Monday, August 29, 2011


Coal Mine Michal
August 26
Gallery of Fine Arts
August 27

Clever clarinetist (and shameless flirt) Karel Dohnal.

The blistering temperatures matched the intensity of the music at Ostrava Days over the weekend, with two high-volume avant-garde events kicking off nine consecutive nights of contemporary music concerts in this gritty industrial city in northern Moravia.

On Friday night, trolleybus 104 swerved and lurched through a sweaty ride to Coal Mine Michal, an industrial heritage site on the city’s east side. Atop a towering tipple, crossed hammers in green neon overlook a massive mining and processing plant with haunting echoes of more prosperous times. In the huge changing room where the performances were held, miners’ clothes still hang by chains from the ceiling, like ragged ghosts.

The spooky factory ambience was perfect for abstract, otherworldly pieces like Cecilia Lopez’s Musica Mecanica para Chapas, in which standard horn instruments and various electronics interact with a chapa, a large, suspended sheet of metal hooked up to amplifiers. What sounds like a random series of noises is actually carefully scored, with the musicians all following timers and achieving some surprisingly sophisticated sounds.

Stockhausen’s Harlequin is more like a musical stand-up routine than a formal piece, with a solo clarinetist in costume squeezing every last laugh and improvisational riff out of a basic 12-bar hook. Karel Dohnal is a superb player, and was not shy about jumping at the sight of his own shadow or shamelessly flirting with women in the audience – for too long, perhaps, nearly 45 minutes in a hot, crowded room. After that, a heavy but brief bass distortion set by John Eckhardt, with accompanying ambient horn accents, came as a relief.

There were two musical standouts. Vocalist Salome Kammer gave a brilliant reading of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate, employing changing tones, tempos, sound effects and occasional snatches of melody to give life and personality to what is essentially a long string of nonsense syllables. And an ensemble from the Ostravská Banda orchestra served up an excellent improv, starting on stage and then expanding throughout the space – behind and to the sides of the audience, up on catwalks, in adjoining rooms – to create a vivid three-dimensional jam. Along with standard instruments like a trumpet and cello, in-situ objects like corrugated metal doors were used to create sharp percussive effects, while other players wandered around twanging a Jew’s harp or pushing a screechy metal chair across the floor.

The piece ended with what sounded like screams from an adjacent shower room, where earlier in the evening, performance artist Daniël Pflogger stood naked, back to the audience, with a menacing-looking device hooked to his genitals. Periodic blasts of electronic noise and medical charts on the walls were meant to simulate actual clinical research of male sexuality: “I reproduce the contraction pattern of the subject’s sphincter muscle that was registered during masturbation and orgasm,” Pflogger explained in the program book. But what it looked like was someone being tortured, with the wires and Pflogger’s outstretched arms calling to mind images from Abu Ghraib. The shower room setting added even creepier undercurrents. While not typical of Ostrava Days, Pflogger’s Electrodes put quite a jolt in the opening evening.

Saturday was all about jolts of electricity, with a 10-hour electronic music marathon starting in bright light and steamy afternoon heat at the city’s Gallery of Fine Arts. The audience moved between two small rooms for alternating performances, dashing out in between sets for fresh air and liquid relief in an adjoining beer garden.

For those of us who are not practitioners, electronic music all sounds the same after a while – a limited vocabulary of noises and effects, rearranged in order and volume. It even looks the same, mostly male soloists or duos hunched over tangles of electronic boards and wires, intently twisting knobs and dials, never looking at the audience. The first real break from that came courtesy of Tomáš Vtípil, who turned in a set that sounded like a madman had been turned loose in an orchestra pit and was sampling every instrument to see what insane sound he could pull out of it, with occasional screams of rage or exultation. Inventive fare, but the volume drove this critic to the beer garden, where it was much more pleasant listening to the noise through the open windows, with a cold Ostravar in hand.

Still, there were interesting moments. Gordon Monahan did an engaging mixed-media theremin piece that, he explained, originated when he couldn’t stop a radio broadcast from interfering with an electronic performance in Toronto. Petr Kotík introduced a recording of a new version of his sound collage PIUP, which was a treat to hear. And the duo No Sugar turned in an explosively inventive set, with multi-instrumentalist Liz Albee getting some amazing electronic noises out of an ordinary trumpet.

For this critic, the highlight of the day was the pairing of Andrea Neumann and Ivan Palacký. Along with electronics and metal percussion, Neumann plays an “inside piano” – a piece of the string board, literally from inside a piano. Palacký sits at a table loaded with gadgets, tapping, scratching and twirling his way through them like a kid in an electronic toy shop. Unlike much of the music on Saturday, theirs was quiet and nuanced, an accumulation of many small sounds and a mesmerizing exploration of the spaces between sounds.

The museum setting added its own dynamics in the form of a “Motor Art” exhibition. While industrial sounds were roaring and clanging away in the performance spaces, visitors could wander an adjacent room where several vintage Jawa motorcycles were on display, along with some true beauties: a 1902 Laurin & Clement belt-driven BZ motorcycle; a powder-blue 1961 Jawa two-seat Skůtr; and a cherry-red Aero 500 roadster in such bright mint condition that it almost hurt your eyes to look at it.

Geeky? Definitely. And a perfect match for a suds-soaked day of geeky electronics.

For a tour of Coal Mine Michal:

Sunday, August 28, 2011


Various venues
August 29 – September 15

Anna Hashimoto embodies the look and spirit of the festival.

Thereʼs always been a tendency to overlook Mladá Praha (Young Prague), the annual showcase of promising young classical talent. Which is a bit of a mystery to this critic. The organizers do a great job of culling competition winners and recommended students from around the globe, bringing them to Prague and giving them a chance to perform in sensational settings. Most of the concerts are free, and the music is good. Itʼs a nice way to ease into the new season, and get a sneak preview of the stars of tomorrow.

This is no idle boast. For the festivalʼs 20th anniversary this year, the organizers have invited back alumni to play with another sterling set of young performers. The alumni roster includes two of the Czech Republicʼs finest cello players, Jiří Bárta (ʼ92) and Tomáš Jamník (ʼ01 and ʼ06). Also returning are Italian pianist Giuseppe Andaloro (ʼ04), who went on to win the prestigious Bolzano Ferruccio Busoni Competition; Canadian tenor Mark Murphy (ʼ04), now a soloist at an opera house in Gelsenkirchen, Germany; and Japanese violinist Ryosuke Suho, who won a major competition in Moscow just one month after appearing at last yearʼs festival.

If the names of some of the new players this year are unfamiliar, they will not be for long. Serbian pianist Tijana Andrejic, 25, has already performed on every major stage in her country. French horn player Jocelyn Willem, 25, is a 2007 Prague Spring laureate. Japanese cellist Dai Miyata, also 25, won the grand prix at the Rostropovich Cello Competition in Paris in 2009. Anna Hashimoto, 22, has won major clarinet competitions in Belgium and Italy and regularly sells out concerts in her homeland. And who knows what awaits 21-year old Hungarian flute player Zsuzsuanna Tóth and 14-year old Dutch violinist Boglárka Erdös?

One of the reasons the festival has been able to attract such a wealth of talent is because it has one foot firmly planted in Japan. Professor Yoshifumi Nakajima, a composer and choral conductor, has been with Mladá Praha since it began, bringing the pick of young Japanese talent to Prague along with some very good choirs. And the Japanese Embassy has been proactive about securing the support of major sponsors like Lexus, Panasonic and Chiyoda Technol.

The ambassador himself gets on the phone and tells the companies, ʻYou have to help these young people,ʼ” says Norbert Heller, a pianist and member of the Mladá Praha organizing committee. “Itʼs most unusual.”

Mladá Praha has also benefited from the support of prominent Czech musicians. Violinist Lubomír Kostecký, a member of the famed Smetana Quartet, was a key early supporter of the festival. World-renowned violinist Josef Suk lent his name to Mladá Praha as its honorary president until his death earlier this year.

Serbian star Andrejic.
So the festivalʼs 20th anniversary marks a significant milestone, with a program to match. There are two concerts at the Rudolfinum this year, both of which would be a solid addition to any regular-season schedule. On Sept. 3, Andrejic and Andaloro are teaming up for Bachʼs Double concerto for two pianos and strings in C minor, Willem will play a Mozart concerto and Miyata is taking on Dvořákʼs seminal Concerto for cello and orchestra in B minor. On Sept. 15, young Israeli conductor Bar Avni will lead the Hradec Kralové Philharmonic, with Hashimoto soloing on a Spohr concerto and Bárta taking center stage for Tchaikovskyʼs Variations on a Rococo Theme.

Still, the centerpiece of the festival is likely to be a performance of Mozartʼs Requiem at the breathtaking Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady at Strahov Monastery. The venue alone is worth a visit. Professor Nakajima will be conducting a large group of Japanese singers, combined with Pragueʼs Kühn Choir, and the Pavel Haas Chamber Orchestra. As this concert is dedicated to the memory of the earthquake disaster victims in Japan, the age limit for performers (25 and under) has been stretched a bit to accommodate four adult vocal soloists, two Japanese and two Czech.

There are also some tasty concerts scheduled for Břevnov Monastery, Wallenstein Palace and the open-air Ledebur Garden below Prague Castle. An additional seven performances will be given on the road, in cities like Teplice and Litomyšl.

Five years ago, a lot of these performers were just kids,” Heller says. Actually, a lot of them still look like kids. But as this critic has learned in the past, they play with a skill and sensitivity well beyond their years.

For a complete Mladá Praha schedule:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


Various venues in Ostrava
August 26 – September 3

A thoroughly modern composer and educator.

Given the iconoclastic nature of the Czech Republic, itʼs only fitting that the best music festival of the year is being held not in Prague, but in Ostrava, a proud industrial center in northern Moravia.

Ostrava Days would be a remarkable event no matter where it was held on the strength of the program alone: Nine consecutive nights of modern music by Xenakis, Cage, Ligeti, Feldman, Stockhausen, Rihm and a raft of lesser-known composers, along with more than 20 commissioned works and world premieres. The performers include vocalists Salome Kammer and Katalin Károlyi, the S.E.M. Ensemble and JACK Quartet from New York, conductors Johannes Kalitzke and Roland Kluttig, and resident orchestras Ostravská banda and the Janáček Philharmonic.

The concerts cap a three-week institute, held biennially since 2001, that brings an international mix of roughly 30 international students to Ostrava to study with contemporary composers. Lecturers in previous years have included Louis Andriessen, Tristan Murail, Alvin Lucier and Kaija Saariaho; this yearʼs faculty includes Bernhard Lang, Phill Niblock, Rolf Riehm, Carola Bauckholt and the founder and artistic director of Ostrava Days, Petr Kotík.

Kotík is a notorious figure in the Czech Republic, a flutist, conductor and composer who studied in Prague and Vienna and nearly started a riot with a piece that he premiered at the 1964 Warsaw Autumn festival. He moved to New York in the early 1980s and returns only reluctantly to Prague, which he dismisses as a musical smetiště (garbage heap). His message to students in the opening classroom session of Ostrava Days 2009 was equally off-putting: “This is not a school and we are not going to teach you. Nobody can teach you how to become a composer. We donʼt have any kind of structure here, and every one of us is going to proceed independently.”

And he wasnʼt kidding. “Weʼve had students come and spend most of their time playing ping-pong,” Kotík said after this yearʼs Ostrava Days press conference. “And then they show up at the next festival with a very good piece.”

Experience is what students who are serious about getting their work performed gain. “We have an orchestra booked for two hours of rehearsal time in the morning, and if youʼre not done by the end of that time, too bad, theyʼre not going to stay longer for you,” Kotík explained. “So thereʼs a certain amount of pressure, which many of them are experiencing for the first time. Itʼs not a pampered life, like when youʼre studying in school.”

New views from the JACK Quartet.
Experience is also the main attraction for audiences, though without the pressure. The performance schedule always features a vibrant mix of solo, chamber and orchestral works, pieces by former students and festival instructors, and this year, a 12-hour electronic music marathon. Nothing is too weird, esoteric or sophisticated to put on the program. And the very large Philharmonic Hall can accommodate pieces and ensembles that would be logistically impossible elsewhere. In 2009, the brilliant Hungarian ensemble Amadinda covered a gymnasium-sized floor with percussion instruments – all homemade. And for this critic, hearing Edgar Vareseʼs Ameriques performed live by a 140-piece orchestra was a life-changing experience.

Ostravaʼs gritty ambience adds a unique dimension to the festival. Prague may not be the musical dump that Kotík imagines, but thereʼs no question that the opening night multimedia concert is going to be a lot more interesting in the imposing Coal Mine Michal than, say, at the Rudolfinum.

Tickets to all the concerts are ridiculously cheap, and reasonable accommodations are easy to find. Ostrava also has a surprising number of good restaurants, and the most famous strip of bars and pubs in the country on Stodolní ulice, “the street that never sleeps.”

Itʼs not a classic late-summer vacation. But for an adventurous musical excursion, you will not do better.

For more on Ostrava Days and a complete schedule:

Photos: Petr Kotík, OCNM Archive; JACK Quartet, Caroline Savage.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Berg Orchestra
August 12
L’Entrée du Roy
August 8

Suffering in St. George's Basilica.

Even for those of us who have seen it before, the Berg Orchestra’s Passion of Joan of Arc is an electrifying experience. The images in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film are as profound and unsettling as they were 80 years ago. And the contemporary score by Lithuanian composer Bronius Kutavičius offers disturbingly dark accompaniment, with passages of dramatic suffering and emotional turmoil interspersed with church bells, chants and other fragments of medieval sacred music.

The orchestra first presented the program in the spring of 2010, just four months after its world premiere in Vilnius, with the composer in attendance. It was a memorable event, with the gloomy, faded grandeur of the Lucerna theater adding to the atmospherics. But that setting paled next to the venue where the Passion was performed on Friday night – St. George’s Basilica at Prague Castle, a towering, austere structure still resonant with the architecture and aspirations of the 13th century.

St. George’s is not an ideal place for a concert, long and narrow with a screen that seemed half a kilometer away from the pews. And much of the audience could not see the orchestra, which performed on the floor, directly in front of the first few rows of seating. But once the lights went down and deep bass and cello notes ushered in the tormented figure of Maria Falconetti, the effect was hypnotic, with a spiritual drama playing out high and deep in the sanctuary, anchored by a gripping soundtrack below.

Kutavičius’s music closely tracks the narrative, mirroring Joan’s anguish as she is tortured by her ecclesiastical examiners. Long minutes of suspense end in a brutal hammer of dissonance when, for example, a vote of the judges goes against Joan, or a brief explosion of aural fireworks for lines like “You are Satan’s creature!” Given that, the relatively calm music for Joan’s execution and the ensuing riot in the final scenes seems incongruous – though perhaps Kutavičius decided to track Joan’s acceptance of her martyrdom and ascent to heaven instead of the melee on the material plane.

Conductor Peter Vrábel did a fine job keeping the music and narrative in synch, so much so that it was easy at times to forget the soundtrack was being performed live. And the orchestra was very good. Berg can be uneven, especially when it strays outside of its core modern music repertoire. But this performance was spot-on, taking on richer and deeper dimensions in the heavy stone basilica setting.

Earlier in the week, the sound was surprisingly good at the closing concert of the Summer Festivities of Early Music, performed in the Castle’s splendiferous Spanish Hall. Visually, the profusion of ceiling-high mirrors, sparkling chandeliers and regal gilding is perfect for a program of 17th-century music from Versailles. Acoustically, the hall can be a disaster, even for King Klaus’ jazz concerts. But the sound was good for the L’Entrée du Roy program, probably because there were more than 800 people in the hall – surely a record for a Baroque concert.

Collegium Marianum's Jana Semerádová.
A timpani-and-trumpet fanfare opened the performance, with an expanded version of Collegium Marianum onstage and an eight-piece wind ensemble, Arena Musicale, marching in from the rear of the hall in period costume. The two groups alternated on pieces by Charpentier and Lully in the first half, and while the wind ensemble was good, they were a minor league team compared to Collegium Marianum, which played with its usual intelligence and vivacity, showing a strong command of the material and imbuing it with great expression.

The singers, tenor Jean-Francois Novelli and baritone Arnaud Marzorati, also showed an expert mastery of the material. Sans costumes, they employed minimal declamation, focusing instead on strong vocals that carried nicely to the back rows of the hall. The program limited them in the first half – mostly introductory excerpts and dances that soon sounded repetitive. But they came to life in the second half with lively renderings of a broader selection of pieces, drawing sustained, enthusiastic applause after a brilliant closing duet, Jean-Baptiste Stuck’s Batistin.

More of that would certainly have brightened the evening. But the program was done right, starting slow and building to an animated finale with lots of percussion and trumpets ringing from the balconies. For serious Baroque fans (are there any other kind?), it was a smart and satisfying performance with punctilious attention to detail. And for the casual concert-goer, drawn perhaps more by the cachet of the setting, it was a first-rate show.

For a closer look at the venues:

Spanish Hall:

St. George’s Basilica:

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Doron David Sherwin
Barbara Maria Willi
August 3
Capilla Flamenca
July 27

A dynamic performer on a staid instrument.

Bigger, faster and louder is the prevailing performance ethic these days, even in sophisticated music circles. Prague Spring staged a concert in May at an arena, the only place large enough to hold hundreds of performers for Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. And it’s the rare young soloist who is not blazing through an uptempo version of a stately Mozart concerto or Brahms sonata.

So it is a distinct pleasure to be reminded of what can be accomplished by a small number of performers in a refined setting – the specialty of the Summer Festivities of Early Music. The festival’s resonant venues, period instruments and unhurried performances are like a tonic, an opportunity to savor the music and be lulled into the rhythms of another era.

And what better setting for this than St. Agnes’ Convent? Along with the National Gallery’s medieval art collection, the magnificent 13th-century Gothic complex on the northern edge of Old Town houses two performance spaces, both large renovated chapels with crystal-clear acoustics and soaring ceilings that lend a spiritual quality to the music.

In the St. Francis chapel last night, harpsichordist Barbara Maria Willi and cornett specialist Doron David Sherwin played a program of 16th- and 17th-century Italian motets and instrumental music that served as a showcase for their virtuoso performing skills.

Willi, an award-winning player who also teaches and runs a harpsichord studio in Brno, has a silken touch on the keyboard that has made her a sought-after accompanist for singers such as Magdalena Kožená, Martina Janková and Thierry Grégoire. Several solo pieces gave her a chance to show her mastery of the harpsichord, a one-dimensional instrument (by modern standards) that typically offers little range. Willi gets remarkable depth and expression out of it, playing with so much style and energy that Giovanni Picchi’s intricate Passamezzo and Pavan in d literally left her winded, breathing hard in between bows.

Finding jazz riffs in early music.
Sherwin spent much of the evening giving dazzling displays of “ornamentation,” improvisations on the score that were performed by accomplished players, much as jazz musicians do now. It would be interesting to see Sherwin sit in with a jazz group, as the cornett sounds a lot like the modern trumpet, and his fluency, particularly on complicated runs and trills, easily matches or betters many contemporary horn players. It was particularly striking in one of the encores, Bach’s Air on a G string, a familiar piece that gave the audience a chance to appreciate how much of Sherwin’s playing was actually improvisation.

While the St. Francis chapel provides a mellifluous environment for instrumental ensembles, the towering Chapel of the Virgin Mary is divine for voices. Last week’s performance by a male quartet from Germany’s Capilla Flamenca offered a mesmerizing re-creation of 15th- and 16th-century polyphony from Burgundy that expanded beautifully in the sacred space.

Four voices that create a fifth.
Done right, polyphony is more than the sum of its parts, a set of interlocking lines or melodies that combine to create a unique single voice. Led by the extraordinarily deep bass of Dirk Snellings, the Capilla Flamenca singers showed perfect form – measured, not flashy, with an expert command of tone and timing. When their voices came together on selections like Pierre de la Rue’s Magnificat tonus V, the sound shimmered almost visibly in the air. And the clarity was superb, transparent throughout and reverberating in long, golden moments after the pieces ended.

In the wake of the giant choruses that have paraded through Prague this summer, and the mammoth Mahler productions of the past year and a half, it’s almost startling to realize how much can be done with just four voices. Or two very good players on period instruments. Soothing as an escape from the modern world, and brilliant for aficionados who appreciate the fine points of the programs and performances, the Summer Festivities festival is a reminder, once again, that small is beautiful.

And the performers: