazz musicians and students of the genre who gave not only an outstanding performance, but a history lesson of sorts. The predominantly Czech crowd may not have understood or fully appreciated tributes to the likes of Dave Brubeck and Bud Powell, but they were not about to miss a single note of a dazzling concert.

As noted on this website last week, Chick Corea and Gary Burton have been making amazing music together for nearly 40 years. When they’re onstage, it looks and sounds like it. They rarely glance at each other during songs, except to finish together – and that’s only on the new pieces. Otherwise, they run through complex arrangements of originals and covers with a seamless interplay of chromatic melody lines, fills, accents and playful improv like two parts of the same well-oiled music machine.

They warmed up with two Corea compositions from their repertoire, Love Castle and Alegria. The former was a showcase for all the tempo changes, shifting leads and solo breaks they can pack into a single song, and the latter a surprisingly intricate rhythm exercise, with the duo tapping out the underlying rhythm on the piano body before launching into the song.

Then it was a dip into jazz history, starting with Kay Swift and Paul James’ “Can’t We Be Friends?”, recorded by Art Tatum, among many others. Though the song was written in 1929, it sounded totally fresh in the new arrangement, with Corea taking the lead and Burton providing sparkling accompaniment and highlights. Before continuing the tour, they had fun with some personal favorites: Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade,” which both men learned playing with Stan Getz; an uptempo, very smart jazz arrangement of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby;” and a new Corea composition, “Mozart Goes Dancing,” a bright take on some familiar Mozart chords.

The second half opened with “Bud Powell,” a Corea tribute to the bop legend on which Burton took the lead, playing with a speed and fluency that has to be seen to be believed. Burton’s four-mallet technique and touch on the bars is so distinctive, you could walk into a concert hall blindfolded and know immediately that it’s him playing. Corea is the craftsman, with a seemingly endless supply of riffs and harmonic ideas that came to the fore in the next piece, “Brasilia.” (“My all-time favorite Chick composition,” Burton told the audience.)

Next, “Light Blue” offered a very effective synthesis of Thelonius Monk’s sound and the Corea/Burton style, and “Strange Meadow Lark” dusted off and freshened one of the enduring cuts from Dave Brubeck’s seminal Time Out album. Dizzy Gillespie’s “Hot House” (actually written by Tadd Dameron, Corea noted) gave the duo a chance to trade improv lines, with Corea looking a bit surprised (pleasantly) by what Burton came up with.

The two players closed with a rousing, dramatic rendition of Corea’s “La Fiesta” that made the version on their last release together, The New Crystal Silence, sound sleepy. After an extended improv opening, they ran through a couple blistering versions of the main themes before Burton stepped back to give his partner an extended solo that took some deliciously dark turns, with Corea reaching in to pluck the piano strings. Extended applause brought them back for an encore – appropriately, a relatively straight-ahead version of “Blue Monk.”

For jazz aficionados, it capped a refreshing night of standards and favorites enlivened by new arrangements and virtuoso playing. Judging by the applause, the rest of the audience fell under Corea and Burton’s spell as well, thrilled by some very sophisticated yet highly accessible music.

For links and an interview with Gary Burton, see the story below.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Congress Center
March 26

Corea, left, and Burton tune up for another world tour.

Gary Burton and Chick Corea have been making amazing music together for nearly 40 years.

Both have carved out impressive solo careers – Burton as the foremost vibes player of his generation, and Corea as a brilliant composer and pianist who moves effortlessly across genres, from bop to free jazz to fusion. And both have played with A-list stars ranging from Miles Davis to Béla Fleck (in Corea’s case), and George Shearing to Pat Metheny (in Burton’s).

But their duets stand apart, a merger of two distinctive voices into something unique and special. Their improvisational skills, near-telepathic communication and willingness to venture into new harmonic and technical territory almost every night are unparalleled in modern jazz, or for that matter, much of jazz history. Just as remarkable is how fresh their work has remained. Most collaborations run their course over time, but Burton and Corea sound as inventive and spontaneous now as when they first started playing together.

In the liner notes for their Grammy Award-winning 2008 release The New Crystal Silence, Burton recalled his initial outing with Corea, a jam session quickie at a jazz festival in Germany. The audience loved it, prompting them to make their first recording together, Crystal Silence (1972). “At the time, neither of us thought it was going to turn into a lifelong pursuit,” Burton wrote. “It was just a lot of fun to play together. But we soon realized that something more was going on.”

What has kept the collaboration alive all this time? “It’s definitely the music,” Burton says via e-mail. “The friendship is fine, too, and we would stay friends even if we stopped playing together. But so far, the music works so well for us that we are always drawn back to working together every year.”

As for keeping the sound vibrant, Burton cites two key factors. “One reason is that we don’t play all year long,” he says. “We set aside a couple of months, usually, to tour and get back into the music. So it tends to stay fresh that way. And we have a very strong rapport that has never left us, too.”

Then there’s the music itself, which rarely sounds the same twice. “We continue to change our arrangements for the first year or so that we perform a new song, making small changes here and there to improve them,” Burton explains. “Even later on, we often go back to an older song and refresh it with some changes to the tempo or the form of the arrangement.”

That’s clear on The New Crystal Silence, which offers fresh takes on two favorites from the original recording: “Señor Mouse” and “Crystal Silence,” the latter recorded live with the Sydney Symphony at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. The double-disc set also includes a tasty sampling of Latin flavors in Corea compositions like “Brasilia and “La Fiesta,” and nods to two jazz giants, a cover of Bill Evans Waltz for Debby and a Corea-written tribute titled simply Bud Powell.

However, that’s not what Corea and Burton are playing on the current tour. Instead, they’ve worked up new arrangements of pieces by some of their favorite songwriters. We decided to chose well-known composers, but not necessarily well-known songs, Burton says. We have pieces by Brubeck, Jobim, Kurt Weill, Paul McCartney, Dizzy Gillespie, Monk.

Burton in particular is no stranger to this part of the world. During the Cold War, he toured extensively through Central and Eastern Europe, and even Russia. Most rock ’n’ roll was banned during those dark years, but the Communists never considered jazz a threat. That was only one of many misjudgments, but it worked to the benefit of legions of fans. And those tours certainly made an impression on Burton.

Playing in the Eastern countries now feels so different, I can hardly describe it, he says. Visually, everything is colorful and attractive instead of plain and drab. The people are more enthusiastic and comfortable with the concert experience. It’s like everything came alive.

Burton has performed in Prague twice, most recently in 2005 with pianist Makoto Ozone. Now I get to come with Chick, a whole new experience, he says. I’m looking forward to it very much.

For more on the current tour and the Corea-Burton partnership:

Monday, March 21, 2011


National Theater
March 19

Like all the other characters, Eva Urbanová is on the rocks.

You know what organized religion is like? A rock. A lot of rocks, actually, boulders big enough to sleep on, and gravel deep enough to swim in. Add Wagner to the mix and it gets really heavy, with everything framed in stone and everyone moving like they have blocks of granite tied to their feet.

Such is the central metaphor of the National Theater’s new Parsifal, which premiered Saturday night, five weeks shy of Good Friday. Despite the bulk and the timing, there wasn’t a complaint in the house – in fact, quite the contrary. Whether it was the quality of the production, or the six-month drought since any new opera has debuted at the theater, the reception was warm and enthusiastic, especially for the impressive work in the pit.

Wagner’s final opera – or more accurately, Bühnenweihfestspiel, a “stage-consecrating festival play” – is a five-and-a-half-hour religious extravaganza that employs the story of a recovering knight-errant to extol the virtues of purity, chastity and spiritual devotion. The first act culminates in a long ceremony so close to a real Mass that for decades, it was customary not to applaud afterward. The second act delves into black magic and treachery, which tempts but fails to corrupt the title character, who wields a Holy Spear in the third act that he uses to perform a Good Friday miracle.

As if all this weren’t weighty enough, director Jiří Heřman opens the production with a man lying in a large, framed bed of gravel that takes up most of center stage. It stays there the entire night, variously functioning as a blank slate for prayer labyrinths, a ritual site, healing baths, a meadow – or simply a cumbersome box that the characters have to walk around or stumble through. Buttressed by piles of boulders that eventually rise around it, and an imposing stone proscenium and scrim, it’s a heavy center of moral gravity.

Fortunately, Heřman keeps most of his usual excesses in check – there’s only one brief scene of boys running around in underpants – and with the help of clever lighting, changing stage configurations and a large cast of singers, dancers and extras, he creates a grand opera spectacle worthy of the composer’s creation and intent. Solemn pacing, elaborately staged religious rites and anguished characters on their knees fill out an epic tapestry that brings to life Wagner’s majestic, sometimes ponderous score.

Credit for that also goes to conductor John Fiore, an experienced Wagner hand who led a powerful Ring cycle at the National Theater in 2005. He shows the same mastery with Parsifal, establishing a commanding tone in the opening bars, then building a carefully nuanced sound with vivid colors and shimmering textures. Lending a score this dramatic some agility and sensitivity is no small accomplishment, so it wasn’t surprising that Fiore and the orchestra received extended applause when the conductor came out to start the second and third acts.

Tomasz Konieczny swims in the stones.
The production features some strong singing as well, notably by hometown favorite Eva Urbanová, an inspired choice for the role of Kundry, the tormented sorceress. Heřman does Urbanová no favors with an initial entrance that calls for her to flop face-down in the gravel pile. She sounded strained throughout the remainder of the first act, much of which she had to spend on the floor. But on her feet for the second act, when Kundry transforms herself into a young seductress, Urbanová blossomed into full voice, tender, pleading and angry by turns, a performance as good as any she’s given in recent memory.

Other standouts among the mostly male cast included Svatopluk Sem as a very effective Klingsor, and Tomasz Konieczny, who nearly stole the show as the ailing Amfortas. German import Alfons Eberz may be, as the program says, an “internationally acclaimed heroic tenor,” but he had only a few good moments in the title role. Otherwise, as one audience member observed, he embodied many of the bad stereotypes of a tenor – chubby, running around aimlessly much of the time, and one of the weaker voices on the stage.

Whatever its flaws, Parsifal is a heartening reminder of what the National Theater can do when it focuses its full resources on a worthy subject. Almost no one can do that in Prague these days, given the cuts in arts funding – not to mention the controversial effort underway to combine the operations of the National Theater and the State Opera. Under those circumstances, producing a Parsifal of this caliber is a minor miracle, on Good Friday or any other day of the year. It’s a shame that only four more performances will be given. Say your prayers and make a reservation now.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Hybernia Theater
March 14

Drugs at this apothecary do more than cure headaches.

The glorious mess that swirled around the revolving stage at the Hybernia Theater on Monday night was a Czech classic, an earthy contemporary take on an 18th-century opera buffa. Though it was presented as the penultimate offering in the Opera 2011 festival, it would have been more accurately billed as a theater piece based on Joseph Haydn’s Lo Speziale (Lékárník in Czech, The Apothecary in English).

The opera is a frothy romantic comedy about the wooing of Grilletta, a young woman in the care of Sempronio, the aging owner of an Italian apothecary. He is competing with Mengone, his shop assistant, and Volpino, a wealthy customer, for her affections. Grilletta favors Mengone, but needs three acts of flirting, cajoling and manipulating – all set to incredibly beautiful music – to get the clumsy young clerk to the altar.

The National Theater Brno’s production moves the setting to a contemporary lékárník, with a very clever giant Ibuprofen package as a backdrop. The mischief that unfolds in the shop is also strikingly modern: drug abuse, sex on the floor, even an implied spanking. Adding to the contemporary gloss, a series of Czech subtitles provides not a literal translation but a running commentary on the action, with references to pop culture icons such as the Internet, marijuana, Tiger Woods and “Affleck and Lopez.” At one stormy point, the words disappear entirely and the screen shows a series of lightning bolts.

Worse for non-natives, the opera is given a Czech wrapper. It opens at a Czech train station, where Grilletta, recast as a Bohemian naif, departs for Italy. After she arrives, she sets up a suitcase and a teddy bear at the front of the stage, which she returns to periodically for extended Czech-language monologues. These got the only laughs of the evening, suggesting that more than the setting of the original opera was lost in translation.

The production has inspired moments. In the first act, prompted by Mengone, Volpino pops some pills and begins to hallucinate, seeing customers with giant heads. He then drifts into an extended dream sequence in which Grilletta is kidnapped and he goes to her rescue, a surreal ballet that is great fun to watch – once you figure out what’s happening. Like much of the extraneous action constantly bustling around the singers, it can be more confusing than entertaining, especially with the stage itself spinning in circles most of the night.

Good voices might have saved this, or at least made it respectable. But the singers were so weak that Ondrej Šaling (Mengone) had to sing-speak his way through one aria rather than sing it outright, because he obviously couldn’t hit the high notes. The women were better. Soprano Tereza Merklová Kyzlinková turned in some sweet, lilting passages as Grilletta, and mezzo-soprano Andrea Priechodská brought a honey voice and smart acting chops to the trouser role of Volpino.

Under the baton of Ondrej Olos, the music was flat, which was a shame. Played on its own by a better ensemble, the enchanting score for Lo Speziale would stand with almost anything Haydn wrote during his formative years in the Esterházy court. But the music takes a back seat in this production – deliberately, it seems, to keep the focus primarily on the sex and drug shenanigans and whirling, high-gloss set.

As a stage production, Lo Speziale is bursting with energy and imagination, and apparently no small amount of Czech wit. All of which makes it a poor fit with a light period comedy buoyed by radiant classical music. Separately, the production and the opera have their own beguiling strengths and charms. Together, they’re like a train wreck, a spectacular and mesmerizing collision of wildly conflicting elements that generates a lot of flash and dazzle before ultimately collapsing under its own weight.

Friday, March 11, 2011


Estates Theater
March 10
March 8

Lust on the loose in a landscape of the mind.

There was every reason not to expect much from last night’s performance of Edgar. The opera, Puccini’s second, is considered an inferior early work, interesting only as a precursor to later successes like La bohème and Tosca. And the production came from the F.X. Šaldy Theater in Liberec, another of the minor-league companies participating in the Opera 2011 festival.

But that’s the beauty of the festival – you never know when you’ll discover a hidden gem. Edgar not only held its own as entertaining opera, but showed how even the flimsiest material can become something special in capable hands.

Based on a lyric poem by French author Alfred de Musset, Edgar tells the story of a man torn between two loves: Fidelia, a virtuous village girl, and Tigrana, a fiery gypsy temptress à la Carmen. Fidelia’s brother Frank also longs for Tigrana, setting in motion a series of romantic complications that end in tragedy. The opera is essentially a melodrama played out by cardboard characters, set to overwrought music with plenty of emotional impact but no finesse.

Or so it seems. Digging beneath the surface, director Martin Otava found something darker and more compelling – a Freudian drama of a man whose id, ego and superego are at war. Tigrana leers and storms about the stage as pure lust, the basest emotions unleashed; Frank, after a knife fight with Edgar, becomes the voice of reason and higher intelligence; and Fidelia is the ideal in between, the balance point between rational and irrational. In that framework, the cardboard characters make perfect sense – as symbols or stereotypes, not flesh-and-blood creations.

The set was a landscape of the mind, a collision of oddly angled columns, walls and steps with stark elements like a single blossoming tree. Clearly inspired by the work of Josef Svoboda, it neatly blended surreal and abstract elements, and made bold use of contrasting colors – hot red for Tigrana, virginal white for Fidelia, and all-black or all-white costumes for the chorus/villagers that might have been designed by Dali. With a background screen changing colors to match or contrast the action in the foreground, the overall effect was like being in a dream.

That sensation was reinforced by the music, which runs at a fever-high emotional pitch for most of the opera. On a literal level, it seems ridiculously overheated, at times bordering on bombastic. But as a soundtrack for a psychodrama, it’s perfect.

And the singers were outstanding. Lívía Obručnik-Vénosová (Fidelia) and Kateřina Jalovcová (Tigrana), both regulars on the State Opera and National Theater stages in Prague, gave bravura performances. Obručnik-Vénosová’s crystalline soprano was an ideal fit for her role, and heartbreakingly beautiful in the final act. Jalovcová’s smoky mezzo was threatening from the moment she walked onstage. Tenor Rafael Alvarez (Edgar), born and trained in Mexico, and baritone Anatolij Orel (Frank), born in the Ukraine and trained in Kiev, provided solid counterpoints.

Last night’s performance was also a reminder that, while Edgar may not get much respect, it offers a great primer on Puccini, with clear musical indications of what lies ahead. In fact, during rewrites of the original score, the composer took out sections and used them later in Tosca. And the funeral march in Act III of Edgar was good enough to be played at Puccini’s real-life funeral in 1924, with Arturo Toscanini conducting. Besides, how can you not love an opera that features not one, but two murders in the final minute?

On Tuesday, the Silesian Theatre of Opava brought its production of Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila to the same stage, with less satisfying results. After a promising grand opera-style opening with a chorus of Israelites pleading for deliverance beneath a giant flaming Star of David, the performance slowed and sagged under the weight of weak direction and choreography – the latter a serious detriment in an opera that features two major dance sequences, including the famous bacchanal in the third act.

Kisun Kim and Ilona Kaplová turned in heroic singing efforts in the title roles, but the real musical star of the evening was conductor Damiano Binetti, who drew fine textures and colors from the orchestra, and did an impressive job of following the singers when they needed a moment or two’s grace. The chorus was also notably good in a work whose spine is complex choral passages. And how can you not enjoy an opera that ends with the hero literally bringing down the house?

For a closer look at the F.X. Šaldy production of Edgar:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Prague Castle
March 6
St. Lawrence Church
March 4

Putting some pizazz in Moliere.

There are times when Prague can seem like Baroque heaven, offering so much early music that you need wings to keep up with it all. Two concerts over the weekend provided not only divine listening, but a reminder of how many different forms and variations the genre encompasses.

Collegium Marianum continued its rewarding collaboration with French artists on Sunday, teaming with actors Bastien Ossat and Clotilde Daniault for an evening of comedic scenes from Molière spliced into a musical program of Lully and Charpentier. The setting was the Ball Game Hall of Prague Castle, a great facility for aristocratic sports in the 17th century, but a terrible modern-day concert hall. Long, boxy and sterile, it offers about 10 rows of good seating. Beyond that, the acoustics are a disaster and the band seems remote, a miniature wind-up diorama at the far end of a giant shoebox.

But the music was outstanding, with the ensemble turning in its usual blend of spirited interpretation and technical expertise. Much of French Baroque, particularly the work of Lully and Charpentier, is rooted in song and dance, and the sound is bright and energetic. A variety of percussion instruments picked up the pace even more, so that the closing piece, selections from Lully’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, sounded like a 17th-century garden party in full swing.

The setting made it hard to appreciate the fine points of the playing, which is one of the hallmarks of Collegium Marianum. But even at a distance, the ensemble’s principal flutist and artistic director, Jana Semerádová, was impressive – running the group, as usual, playing several different flutes and percussion instruments, and occasionally acting in the comedy skits. As if all that weren’t enough, her French is excellent, too.

The acting was a lively version of the mannered face-the-audience Baroque style, with Daniault practically crawling on top of Ossat in a scene from Les femmes savantes. Both actors seemed quite good and highly skilled in the genre – but oddly, their three scenes did not elicit a single laugh from the audience. Communication didn’t seem to be a problem; the actors were practically yelling to compensate for the poor acoustics, and helpful flat screens along one side of the hall provided Czech subtitles. This reviewer, sadly lacking in both French and Czech language skills, is at a loss to explain why the comedy skits fell flat.

On Friday night, an entirely different style of Baroque packed St. Lawrence Church, where a stripped-down Collegium 1704 ensemble – five instruments and a singer – reprised several Henry Purcell favorites, along with selections from Matthew Locke and William Lawes. The music was more somber, in keeping with its primarily spiritual orientation, inspirational in tone and occasionally spellbinding, especially Purcell’s captivating vocal lines.

Chapel-sized St. Lawrence is a sweet place to hear chamber music, and the ensemble improved on the acoustics by moving off the stage and onto the floor. That cut the seating a bit, but gave the music a deep bottom and exceptionally warm resonance. With lush violins carrying most of the melodies and crisp harpsichord passages bridging the selections, the sound was the aural equivalent of the golden hour before sundown, when everything is bathed in a soft, warm glow.

The setting was also good for Markéta Cukrová’s voice, which sounded rich and full, nicely balanced with the instruments. If her diction was less than perfect in English, her emotional expression more than made up for it, especially on an achingly beautiful rendition of Purcell’s Bess of Bedlam.

Taken together, the concerts were a perfect kickoff for the Lenten season – the carnival atmosphere on Sunday night presaging Ash Wednesday, and the spiritual reflections of Friday night setting a meditative, even penitential tone for the 40 days of Lent. If their quality is any indication, the ensembles’ Easter concerts should be glorious.

For a schedule of upcoming performances:

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Estates Theater
March 1
Salon Philharmonia
February 28

Bohuš (Jiří Hájek) is reunited with his father (Pavel Horáček).

Opera is typically thought of as a sophisticated art form where only the best voices, greatest music and most elaborate productions can thrive. But in the Czech lands, its folk roots run deep, and the popularity of native operas is more often a measure of how well they capture the spirit and charm of village life.

So it’s entirely appropriate that Dvořák’s Jakobín, the third production in the Opera 2011 festival, seemed like a spirited amateur effort – even though it came from the well-respected J.K. Tyla Theater in Plzeň. The sets were simple, the voices mostly adequate, and the orchestra was only a couple notches above a local ensemble playing in a park gazebo on a Sunday afternoon. But it was all a perfect fit for a celebration of village life and values with a vague political hook.

Its French Revolution title notwithstanding, Jakobín is the story of an exiled son coming home. Most of the action takes place on a Bohemian village square and in the village schoolhouse, and much of the singing is done by dancing villagers and apple-cheeked schoolchildren. The third act opens at the castle of Count Vilém, whose returning son Bohuš has been imprisoned for alleged Jacobin sympathies. Up to then, the Count has been a distant figure – in this production, singing from an offstage box. But a tender song is enough to touch his heart, free his son, and bring a romantic subplot to a happy conclusion.

Even that whisper of politics was largely absent from this production, which devoted great energy to the ensemble pieces, cultural traditions, familial yearning (a film projection showed young Bohuš with his father and late mother) and light comedy. The dominant character was not the Count, but Filip, the Count’s aging Burgrave, who looked silly trying to court young Terinka, the schoolmaster’s daughter. It’s probably no coincidence that Jevhen Šokalo, who played the Burgrave as a clumsy fop, also had the strongest voice of the evening.

All of which went down very well with the packed house at the Estates Theater, which laughed and applauded in all the right places. The production may have lacked finesse, but it was heartfelt in a way that obviously touched the audience. And even the best opera productions don’t always hit that mark.

 Cellist Balázs Adorján.
This being Prague, sophisticated music is fortunately never far away, as a quartet of cellists demonstrated the previous evening. Two members of the Prague Philharmonia orchestra, Balász Adorján and Teodor Brcko, were joined by two Slovak colleagues, Jozef Lupták and Andrej Gál, for the debut performance of the Shafran Quartet, named for the legendary Russian cello player Daniil Shafran.

Their programming was outstanding – four sets of three or four wildly different pieces, juxtaposed or spliced together in inventive fashion. The first set was probably the most interesting: Bach’s Wer nur den lieben Gott (BWV 642), Rodion Ščedrin’s Hamlet Ballad and Prokofiev’s Scherzo Humoristique. The Bach piece is a sacred work for organ; the Ščedrin piece was commissioned for the International Cello Congress held in Kobe, Japan, in 2005, where it was performed by a thousand cellists directed by Mstislav Rostropovich; and the Prokofiev piece was composed for four bassoons.

These translated to scoring for four cellos with varying degrees of success, which was true of the entire evening. But the audacity was admirable, and the playing was excellent. All four cellists showed sharp technical command and strong expression. Most intriguing were the sonic effects that four cellos can create, especially when they’re playing the same notes. It’s like the quartet has erected a sound chamber around itself, with its own deep internal dynamics. And far from being monotonous, the four instruments playing together gives each one a distinctive voice, something hard to achieve with a cello.

The Shafran Quartet will likely not appear again soon. As Adorján noted afterward, there are a very limited number of compositions for four cellos (thus the stretch to other works), and the split locations of the players (two live in Prague, two in Bratislava) create some daunting “logistical problems.” But their Monday concert was a bracing reminder of what adventurous musicians can accomplish, and the discoveries that await in unconventional approaches to sophisticated music.