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:

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