Wednesday, July 27, 2011


June 21 – July 23

Laying down great licks as both a promoter and  musician.

Though it’s hard to imagine now, when Prague Proms started in 2005, it was met with a great deal of skepticism. Conventional wisdom held that you can’t do serious music in Prague during the summer, when most of the musicians have left town and the tourist hordes will listen to pretty much anything, as long as it’s cheap. Staging substantial programming was considered a waste of time, and doomed to failure.

Seven seasons later, Prague Proms is one of the city’s best musical success stories. It has grown into an 18-concert series that offers a canny mix of classical, pop and jazz programming, this year with theatrical and gospel flavors in the mix. Some of the staples, like the Hollywood music night with conductor Carl Davis, are perennial sellouts. And two nights weren’t enough to accommodate all the people who wanted to see Italian composer and conductor Ennio Morricone this year, even with another 200 seats jammed into Smetana Hall.

The lion’s share of credit for this goes to Jan Hasenhörl, the founder of Prague Proms, director of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and a versatile trumpet player equally at home on a concert stage or in a jazz club. Along with the strength of his convictions, Hasenhörl has a knack for securing good sponsors, and a classy way of spending money. The amenities at this year’s orchestral concerts included carpeting and risers in Smetana Hall, corsages for the women in the orchestra and a small group of horn players welcoming concert-goers with fanfares from the outdoor balconies along Obecní dům.

No one would mistake the bulk of the programming for serious music, but no one can accuse the festival of false advertising, either. Proms (short for promenade concerts) are by definition an elastic summer form that can accommodate a wide variety of music. This year’s BBC Proms, for example, closes with a concert that mixes Lang Lang playing Liszt and Chopin with Rule, Brittania! and the British national anthem. By comparison, Prague Proms’ rotation of classical favorites, jazz nights and pure pop crowd-pleasers seems modest.

Most importantly, it works. This critic attended nine concerts this year, at several different venues, and every one of them was packed. Prague’s serious music establishment may look down its collective nose at Hasenhörl at times, but there is not an orchestra director or concert organizer in the city who would not give their eyeteeth to fill halls the way he does.

Some of the concerts were already reviewed in this space (Smetana Trio, June 22; Jazz Open, June 29; Hollywood Night, July 2) Impressions from the others:

The jazz highlight of the festival was the Terence Blanchard Quintet at Žofín Garden (July 6). The American trumpet player has been making great music for more than 30 years, and the group he brought was very sharp, schooled in the tradition and consistently engaging in the solos. Blanchard has a distinctive sound, clear and fresh, which he embellished with some reverb and echo efforts that came off nicely in the outdoor setting. The audience seemed taken with Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan, but for this critic the most interesting player on the stage was drummer Kendrick Scott, who was technically dazzling and seemed to never repeat the same phrase or rhythm twice. He and Blanchard spun out some great two-man jams.

French trumpet player Guy Touvron did a nice job with Baroque concertos by Telemann and Marcello at St. Agnes’ Convent (July 8), showing impressive facility on trills and other flourishes. But the real star of the evening was the 20-piece backup ensemble, an ad hoc group of Czech National Symphony Orchestra string players led by concertmaster Antonín Hradil. Their playing was crisp, expressive and elegant, especially on Grieg’s Holdberg Suite.

Ennio Morricone (July 14 & 15) has been writing film soundtrack music for a long time – is there anyone who doesn’t know the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly? But what most impressed was his masterful ability to get exactly the sound he wants from the orchestra, particularly the horn section. The program opened with an original cantata by Morricone, a rough-edged piece that was helped considerably by the voices of the country’s best chorus, the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno. But for 99 percent of the audience, the program hardly mattered. The adulation of the crowd was perhaps best personified by the grown man in the next seat who brought a Morricone album – a vinyl album – for the maestro to autograph.

And two nights of very large vocal ensembles brought mixed results. United Choirs (July 16) squeezed about 230 singers from eight choral groups up and behind the orchestra, in wall-to-wall rows of bodies. That number of voices wiped out Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and overwhelmed Mozart’s Requiem. A friend along for the evening who has heard the Requiem many times shook his head and said, “It’s almost disrespectful.” Indeed, parts of the performance seemed more like a circus than a classical concert.

Roughly the same number of singers were on stage for the Gospel Showcase (July 23), which worked much better. It was a bit disconcerting to see mostly white faces singing black music, but the Reverend Raymond Wise, who conducted and did the speechifyin’ between songs, made a convincing case that gospel has transcended its African-American roots and become a global genre. This critic could have done with more authentic, old-time gospel music and less of the swingin’ and swayin’ “We are the World” fare. Still, when an entire orchestra, electric rhythm combo, soulful soloists and hundreds of choral singers are going full-blast, it seems an appropriate way to get the attention of the man upstairs.

And who can argue when even Prague Lord Mayor Bohuslav Svoboda is moved to stand up in his box and clap along?

For more on Jan Hasenhörl:

Saturday, July 23, 2011


July 24

Ellingboe, center, and his soloists in Budapest.

Summer brings a flood of foreign performers every year, most of them inspired amateurs thrilled to spend an hour on a Prague stage. Last week more than 200 singers from six American choirs jammed the empora at Obecní dům and had the time of their lives murdering Mozart’s Requiem.

But a very different kind of Requiem is on tap this weekend, courtesy of Brad Ellingboe, a singer, composer, choral conductor and teacher from the United States. He is bringing four soloists, a choir from his school (the University of New Mexico), a Slovak choir and a Hungarian orchestra to perform his largest work – a Requiem that he composed in 2001 and has conducted more than 200 times since, including a performance in the Carnegie Hall “Masterworks” series last year.

It’s no light matter taking on that form, a fact that Ellingboe acknowledged via e-mail from Budapest, where he opened the European tour of his Requiem last week.

It’s daunting, especially when someone like myself considers those who have gone before me – people like Mozart, Brahms and Verdi,” Ellingboe said. “In no way do I consider my work anywhere near the equivalent of theirs.”

His Requiem emerged from a life-changing experience. “I suffered a sort of dark night of the soul about ten years ago,” he recalls. “All of us who live long enough start to consider what happens after we die. In my case, I was able to do something with this depression and write my way out of it.”

Ellingboe employed the standard Latin Mass text, minus the “Dies Irae,” which is rarely heard at modern funeral Masses. And he added poems by John Donne and George Herbert in line with his spiritual beliefs.

In the U.S., there are currently two conflicting streams of thought in regard to what happens when we die,” he said. “One says, grandma died and now she is with grandpa in heaven looking down at us. The other, older thought says, when we die we go to sleep and await the Day of Judgment, when there will be a sorting out of who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. I personally believe in the latter idea, which is the point of those two poems. In a way, they fulfill the liturgical function of the Dies Irae movement.”

Lest all this weigh too heavily, the concert will open with a performance of Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass. “I am a great lover of Haydn, and this tour takes us to cities that were important in the Austro-Hungarian empire. So I felt it only right that the companion piece should be by Haydn, and the Lord Nelson Mass is a favorite of mine.”

This will be Ellingboe’s first appearance in Prague, and he certainly has his attitude on straight. “I am always aware of Prague’s great musical traditions, and it is not false modest to say that I am humbled to bring a piece of mine to the city that saw premieres by Mozart.”

What the audience takes away from his concert will depend even more than usual on what they bring to it – not just musically, but spiritually. It will be interesting to see what a contemporary composer has done with one of the oldest and most difficult genres in classical music, and in this case, how well Ellingboe’s work conveys his ideas and beliefs.

I think of my Requiem as me explaining what I think happens after we die to the audience,” he said. “I explained it as clearly and as well as I could, and I hope they find some comfort and joy in hearing the explanation.

If we can give people some pleasure, or make them think some thoughts they might not otherwise have had, then we will be happy.”

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Various venues
July 22 – August 8

Captivating music in enchanting settings.

The best music festival of the summer gets underway at Prague Castle Friday night with a trip to 17th-century Venice whimsically titled “On the Wings of the Lion.” By the time it wraps two and a half weeks later, listeners will also have been transported to Renaissance Spain, the court of Burgundy, 18th-century Peru, a Biedermier salon and Versailles at the height of King Louis XIVʼs lavish reign.

Organized by Pragueʼs outstanding Collegium Marianum school and ensemble, the Summer Festivities of Early Music is the thinking personʼs Baroque festival. The programming is built on serious scholarship that follows ideas or trends, or traces the development of a form like the concertato, the focus of Fridayʼs concert. The performers are some of the finest on the European Early Music Network, with specialties in particular periods, styles of playing or obscure instruments. And the venues are carefully selected to match the music – sacred, secular or somehow evocative of the original setting or era.

Thatʼs what makes this festival unique,” says Mark Vanscheeuwijck, a Baroque cellist and professor of musicology at the University of Oregon who serves as an adviser to a number of European Baroque festivals, and wrote the program notes for this one. “Most festivals in Europe ignore the importance of putting the music in the right kind of historic and acoustic settings. Itʼs like eating a good meal with the wrong wine.”

Not much chance of that with venues like the Ball Game Hall, Rudolf Gallery and Spanish Hall at Prague Castle, Troja Chateau, St. Agnesʼ Convent and Břevnov Monastery, all enchanting places to hear early music. With their rich atmospherics, they offer a concert experience thatʼs about as close as you can get to the performances that filled similar spaces in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

If youʼre not an aficionado of the genre, itʼs difficult to appreciate the level of detail that goes into re-creating those performances. Friday nightʼs concert, for example, features Musica Fiata, a German early music ensemble founded in 1976 by Roland Wilson, a Baroque wind music specialist and cornett player. He was asked to describe his groupʼs performing style.

Musicians of that period were expected to deliver their performances in the same way as an orator,” Wilson replied. “If one applies historical articulation and bowing types correctly to the music, it results in an extremely differentiated structure whereby no two notes have the same length and volume. Each musical ʻwordʼ must be clearly articulated before the elements can be joined to make a meaningful phrase.”

But one need not be a scholar to enjoy and appreciate the performances. Vanscheeuwijckʼs program notes are very good, and the music is captivating whether youʼre hearing it for the first or hundredth time.

What you should see is mostly a matter of taste. The Capella de Ministreres ensemble from Valencia will play ensaladas, a form popular during the Spanish Renaissance, accompanied by four vocalists in the Rudolf Gallery (July 25). Belgiumʼs Capilla Flamenca, led by artistic director Dirk Snellings, will be performing polyphonic liturgical music at St. Agnesʼ (July 27). And Musica Temprana, a Dutch ensemble founded by the formidable Dutch-Argentinian guitarist and vocalist Adrián Rodriguez Van der Spoel, will play Peruvian sacred music in the splendiferous Troja Chateau (August 1).

Doron David Sherwin, regarded as one of the best cornett players in the world, will join harpsichordist Barbara Maria Willi for a program of celebratory motets and virtuoso music from Roman and Venetian churches at St. Agnesʼ (August 3). Another instrument that has fallen into obscurity, the csakan, will be featured in the Biedemier salon evening with Laterna Magica, a trio from Belium, at Břevnov Monastery (August 4).

And the finale is a real extravaganza: Two singers and three music ensembles, including Collegium Marianum, presenting operatic selections by Lully, Charpentier and other French composers in the dazzling Spanish Hall (August 8). This is a great opportunity to see pieces performed as they were in the court of King Louis XIV, with colorful costumes and elaborate declamation.

Take your pick, but get your tickets now. The thirst for Baroque music in Prague is insatiable, and these concerts almost always sell out.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Old Town Square
July 12 & 13

A deserted Old Town Square after the deluge.

Menacing black clouds...” was the last entry in the notebook for Bohemia Jazz Fest this year. About 30 seconds later, a massive thunderstorm descended on Old Town Square like the wrath of God, shutting down the music, sending the crowd scattering in all directions and flooding the VIP tent, where blasts of thunder hammered on the waterlogged canvas like cannons.

That wasn’t the finale BFJ organizers had in mind. But it was spectacular, with dramatic streaks of lightning still lighting up the square after the rain had subsided. And there was more than a little synchronicity between the weather and the music. A Norwegian band was deep into what sounded like the soundtrack for a horror film when the real thing blew in.

Ah, but what a start! On Tuesday the sun was shining on Cæcilie Norby, a Danish singer who sounded very cool in the sweltering heat. Her sultry voice is made for nightclubs, but she managed to project both intimacy and volume while pulling off some impressive runs, particularly in her encores, which were almost operatic. And Norby’s band was very good, putting on their own show with sharp, intelligent solos.

By the time headliner McCoy Tyner took the stage, the square was jammed. This critic has seen bigger crowds there, but never packed so tight. Did all those people really appreciate seeing a legend, one of the last authentic voices from the golden age of bop, the only surviving member of John Coltrane’s seminal Classic Quartet?

Probably not, to judge from the constant talking and yelling. But for anyone paying attention, it was an inspirational performance. Tyner is 72 years old and needs to be helped on and off the stage, but at the keyboard, he does not coast for a minute. His playing is as fresh and intelligent as ever, masterful in the leads and inventive in the fills. He can crank up a boogie-woogie beat or lay back for a thoughtful solo, and he still gets off on nailing a turn or a phrase, smiling and laughing with his bandmates. His sound is like a pure, cool breeze from a lost era of style and sophistication.

Tyner seemed a bit befuddled by all the hooplah surrounding the Bohemia Jazz Award, but genuinely touched to receive it. “You’re part of the music,” he told the cheering crowd. “We’re all part of the music.” Called back after his set for a final bow, Tyner smiled warmly and said, “Hope to see you again” – not a casual parting for a man his age.

Wednesday started hot and sunny as well, but even wearing sunglasses, Norwegian singer Inger Marie Gundersen didn’t fare very well in the late-afternoon glare. Her band was hard to hear, and her vocals barely carried above the noise of the crowd. It was a big disappointment, especially for anyone familiar with the lovely, nuanced work on her recordings.

Then there was a long break before the Norwegian contingent finally took the stage. Much of that time was spent promoting Norway, which was basically paying for the evening. Norwegian Ambassador Jens Eikaas made an appearance after a film showing Norwegian-funded projects in the Czech Republic. The promo film was hosted by BJF founder and president Rudy Linka, who appeared to be having a very good time mugging his way through an increasingly outrageous series of costumes and settings. Can a talk show for this man be far behind?

By the time guitarist Terje Rypdal, trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg and the 17-piece Bergen Big Band were settled in their seats, rain drops had started to fall, which was a shame. Rypdal is a longtime European guitar hero whose solos covered some interesting ground between jazz and rock, as did his jams with Mikkelborg. And the horn section of the big band was first-rate, laying down that smooth, cerebral style of Scandinavian jazz.

For a few minutes, it seemed as if the rain might pass. Then the band launched into an extended piece called “Crime and Punishment,” whose dark colors and dissonant tones seemed to invoke increasingly ominous skies. It was fun while the music matched the lightning crackling above the Gothic towers of Tyn church, but then all hell broke loose.

Or, depending on where you were, the biggest and best light show of the year.

Norway is funding some impressive projects in the Czech Republic. For a closer look:

And for the rest of this year’s BFJ schedule:

Thursday, July 14, 2011

JOSEF SUK, 1929 - 2011

An elegant heir of a proud musical tradition. 

The Czech Republic lost a beloved member of its music community and an irreplaceable part of its cultural heritage when Josef Suk died last week, one month shy of his 82nd birthday.

A world-renowned violinist, Suk carried more than his personal ambitions when he made his concert debut in Prague in November, 1954. He was a member of the first family of Czech music, following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, Antonín Dvořák, and his grandfather, Josef Suk (who married Dvořák’s oldest daughter), both esteemed musicians and composers. When he began touring with the Czech Philharmonic in 1959 and then as a soloist in the West, he was an emissary from a country hidden behind the Iron Curtain and the bearer of the Czech canon.

Through it all Suk let his instrument do the talking, and it spoke eloquently of a proud musical tradition. Trained by violin virtuoso Jaroslav Kocián at the Prague Conservatory, Suk developed world-class technical skills and a disciplined yet poetic style that was known for its purity of tone and rich expressiveness. His was one of those rare voices that is instantly recognizable, clear and compelling with an emotional intensity that transcended cultural and political barriers.

And the world responded. Suk began recording with Supraphon in 1958 and over the course of his career appeared on 410 records on that label, the last a 2008 release of chamber works by his grandfather and great-grandfather. In 1999, he received a platinum disc for sales of 1.1 million records. Among the many other awards and honors he received were six Grand Prix du Disque de l’Académie Charles Cros from France, the Flötenuhr Prize from the Mozart Society in Vienna for his recordings of Mozart violin concertos, and the Edison Prize from the Netherlands for recordings of Bach sonatas and partitas.

That range of awards reflects the remarkable breadth of Suk’s talent. He was equally adept as a concert soloist and a chamber musician – the latter a natural fit, given his grandfather’s position as second violinist in the seminal Czech Quartet, which established the modern standard for string quartets. Suk was running his own chamber trio at the age of 22, and continued working with chamber groups throughout his entire life. He was also an accomplished viola player, and at one point in his career would give recitals playing violin the first half, and viola the second.

Suk retired from performing in 2002, but remained active in the recording studio and with occasional concert appearances and private recitals. He was also an energetic supporter of chamber music in Prague and young musicians, lending his name and encouragement to efforts like Young Prague, the annual showcase of promising players from Europe, Japan and the United States.

On the several occasions this critic was privileged to hear Suk play, it was like being transported to another time, a lost era of Old World elegance. His style was formal yet deeply felt, his sound warm and full. In his hands the music not only came alive, but felt like a sacred trust, resonant with ideas and aspirations and achievements reaching across generations and centuries.

A memorial service for Suk is being held at 11:00 this morning at the Rudolfinum. His funeral Mass will be at the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in Vyšehrad at 11:00 tomorrow. Afterward, his remains will be interred at Vyšehrad Cemetery along with the rest of the nation’s cultural heroes.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


Old Town Square
July 12 & 13

A great player and gifted concert organizer.

Rudy Linka is a magician. He’s better-known as a jazz guitarist who has carved out an impressive international career since he fled communist-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1980, relocating first to Sweden and then settling in the United States. But what he’s been able to accomplish in his homeland over the past seven years would make even Houdini jealous.

Starting in 2005, Linka turned town squares throughout the Czech Republic into concert sites featuring some of the biggest names in jazz, like John Scofield, Stanley Clarke, Bill Frisell, Ralph Towner, Ravi Coltrane, Joshua Redman and Roy Haynes. The idea was to combine the best of two worlds – the visual splendor of historic Central European with modern jazz – and make it available to the public for free. Now an annual event, Bohemia Jazz Fest has become one of Europe’s largest summer music festivals, attracting more than 70,000 people in seven cities last year.

This year’s festival, which starts in Prague on Tuesday night, is another winner. The opening-night headliner is McCoy Tyner, whose distinctive piano style was an integral part of the seminal John Coltrane Quartet in the 1960s. Subsequent shows on the tour feature John Scofield and other marquee names like Danilo Pérez, Tom Harrell and Trilok Gurtu. Linka was also able to tap a Norwegian cultural promotion campaign for an impressive slate of Scandinavian performers that includes singers Inger Marie Gundersen and Cæcilie Norby, guitarist Terje Rypdal and trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg.

As anyone who has tried to accomplish anything in the Czech Republic knows, staging an event of this magnitude is akin to parting the Red Sea. Beyond the basic logistics of organizing concerts, there is the daunting task of finding and holding sponsors, a real feat of legerdemain in the current financial climate. And the A-list of performers that play at BJF would almost certainly not be appearing in cities like Tábor and České Budějovice were it not for the personal relationship they have with Linka.

Then there are all the special favors. It’s no secret that most business in this country is conducted with bribes and payoffs. Linka has too much integrity to buy into that system, and too much class to talk about it. But there are a lot of hands out, and negotiating that gantlet without compromising while keeping everybody happy requires considerable skill, even for a native Czech speaker. That Linka handles it all with good cheer and unruffled aplomb is even more remarkable.

The real McCoy.
Ultimately, it’s all about the music, and Prague is definitely getting the lion’s share of great sounds this year. The opening band on Tuesday is the Ondřej Štveráček Quartet, whose 2010 release What’s Outside has been nominated for Best Jazz Album of the Year in the Czech Republic. They will be followed by Cæcilie Norby, a sultry Danish singer who is bringing an outstanding band that includes pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, a headliner in his own right. And McCoy Tyner is one of the few people in the business who can legitimately and accurately be called a legend.

Great Gundersen.
Norwegian Ambassador Jens Eikaas will be on hand Wednesday night to introduce two sterling examples of the progressive music that comes out of Norway: Jazz diva Inger Marie Gundersen, whose sensitive style invokes comparisons to Joni Mitchell, and guitarist Terje Rypdal, who blends jazz, rock and classical influences to create a uniquely European sound. Rypdal and trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg will be backed by the 17-piece Bergen Big Band.

And none of it will cost you more than the price of the beer you drink.

For more on Bohemia Jazz Fest and the entire seven-city schedule:

For more on the performers:
Inger Marie Gundersen:

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Ledebour Garden
Through October 3

The hats are higher than the voices in Endymio.

Its all about atmosphere at Ledebour Garden, where the new Prague Baroque Festival is taking wing this summer. A sumptuous sala terrena on the sculptured grounds is hosting six Baroque operas playing in rotation every night through October 3. To call this a Herculean task is no exaggeration – in fact, a statue of Hercules clubbing Cerberus overlooks the performance space. And subduing the three-headed guardian of the gates of hell might prove easier than mastering this ambitious undertaking.

The man behind it is Tomáš Klíma, perhaps best-known as one of the founders of Palác Akropolis, the sprawling rock club in Žižkov. As Klíma tells the story, he and two well-connected friends were talking over beers in a pub about a year ago when they decided that what Prague really needs is a summer Baroque opera fest. Bingo on the timing – it’s no secret that all the best music deserts the city when the tourist crowds are heaviest. And Klíma, who readily admits that he has no expertise in Baroque music, was able to enlist two people who do: Tomáš Hanzlík, the artistic director of Ensemble Damian, and Ondřej Macek, who runs the period music group Hof-Musici.

Though both men have mounted Baroque opera productions before, they are not the top-of-the-line Baroque specialists in Prague; those slots are held by Collegium 1704, Collegium Marianum and Musica Florea. But as a practical matter, they were available for three-month gigs – and, Klíma confides, “It doesn’t take a fortune to pay them.”

Though all of the operas originate in the Baroque era, much of the music does not. Along with being bandleaders, Hanzlík and Macek are researchers who spend time in dusty archives unearthing lost or forgotten manuscripts. In 2008 Macek and Hof-Musici resurrected Argippo, a Vivaldi opera that premiered in Prague in 1730. The libretto survived but the music was thought lost until Macek found about two-thirds of it in a private archive in Germany. He filled in the rest using music from other contemporaneous Vivaldi operas.

For this festival he has performed a similar feat with L’Unione della Pace, e di Marte (The union of Peace and Mars), a 1727 Vivaldi serenata lacking music until Macek noticed that arias from other Vivaldi operas fit the text for L’Unione. Surmising that the composer was pressed for time and borrowed from his own work, Macek cobbled together another reconstruction.

Four of the other five operas were out of the same mold – extant libretto, but no score – so Hanzlík went ahead and composed the music himself, sometimes in collaboration with Czech musicologist and composer Vít Zouhar, who wrote all the music for Coronide. Hanzlík also doubles as the stage director for Endymio, Torso, Yta Innocens and Coronide.

The final opera, Facetum Musicum (Musical Joke), is a pastiche from 1738, when it was a common practice to lift arias from popular Italian operas and string them together with a bit of original recitative. The unknown author of this work borrowed from Vivaldi, Lotti, Händel and other composers who have not yet been identified.

The results are mixed, based on the two productions this critic has seen.

Endymio is noteworthy mostly for the outrageous headgear the singers wear – the title character’s hat is almost taller than he is. There are two solid voices in the cast (Jan Mikušek and Markéta Večeřová); otherwise, it’s a collection of actors who can sing. The music veers between Baroque and modern, at times sounding more like Philip Glass than Antonio Vivaldi. And Ensemble Damian seems bored, playing without any color or dynamics, and sometimes just flat-out playing the wrong notes. The only real energy comes from a small chorus.

L’Unione is better, with three singers who offer almost no interpretation but have lovely voices. They don’t get to do much other than sit in chairs and take turns singing, but since the music is authentic Vivaldi, it’s not a problem. And Hof-Musici is good, even as a reduced five-person ensemble playing with Macek leading from the harpsichord.

For all their weaknesses, the productions have a great deal of charm. The performers are in whiteface and elaborate, colorful costumes that steal the show. They move in an affected Baroque manner that may seem robotic to modern sensibilities, but adds a beguiling layer of artifice. And the setting is seductive, a romantic formal garden with ornate balustrades and staircases just below the Castle walls that takes on magical qualities as twilight deepens and the performance is bathed in the soft glow of the footlights.

This is typically tourist fare, and Klíma and his staff are making a heavy pitch for the tourist trade. But even locals used to a better caliber of music will find an evening in Ledebour Garden enchanting, albeit at a steep price. Klíma cites Shakespeare at the Castle as the model for what he would like his festival to become, and that packs the Burgrave’s Courtyard every summer with ham-fisted versions of the Bard performed in Czech. There’s no reason the Prague Baroque Festival can’t do the same, with a much better product.

For more on the Prague Baroque Festival, including a complete schedule:

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Hollywood Night
July 3
Prague Proms Open
June 29
A Holocaust Remembrance
June 28

Proof positive that star power transfers to music was on vivid display last night at Obecní dům, where an overflow crowd turned out for Prague Proms’ annual Hollywood Night. Czech TV cameras jammed the aisles and balconies as the spotlights fell on conductor Carl Davis, who led the Czech National Symphony Orchestra through two hours of songs and suites from films ranging from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Mamma Mia!

A flamboyant maestro.
Davis is the perfect choice for this sort of fare. An American who moved to London in the early ’60s, he is a longtime composer of television and film music, with credits that include soundtracks for The French Lieutenant’s Woman and the restored version of Abel Gance’s Napoléon. He is also a bit of a raconteur at the podium, cracking wise and chatting up the audience between songs, and enthusiastically leading the cheer “Who you gonna call?” in the theme from Ghostbusters. His flamboyant wardrobe adds just the right touch of glitter.

The sound was about what you’d expect for orchestral versions of songs like “New York, New York” and “As Time Goes By” – spirited and fun, even bombastic at times, a bit rough around the edges but smartly played. Davis brought some nice arrangements that he managed to infuse with a sparkling effervescence, and he’s no slouch when it comes to real music. The second movement from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 (from The King’s Speech) and a pas de deux from Swan Lake (from Black Swan) would have stood up in any regular-season concert.

Vocalist Lance Ellington added a nightclub patina to numbers like “Moon River” and “Come Fly With Me,” though songs like “A View to a Kill” were mostly a reminder that a lot of bad music was written for the James Bond movies. The electric guitars came out for the 007 theme, and the orchestra was in full rock ’n’ roll mode for the finale, an Abba suite from Mamma Mia!

Quite frankly, the allure of music from mainstream pap like Titanic and Cats (cheating a bit there) escapes this critic. But about 1,200 people who think otherwise clapped and stomped their feet and had a rousing good time last night. Just one note to Davis, who likes to provide lengthy introductions to the songs: No one in Casablanca actually says “Play it again, Sam.” That was Woody Allen.

True to the spirit of summer festivals, Prague Proms offers a variety of music, including back-to-back sets by five groups of young Czech jazz stars who showed some impressive chops at Jazz Dock a few nights earlier. Still a bit overloaded from United Islands, this reviewer only caught the first three, any of whom could headline their own evening. David Dorůžka offered a reminder why he is the premier guitarist of his generation, and Beata Hlavenková turned in a very tasty performance with her trio. An intelligent and accomplished pianist, Hlavenková rolls out sophisticated arrangements in loose structures that leave a lot of room for improvisation. She likes to sing along with herself, a quirk that doesn’t always work but can add some sweet grace notes.

Crossing over with acumen.
The opening band, the Epoque Quartet, deserves a lot more attention than they get. A crossover string quartet in the vein of America’s Turtle Island Quartet (some of whose music they cover), the group serves up razor-sharp performances in a style that manages to be both energetic and disciplined. Classically trained quartets often sound like they’re slumming when they switch genres, but this foursome loses nothing covering Pat Metheny or standards like “You’ve Changed.” Violinist and singer Gabriela Vermelho added some spice to the set with her soft but penetrating vocals.

And there’s room for just a quick acknowledgment of the fine program that local pianist Patricia Goodson and American composer Laurence Sherr presented in their Holocaust Remembrance at St. Lawrence Church the previous evening. Along with works by Ilse Weber and Viktor Ullmann, both of whom lost their lives at Auschwitz, there were two pieces by Sherr and two from Rosy Wertheim, a little-known composer who barely survived the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam.

Remembering for the right reasons.
Sherr’s Elegy and Flame Language (an adaptation of a poem by Nelly Sachs) neatly captured moments of meditation, discovery and despair. The latter, performed by a solid chamber ensemble, included some fine vocal work by mezzo-soprano Kristýna Valoušková. But the real discovery of the evening was Wertheim, whose Satie-like compositions were an intriguing combination of engaging melodies and inventive structural turns. Goodson offered sensitive interpretations at the keyboard, with cellist Petr Nouzovský adding some plaintive lines to the second piece, Intermezzo II.

Memorial concerts can be overbearing, but this one felt more redeeming than depressing, in keeping with the goal expressed by the organizers in the program notes: “We seek to honor [the composers’] suffering, but not to limit their contributions, which transcend the horrors of the Holocaust.”

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