Monday, February 27, 2012


February 24

Davis conducted from a chair for much of the evening.

Here comes the Titanic.”

Chatting during intermission Friday night, the Czech Philharmonic player could have been talking about the opening piece of the second half, Sibelius’ The Oceanides, which builds to a roaring crash of great waves. Instead, he was referring to the conductor, Sir Colin Davis, who posed a ticklish problem for the orchestra last week.

From the very first rehearsal, it was clear that Davis was not up to his usual standards. In fact, his gaffes were so pronounced that both the musicians and orchestra managers were concerned about what the performances would sound like. After meetings, management decided to cancel the live radio broadcast of the Thursday concert. Instead, Radio Vltava played a recording of Davis conducting the same program with the London Symphony Orchestra.

And out of respect for the 84-year old Davis, who has a list of conducting and recording credentials longer than your arm, the musicians decided not to complain. Instead, they talked among themselves about how to play the music, more or less as Davis was conducting it, but with their own attention to detail and quality.

Reprising a familiar program.
Which explains why the two pieces in the first half of Friday’s concert sounded exactly the same. There was not a bit of difference in intonation, interpretation or sound quality between Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 (“The Miracle”) and Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations Op. 78. Both had the elegant, formal gloss that characterizes Davis’ work, with everything from Haydn’s fanfares to Dvořák’s galloping rhythms rendered in the same glowing pastels – pleasant, but otherwise unremarkable. While each piece had its moments, a casual listener could have been forgiven for leaving the hall during the first, returning during the second, and thinking it was the same work.

The two Sibelius selections in the second half were better, principally because of the pieces themselves, complex and challenging works that broke new ground early in the 20th century. The Oceanides built nicely, with rich textural elements, though it dropped off rather abruptly after the cacophonous climax of surging waves. The composer’s Symphony No. 7, his final work, felt a bit bloated, meandering through the opening Adagio before developing some bite. Davis knows the piece well, which added to the disappointment of hearing it sound like a traditional symphony rather than an electric, inventively layered work.

In the end, that was true of both Sibelius pieces – fascinating to hear, but one-dimensional in sound, lacking any of the careful nuances and facile turns of tempo that bring them to life.

The Thursday performance was reportedly better than Friday’s. In fact, it might well have gone out over the airwaves without embarrassment to anyone. Still, once a broadcast is aired, there is no recalling it – nor the potential damage to an orchestra’s (or conductor’s) reputation. So the Czech Philharmonic managers and players deserve a lot of credit for handling a delicate situation with class, and coming out of the week with two estimable concerts.

The Friday performance also held a noteworthy moment for this critic, who over the course of years in the concert halls has developed a theory: An audience’s musical intelligence is inversely proportional to its display of enthusiasm (e.g., applauding between movements). This was confirmed once again by the gentleman in the seat directly in front, who spent the entire concert talking to his companion, then was one of the first to leap to his feat to give Davis a standing ovation. Though the realization was clearly beyond his ken, that was something to be embarrassed about.

For more on Sir Colin Davis:

Photos courtesy of the Czech Philharmonic

Sunday, February 19, 2012


February 10
February 17

Sinaisky takes the Czech Philharmonic higher.

Russian politics may be unpalatable, but the country turns out first-rate musicians. Two visiting conductors offered a recent reminder of how good the Russian repertoire can sound in the right hands – and what a difference a skilled conductor can make in an orchestra’s performance.

Vassily Sinaisky has been a world-class talent since 1973, when he won the Gold Medal at the prestigious Karjan Competition in Berlin. He has held significant positions with orchestras in the Netherlands, Latvia, England and Sweden, as well as key posts in his own country, including chief conductor and music director of the Moscow Philharmonic, and currently, chief conductor and music director of the Bolshoi Theatre. He has also won critical acclaim for his opera productions abroad, in cities like London, San Francisco and Berlin.

Sinaisky’s professorial bearing and slightly amused air give no indication of the fire that erupts on the stage when he sets to work. His Feb. 10 program with the Czech Philharmonic offered an all-Tchaikovsky first half, opening with the Hamlet overture-fantasia, followed by Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra. It was quite possibly the best Tchaikovsky this critic has ever heard, rich and full-blooded, unveiling vivid colors and shimmering textures at every turn.

Hamlet was a study in controlled dynamics, dipping and soaring and raging like a storm, yet filled with nuances and rendered with absolute clarity. In the Variations, Sinaisky provided a background of warm tones and light, swirling woodwinds for soloist Julian Steckel, who showed an impressive technical mastery of his instrument. Steckel’s intense focus lent substance to what can be a flimsy piece, and his fingering and bowing techniques were fascinating to watch, particularly in the encore, a snappy Prokofiev march.

After intermission, Sinaisky served up a masterful interpretation of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. Freed of the thunder that the composer’s other late symphonies demand, the conductor lingered over the fractured, brooding passages of the first movement, teased out delicate sonorities in the third, and showed perfect control throughout, even when whipping the sound into a piercing shriek. The balance he struck between solo lines – especially for oboe, piccolo and bassoon – and the full orchestra was phenomenal, producing an almost completely transparent sound. The overall effect was powerful without a hint of bombast, difficult to achieve with Shostakovich.

Popular with the players.
Alexander Vedernikov is 17 years younger than Sinaisky, though with an equally distinguished pedigree at home and abroad – in fact, he was Sinaisky’s predecessor at the Bolshoi, where he was credited with restoring the institution’s artistic excellence. His turn at the Czech Philharmonic podium on Feb. 17 got off to a less promising start, with a subdued rendering of Janáček’s Adagio in D minor. To be fair, the piece is a short, somber work that gives the conductor little room to maneuver, outside of some tonal shadings.

But Vedernikov’s handling of Britten’s Concerto for piano and orchestra Op. 13 was brilliant, a smart, effervescent treatment that was a perfect match for the idiosyncratic style of soloist Karel Košárek. The concerto is wildly inventive, even by modern standards, brimming with boisterous outbursts and clever turns of mood and phrase, audaciously orchestrated and fiendishly complex. Vedernikov wove it all together with aplomb, taking the sound from delicate, gossamer strings to stupendous bursts of cacophony, with the woodwinds floating above it all in fine, airy detail. In Vedernikov’s hands, even the dissonant passages of the fourth movement sounded graceful.

Košárek, meanwhile, cut an odd figure at the keyboard, hunched over and flailing in a manner reminiscent of Glenn Gould (though Košárek does not skimp on the pedals). And he had a page-turner – a rarity at an orchestra concert and seemingly unnecessary at this one, since the pianist rarely glanced at the score. But his overly dramatic, occasionally grandiose style was a good fit for the piece, and he and Vedernikov matched one another in emphasis and tone.

Like Sinaisky, Vedernikov saved the best for last with Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances Op. 45, a Stravinsky-like work that ranges from pleasant waltz melodies to slashing strings and brash, off-color horns. Vedernikov reached deep into the heart of the piece to find a pulsing rhythm that seemed to breathe with a life of its own, embellished by sharp percussion, crisp solos and violins that sounded as if they were crying at one point. Authoritative but never stiff, the conductor’s interpretation culminated in a final explosion of sound that could have shattered crystal.

It helped that the orchestra liked Vedernikov – so much so that after a second enthusiastic curtain call, which is enough in most cases, the musicians sat down and made the conductor come back out for a third. That kind of treatment is rare from the Czech Philharmonic. But then, so was the work of Sinaisky and Vedernikov, who guided the orchestra to some of its finest performances of the season.

Photos courtesy of the Czech Philharmonic

Friday, February 10, 2012


Obecní dům
February 8
Prague Conservatory
February 7

Playing faster than the eye can follow.

Itʼs been a brutal week in Prague, with arctic weather conditions keeping the streets nearly deserted. But the concert halls have been sizzling with very hot performances by visiting soloists.

The Russian/Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg opened a four-day visit with a commanding rendition of Shostakovichʼs Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 2 with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Playing so fast that his hands were sometimes a blur, Giltburg matched the martial pace and volume of the orchestra while bringing his own distinctive, elegant style to the piece.

The standard take on this concerto is that itʼs not virtuoso material. Shostakovich wrote it for his son Maximʼs 19th birthday in 1957, reportedly including several sets of finger exercises (in the form of complex scales and arpeggios) that he could never get Maxim to practice. But despite its uncharacteristically upbeat, light-hearted tone, the concerto is an incredibly demanding work, not least because the pianist has to shift from fiery attacks in the first and third movements to a tender lyricism in the second.

Giltburg pulled it off with aplomb, hammering out the clarion theme in the first movement, rippling like liquid over the shadings and textures of the second movement, and running with dazzling fluency from the low-end mutterings to the high-end fireworks of the finale. He stayed precise and focused throughout, never letting the uptempo, high-volume demands take the crisp, clear edge off his style. By the end, the brisk back-and-forth of Giltburg trading themes and melodies with the orchestra was exhilarating fun – not a sentiment one normally associates with Shostakovich.

Conductor Vladimír Válek maintained a perfect balance between the soloist and the orchestra, a quality that characterized the entire evening. His treatment of the opening piece, Haydnʼs Symphony No. 104, was a study in clarity and tempo, with a wonderfully silken feel from the strings. And he rendered the closing work, Janáčekʼs boisterous Taras Bulba, in vivid, almost florid colors, brewing seething undercurrents of battle beneath layers of romance, drama and tragedy.

But Giltburg was the star of the show, called back by both the audience and orchestra for two encores. He will have an even better opportunity to showcase his considerable talent in a recital at the Rudolfinum on Saturday night. If you are in Prague, donʼt miss it.

Hardy, outdoors and in.
British vocalist Rosemary Hardy spans an even broader range. At her performance with Prague Modern earlier in the week, she opened and closed with medieval sacred music, sounding like an angel on Hildegard von Bingenʼs Ave, generosa and even better from the back of the hall singing Beata viscera by the seminal 13th-century composer Perotinus.

The latter, with its extended notes and repeated melody, has some resonance with 20th-century music, which comprised the bulk of the program. Still, itʼs hard to recall another singer who could move so seamlessly from a medieval hymn to a piece like Luciano Berioʼs Sequenza III, an a capella stream of shrieks, squeals, snatches of song, paroxysms of laughter, yips, titters and childlike gestures. Composed in 1966, the Sequenza has been interpreted as the ravings of a madwoman. But Hardyʼs performance was exquisite, carefully measured and finely detailed.

Hardy chose the program for the evening, which included two additional vocal showpieces. The high, icy strains of Kurtágʼs Scenes from a Novel were a perfect match for the weather and a great demonstration of Hardyʼs versatility, with her alternately sharp and soothing vocals supported by tight ensemble work from violinist David Danel, bassist Ondřej Melecký and cimbalom player Daniel Skála. And the singer brought a lusty operatic touch to Ravelʼs erotically tinged Chansons madécasses, particularly in the opening duet with the cello.

Itʼs a shame so few people turned out to hear Hardy, who has collaborated with Kurtág, Ligeti, Párt and other modern composers, as well as major conductors like Pierre Boulez and Sir John Eliot Gardiner. While she may not be a household name, she is a smart, superb singer. And the perfect antidote for a case of cabin fever on a frigid winter night.

For more on

To hear a performance of Berioʼs Sequenza III:

Photos: Giltburg/Eric Richmond; Hardy (bottom)/Sebastian Hoppe

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


February 3

A superb showing from homegrown talent.

Typically, the conductor is the star of the show at classical music concerts. And Ion Marin certainly looks the part – disarmingly handsome, with a full mane of glossy black rock-star hair. But he was outshone on Friday night by two very good soloists, French horn player Radek Baborák and violinist Dalibor Karvay.

Though Baborák is nine years older than Karvay, the two men have similar backgrounds. They were both born in what was then Czechoslovakia – Baborák in Pardubice in 1976, Karvay in Vrútky in 1985 – and showed major talent at an early age. Karvay started playing when he was three, gave his first concert at the age of seven, won his first competition a year later and released his first CD when he was eleven. Baborák picked up the French horn when he was eight, and won his first competition at twelve.

Baborák has had the more impressive career, holding seats or soloist positions with the Czech Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic, Bamberg Symphony and Berlin Philharmonic. Karvay has remained an independent soloist while continuing his studies at the Vienna Conservatory, racking up more competition awards and playing with orchestras throughout Europe.

Lion-maned Marin.
Marin, who defected from his native Romania in 1986 and now lives in Switzerland, also has a five-star resumé. Along with conducting orchestras in Vienna, Berlin, London, Paris and Philadelphia, to name just a few, he is an accomplished opera conductor who has led new productions at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, the San Francisco Opera and the Met in New York. He has worked with a long list of famous soloists, singers and directors, and been nominated for three Grammy awards.

Still, his conducting can fall flat – or at least it did on Friday night. The opening piece, Wagnerʼs overture to Rienzi, was competent but lacked depth. More cerebral than Romantic, Marinʼs treatment captured the full dimensions and dynamics of the music without generating any passion. The brass sounded particularly good in an otherwise pro forma performance that snapped the audience to attention with a flamboyant finish.

Baborák has been on a Mozart tear lately, conducting and soloing in the National Theaterʼs annual Mozart Birthday Concert on Jan. 27. This performance of his Concerto for French horn and orchestra No. 4 showed why. While the orchestra sounded thick and heavy, Baborák put a golden burnish on the music with light, rounded tones. The extended solo in the first movement was a tour de force of virtuoso musicianship, with an astonishing range of sounds and playful expression demonstrating Baborákʼs complete mastery of his instrument. His encore was even better, an Alpine reverie (in honor of Marin) that showcased the full sonic possibilities of the French horn – played sans valves!

Karvay joined him after intermission for Brahmsʼ Trio in E flat major Op. 40 (arranged for French horn, violin and orchestra), far and away the best piece of the evening. In contrast to the lackluster first half, Marin infused the music with drama and feeling, creating a colorful palette of moods, tones and textures for the soloists to work against. Baborák stepped back to give some space to Karvay, whose regal bearing and rich, emotional sound would befit a gypsy king. Unfortunately, the balance was not good, with the orchestra drowning out entire passages of Karvayʼs solos, and much of the subtlety of his playing. But the third movement included a number of solos and duets, and once Baborák and Karvay hit stride playing together, the effect was magical.

The final piece, Brahmsʼ Variations in B flat major on a theme by Haydn, fell back into the sleepy mode of the first half – adequate, but not particularly fresh or exciting. The occasional flashes of life and color were achieved mostly by cranking up the volume. As he did for most of the evening, Marin plodded his way through the piece, then revved the orchestra up for a big, dramatic finish that left the audience (if not the critics) energized and applauding.

Still, no complaints. The Czech Philharmonic is a world-class orchestra no matter who is conducting, a cultural gem that never loses its luster. And Baborák and Karvay offered a bracing reminder that the best players in Central Europe can hold their own with any in the world.

For more on

Radek Baborák:

Photos courtesy of the Czech Philharmonic

Friday, February 3, 2012


St. Lawrence Church
January 29

At the party in Ostrava, a good use for all that hot air.

Everyone should have a birthday like Petr Kotíkʼs. To celebrate the composer and conductorʼs 70th, Ostravská Banda, the modern music group that he founded, feted him with concerts in Ostrava and Prague over the past week. And its American counterpart, the S.E.M. Ensemble, has one planned in New York next week. Quite a tribute to the most irascible character in Czech music.

A minimalist composer who was schooled in Prague and Vienna and has been a fixture on the New York contemporary music scene since the early ʼ80s, Kotík is also the founder and artistic director of Ostrava Days, a biennial gathering of composers, students and devotees of modern music. Ostravská Banda grew out of that event, which has hosted renowned composers like Louis Andriessen, Tristan Murail and Kaija Saariho. Prague would seem to be a more likely setting for such an esteemed group, but Kotík has a well-known antipathy for the city, dismissing it as a musical “garbage heap.”

There were no such complaints for his Sunday afternoon birthday concert, which was held at one of Pragueʼs sweetest chamber music facilities. St. Lawrence Church is also one of the smallest, which meant that vibes, percussion and other large instruments had to be set up offstage, and the musicians played literally elbow-to-elbow. A crowd of about 100 enthusiastic friends, supporters and modern music fans filled the seats – with, as usual, Kotíkʼs 90-year old mother, Paula Jerusalem, sitting in the front row.

A number of composers wrote pieces specially for the occasion, and three of them were in attendance. Petr Baklaʼs Three Instances, a smart treatment of an insistent phrase, was expertly played by violinist Conrad Harris and pianist Daan Vandewalle. Phill Niblock, recording the proceedings from the front row, contributed Baobob (Dwarf Tree Version), a drone piece delivered with ringing authority by the entire ensemble. And Kotík himself stood atop a milk crate to conduct Bernhard Langʼs Monadologie XVII (She Was One...for Petr Kotík), a cascade of sophisticated sound textures that blossomed into a celebratory cacophony.

Alvin Lucier, Christian Wolff and Alex Mincek also contributed short pieces. Peter Graham wrote one that was performed by Kotíkʼs young son Benjamin, who got a big hand for pulling some nails-on-a-blackboard sounds out of his tiny violin. Ostravská Banda violinist Pauline Kim Harris joined him for a charming and considerably more conventional duo by Telemann. And Renáta Spisarová, the executive director of the Ostrava Center for New Music, was joined by two other vocalists, Yvetta Ellerová and Strýčková, for a lovely trio of original and traditional folk songs.

Modern music performances are typically serious affairs, but this one was light-hearted with touches of humor. The concert was being recorded, which meant that a set of microphones had to be rearranged before every piece – completely unnecessary for John Cageʼs 4ʼ33”. But the technician dutifully set up the mikes around the Steinway. Pianist Joseph Kubera sat silently at the keyboard for the proscribed time, then took a bow to some appreciative laughter and generous applause. And Kim put the perfect finishing touch on the concert by conducting a short piece of her own, For Peter, that ended with the final line of Happy Birthday.

For once, Kotík seemed at a loss for words after the performance, fumbling through a running blend of Czech and English to acknowledge and thank everybody who had come to celebrate with him – and express astonishment that so many had come from so far away. That was a measure of not just the man, but what he has accomplished in his field, particularly with Ostrava Days, one of the most innovative modern music events in Europe.

Not bad for a guy who started his career on the garbage heap.

Photo courtesy of the Ostrava Center for New Music