Thursday, January 19, 2012


Czech Museum of Music
January 13
Prague Conservatory
January 17

A setting as innovative as the music.

That was not a UFO parked in the lobby of the Czech Museum of Music on Friday night. It was an inflatable installation by the artist Kateřina Vincourová, created for a modern music...well, not “concert” exactly. “Experience” might be a better word for one of the most imaginative events in Prague in a long time, part of a growing and increasingly interesting contemporary music scene.

The installation was the idea of Didier Montagné, the former director of the French Institute who is now running Kairos, an independent cultural altelier. He and Vincourová collaborated on an exercise in synesthesia, creating an environment where the eyes “listen” to the music and the ears “observe.”
New ideas in the Old World.

This was done by placing three musicians in the center of a fabric bowl punctured by holes in which listeners could pop up, so to speak, to watch them play. The music, an original ambient work by Czech composer Miroslav Srnka, was perfect for the setting, creating an airy, otherworldly atmosphere. And it changed depending on oneʼs location – outside the bowl, in one of the holes or on the balcony above – creating different relationships between the listener and the sound. In its best moments, the sensation really was like seeing music and hearing art.

That performance was preceded by a tribute to Martin Marek, a former cellist whose compositions have garnered performances in such disparate locations as the Netherlands, Italy and Japan. An elegant composer whose work spans several modern genres and requires precise, often difficult technique, Marek sat placidly in the audience as various combinations of the Prague Modern and MoEns ensembles played five of his pieces.

They covered an impressive range, from staccato works for solo flute and violin to ensemble pieces that tumbled out like broken shards of progressions and phrases, or collages of contrasting textures. A string trio, 37 Views of Řip Mountain, interspersed melodic, contemplative passages with bursts of multicolored mosaics. I Sette girangoli, a work for seven players commissioned by the MD7 Ensemble in Slovenia, featured vibrant overlapping structures and sounds, including some prominent and witty runs from a trombone.

For once, the notoriously bad acoustics of the museum worked in the musicʼs favor, with the sound kept clear by an audience packed tightly in a semicircle around the players, and ascending string and woodwind lines floating gracefully into the upper reaches of the atrium. Marek got a nice hand afterward, which was well-deserved. His individual works are always engaging, but hearing five in a row revealed a composer of intelligence and sensitivity.

The Prague Modern players were back onstage a few nights later at the conservatory for their regular monthly appearance in the Prague Philharmoniaʼs Le bel aujourdʼhui series. The focus was on the new generation of Czech composers, characterized by the program as “unburdened of tributary relation to any regime and the expectations of cultural pseudo-elites.” They hardly seem so political in person, but thereʼs no question that the young bloods feel free to juxtapose and juggle ideas unencumbered by any preexisting restraints.

Petr Bakla joked after the performance that his Scales, Octaves, Repetitions #7 was a dangerous flirtation with banality, but to this critic it seemed like a clever exercise in tone and pitch that managed to sound both free-form and structured at the same time. And there were some nice jazz overtones in the way the four instruments traded leads and rhythms. Luboš Mrvičkaʼs new work for the ensemble, Trio – Part A, was quite short, barely shifting out of its abstract opening into an uptempo development when it suddenly stopped. There was not even enough time to formulate a reaction, other than gratitude for the work being too brief rather than too long, the primary sin of many modern music pieces.

Ondřej Štochlʼs Idée fixe was a very interesting study in constructing and deconstructing sounds, with some compelling sonics from a quartet of flute, clarinet, violin and cello given occasional electric jolts by a harpsichord. Michal Nejtekʼs pop sensibilities came to the fore in Sunday Akathisia/Letʼs Sing an Akathist, which started off with the driving rhythm of six instruments playing in four different time signatures, then segued into an unabashedly sentimental melody led by an emotional violin and French horn. The concluding work, František Chaloupkaʼs Mount. (Never) Rests, was perhaps the least satisfying of the evening, with three ideas in as many movements developed in predictable ways that didnʼt break much new ground.

One never goes to modern music concerts expecting to like everything. The exposure to fresh ideas and new ways of thinking about music is what matters, and in that respect Prague has a great deal to offer these days. Contemporary Czech composers have had a lot to overcome – 40 years of socialist censorship, and a music establishment with innately conservative tastes. But bolstered by a new generation of audiences and supporters, it seems theyʼre finally coming into their own.

For more on Prague Modern:

To read a conversation with Martin Marek:

Photos by Ondřej Melecký.

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