Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Robert McDuffie
May 27
MoEns Ensemble
May 26
Marianna Vasiljeva
May 22

One of the great joys of Prague Spring is the sheer variety it offers – especially this year, with so much modern music in the mix. Some highlights of the past 10 days:

A classicist at heart.
Robert McDuffie was as good as advertised Friday night, holding up both ends of a Baroque-meets-modern double bill with consummate skill and style. McDuffie is an intense player, focused and attentive to every note, and given to liberal use of body English. He also runs the band, in effect conducting as he plays. The result is a much more integrated sound than one normally hears from a visiting soloist doing a one-night stand with a local ensemble.

That was clear in the opening movement of Philip Glass’ The American Seasons, with seamless melts from solo violin lines to the full orchestra. The piece is a pastiche of Romantic melodies, trademark Glass riffs and repeating rhythms, with an occasional rock backbite. It didn’t quite work – there’s no way a 28-piece European chamber group is going to nail Glass’ pulsating bass lines. But McDuffie was very good, especially at imbuing the melodies with a rich emotional quality.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was a revelation. This critic would have said there was no way to breathe new life into such a well-worn standard. But it sounded completely fresh, even exciting, like a work heard for the first time. McDuffie’s unflagging enthusiasm for the piece came through in his impassioned playing, and the Prague Philharmonia ensemble added character and depth. The Four Seasons was also a great showcase for McDuffie’s violin – a 1735 Guarneri del Gesu that sounded ordinary in the Glass piece, but pure and golden playing the music it was made to play.

McDuffie is that rare combination of a well-trained classicist with modern sensibilities. He plays the music straight, with enough flourishes to mark a piece as his own, but with proper respect for how it’s supposed to sound. It’s not often an American comes to town who can play like a European. That’s saying something.

Painting sounds.
Graphic designer Milan Grygar has always claimed that he can “hear” his drawings and paintings, and he had a very good group playing them last Thursday at Museum Kampa. Grygar himself directed four rehearsals of the MoEns Ensemble, Prague clarinetist Kamil Doležal’s modern music group. Local composer and pianist Miroslav Pudlák sat in with the group and was at the keyboard for the opening Modrá partitura, a four-handed collision of crashing asymmetrical chords.

The other four pieces were in the same vein – mostly atmospherics, with sustained, single-note string and horn lines punctuated by explosions of percussion and piano chords. At times, the novelty of the instrumentation was more engaging than the music. Znaková partitura featured two musicians playing the piano from both ends – one banging on the keyboard, and the other plucking the strings.

Which is not to denigrate the quality of the performance. MoEns includes some of the city’s best modern music players, and they lent precision and definition to what could have been mud in lesser hands. Unfortunately, the accompanying slides of Grygar’s drawings didn’t add much, partly because the slides (or maybe the drawings themselves) were not terribly interesting, and partly because the room was still flooded with late-afternoon light, making them hard to see.

Still, there was plenty of Grygar’s work hanging on the walls to contemplate. And as a multimedia event exploring the connections between painting and music, the concert was quite good, the type of thing one might see in Berlin. An enthusiastic crowd of about 200 turned out, with many lingering afterward for autographs and photos with Grygar.

A surfeit of skill.
The hot date on Sunday 22nd was with two Russians: Marianna Vasiljeva, the winner of last year’s Prague Spring violin competition, and Dmitri Shostakovich, whose Concerto for violin and orchestra No. 1 provided an ideal showpiece for her considerable skills.

It was easy to see why Vasiljeva won the competition – she has a commanding voice, especially for a 25-year old, and plays with an impressive combination of technical finesse and emotional expression. At times, her age showed. She would hit every note of a lengthy, complicated run with dazzling fluidity, then in the next passage seem hesitant and unsure. But those moments were brief, and for the most part Vasiljeva had the sound and technique of a budding virtuoso. She will definitely be a talent to watch.

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