Friday, March 30, 2012


April 1

A composer on a humanitarian mission.

Japanese composer Susumu Ueda was not in his hometown of Kobe in January 1995, when the Great Hanshin earthquake erupted. But the event touched him deeply, and ultimately provided inspiration for a contemporary Requiem titled Never Forget the Day and You.

We lost 6,434 precious lives, and more than 50,000 people were injured,” says Ueda. “I composed this music as a memorial to those victims, and to give hope to the survivors.”

Prague audiences will have a chance to hear Uedaʼs Requiem at the Rudolfinum on Sunday, when he conducts a performance of it by the Prague Philharmonia. The orchestra will be accompanied by the Kühn Mixed Choir, along with two choirs and five soloists from Japan. In the first half of the concert, Koji Kawamoto, the chief conductor and music director of the Pilsen Philharmonic, will conduct pieces by J.S. Bach and Mozart.

Though it was inspired by the Kobe disaster, Uedaʼs Requiem quickly took on larger dimensions in disaster-plagued Japan. Since its premier in Kobe in 2010, the piece has been performed 15 times throughout the country. “The music has been spreading to other areas struck by natural disasters, even the site of the Great East Japan earthquake last year,” Ueda says.

Better-known in the West by the shorthand term “Fukushima,” that earthquake and the devastating tsunami it triggered created a wave of sympathy and support around the world, including Prague, where a number of charitable activities were held to help the victims. Sundayʼs concert is an acknowledgment and continuation of that effort.

A full slate of soloists from Japan.
As a Japanese, I am extremely appreciative and grateful that so many musicians in Prague gave benefit concerts after the earthquake,” Ueda says. “But a year later, many people at the site are still suffering. With prayers from the people in Prague, I would like to deliver a commemoration and offer encouragement to the people in Japan.”

Ueda arrived in Prague early to record Never Forget the Day and You with the Philharmonia and the Kühn and Japanese singers. The work is in ten parts, with text in Latin. As in a classic Requiem, six sections of text were taken from the liturgy for a Catholic Mass. The other four sections are translations of original poems by Ueda, who kept the score relatively simple. “I used a very accessible music vocabulary for composing this piece,” he says.

With help from the Japanese government, Ueda is paying for the hall, the orchestra and the Kühn Choir himself. All the Japanese singers paid their own plane fare, and are performing for free, as is Kawamoto. Admission to the concert is also free. Donation boxes will be set up throughout the hall, with the proceeds going to disaster victims in Japan.

I feel honored to deliver my Requiem with a wonderful orchestra and chorus,” Ueda says. “I hope many people will come to share our music.”

Free tickets to the concert will be available at the Rudolfinum box office starting one hour before the performance. For more details on the program:

To hear a sampling of the Requiem:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Obecní dům
March 21

Mercurio bridges musical and national borders.

The last time Prague concert-goers saw American composer and conductor Steven Mercurio, he was at O2 Arena, leading the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra on Stingʼs “Symphonicities” tour. Presumably the audience will be a little different for his appearance this week with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, conducting a program of Bernstein, Grofé and Gershwin. Reached at his New York studio before he left for Europe, Mercurio talked about the upcoming concert, working with European orchestras and the demands of being a rock ʼnʼ roll conductor.

How did the concert with CNSO come about?

I did an Andrea Bocelli tour with the orchestra in Italy a few years ago. They were great to work with – people were saying, “Wow, this sounds just like an Italian orchestra!” So we decided to do another project together. Itʼs been a question of finding the right date and the right program.

And how did you decide on the program?

The orchestra wanted an American program, and had a pianist [Marcel Javorček] to play Rhapsody in Blue. An American in Paris, which Iʼve done in quite a few places, is a natural companion piece. They also wanted something by Leonard Bernstein, who was one of my teachers, so weʼre doing his Candide overture. The last piece was the hard one to find, because we wanted to do something else typically American, but not so common. I suggested Ferde Groféʼs Grand Canyon Suite, a very lyrical, very pictoral piece that fits right into a tone poem type of program.

Can European orchestras play American music?

Iʼll tell you what: If I can get a local Italian orchestra to play American in Paris the way itʼs supposed to go, then Iʼm sure weʼll do fine in Prague.

Whatʼs your approach?

If I succeed at these concerts, itʼs because I am able to convince the musicians that their physical participation, their sense of wanting to play, is just as important as playing the right notes. These guys are all super players, their technical ability is more than high enough. But to put the music over, you have to enjoy it. So itʼs a question of encouraging them, and pushing them, and leading them into places where maybe they donʼt normally hang out.

Do you find that orchestras vary from country to country?

Sure, every culture has its strengths and weaknesses. Italian orchestras, for example, are incredibly, incredibly expressive. But they can be sloppy, and not very tight. So you have to slow it down, take things apart, show them the inner workings and be very patient. An English orchestra, on the other hand, reads incredibly well. But between the first and second and third readings, thereʼs often not that much of a difference. So youʼve got to really work with them on expression: That was good, but now letʼs interpret the piece and say something with it, not just be happy with the fact that it was played well.

And Czech orchestras?

They donʼt read as well as the Americans or British, but they give you a longer session, so you have the time to walk through a piece and explain certain things. Thatʼs part of their process – letʼs stay calm, and just move forward. Thereʼs no panic, like you have to accomplish everything in five minutes, as there is sometimes in America or England or Germany.

What was it like to work with Sting?

That was fun, but conducting was only a small part of what I did. When you deal with the pop world and symphony orchestras, there are two models. One is the Boston Pops, where you have a big orchestra and a pop person who is a little out of place, and the music tends to sound gooey and artificial. The other is the Metallica mode, where itʼs basically a rock ʼnʼ roll concert, and the orchestra is a bunch of props. We decided early on that we wanted a balance, where the orchestra and the pop side are really 50-50 partners. That took a lot of time and skill – we were constantly rewriting and rehearsing new arrangements while we were on tour, fixing and changing things so that Sting could keep the basic quality of who he is, while the orchestra could utilize its full palette of sounds.

What was the reaction?

I got lots and lots of letters and e-mails from people saying, “I had never been to an orchestra concert before, so I didnʼt know what to expect. But boy, I had a great time.”

Was that something you were trying to accomplish?

As a conductor, itʼs my job to get people into the concert hall, show them that classical music can be entertaining, and convince them that they should come again. Thatʼs what Bernstein did, and thatʼs the model I follow.

How so?

My philosophy is that conductors fall into two groups — inclusive and exclusive. There are some conductors who, if somebody even sneezes, turn around and give them a dirty look, which drives me up a wall. With Bernstein, it was inclusive: This concert hall is my living room, and youʼre my invited guest. Come in and listen, and let me show you why this piece is great.
As far as Iʼm concerned, if people want to applaud at the end of the first movement, be my guest. And if they want to stand up and scream and yell, thatʼs a good thing.

For information about the CNSO concert:

And more on Steven Mercurio:

Saturday, March 17, 2012


Czech Museum of Music
March 10
Sts. Simon & Jude Church
March 13

Collegium 1704 performing Schuster's La passione in Dresden.

Two Baroque concerts this past week offered an intriguing opportunity to compare contrasting styles from Central and Southern Europe. Both ensembles – Prague’s Collegium 1704 and Rome’s Concerto Italiano – are highly regarded for their scholarship and meticulous performing standards. The Italian group is more famous, with nearly 50 recordings and 15 years of world tours to its credit. The Czech group, founded in 2005, has so far concentrated its performance and recording activities in the Czech Republic, Germany and France.

Václav Luks, Collegium 1704’s founder and artistic director, took on a considerable challenge staging German composer Joseph Schuster’s La passione di Gesù Cristo at the Czech Museum of Music. Written in 1778, the piece has been out of circulation for a long time, and Luks himself questioned its value when he first studied the score. Then there are the acoustics of the museum’s soaring central lobby, where music tends to break up and echo in shards.

So it was a thrill to hear the warm, full sound of the orchestra, chorus and soloists fill the space and hold together, losing only a slight bit of definition. And the piece itself is gorgeous, a lyrical four-person oratorio with a libretto by Pietra Metastasia in which Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimathea and St. John answer St. Peter’s questions about the crucifixion. Almost too joyous for such a somber occasion, the music brims with the spirit and flavor of Mozart and Haydn – indeed, some of Schuster’s later works were once thought to be Mozart copies.

Aside from Václav Čižek, whose modern operatic tenor was a surprisingly good fit for the role of St. Peter, the vocalists were inconsistent. Soprano Dora Pavlíková couldn’t quite pull off the fancy coloratura runs, though she had some heartbreakingly beautiful duets with Čižek. Tenors Eric Stoklossa (Joseph) and Sébastian Monti (John) sounded best in the musical breaks, when their voices did not have to compete with the orchestra.

But the orchestra itself was superb, playing with a beguiling mix of energy and discipline. An eight-piece violin section added depth to the sound, which Luks used to full advantage, giving the piece radiance and momentum. His conducting was so precise that the music fairly snapped at times. This balance between expression and control, the ability to bring the music to life with a physical enthusiasm that does not violate its spirit or form, is the trademark of Collegium 1704’s sound. It is passionate, uplifting, ebullient and joyful.

Thoroughly Italian Alessandrini.
Concerto Italiano strikes a different profile: stately, restrained, elegant without ornamentation. The group came to Prague as a six-piece ensemble, including founder and artistic director Rinaldo Alessandrini, who conducted from the harpsichord. Their program had an academic cast to it, tracing the development of various musical forms in 17th-century Italy through composers like Girolamo Frescobaldi, Giovanni Bononcini and Giuseppe Torelli.

There were only a few obvious pauses between the 13 pieces, making the forms hard to distinguish. But that kept the focus on the playing, which was exquisite. The ensemble’s sound was both organic and transparent, with an integrity and clarity that only very good groups achieve. Even the sweet, high harmonies of the violins were clean and understated.

Still, the music was more cerebral than heartfelt, refined to the point of dryness. There was hardly a flutter of expression – no variation in volume, tempo or tone. The even temper carries a strong air of authenticity; close your eyes, and the sound transports you back three centuries. But the stiff bearing and lack of emotion are a striking contrast to the way Collegium 1704, and for that matter most Baroque groups in Prague, play the music.

It may not be fair to compare two entirely different programs. And certainly neither group can be judged better than the other. After all, Baroque was hardly a monolithic form; many different styles of playing sprang up throughout Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, which has made the process of rediscovering the music far more interesting and rewarding.

It’s a tribute to groups like Collegium 1704 and Concerto Italiano that they have managed to preserve and perform distinctly different styles so well. Asked about the success of his ensemble, Alessandrini said, “It’s very strongly connected to our culture – we are Italian, so we do mainly Italian music.” Fans of the form would do well to follow the same ethnic lines of exploration.

For more about Collegium 1704:

For more about Concerto Italiano:

Top photo courtesy of Collegium 1704; Alessandrini by Eric Larrayadieu

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


March 9

Conductor Inbal and soloist Špaček: a formidable team.

If there were any doubts about 25-year old Josef Špaček being the premier Czech violinist of his generation, they were laid to rest at the Czech Philharmonic concert on Friday night. In two short, fiendishly difficult pieces, Špaček showed a technical mastery and musical fluency of someone twice his age.

The opening piece, Janáček’s single-movement violin concerto Pilgrimage of the Soul, is a string of seven segments that the composer left unfinished, incorporating some of the material into his final opera, From the House of the Dead. A version completed by contemporary Czech composers Leoš Faltus and Miloš Štědroň finally debuted in 1988, with three sets of timpanis anchoring a succession of light and dark passages that range from enchanting melodies to high-pitched strains of longing and anguish.

The concerto opens with an extended violin solo that Špaček nailed with precision and feeling, setting a commanding tone that never wavered through the subsequent crash of percussion, ominous rumbles of brass and winsome woodwinds. He segued seamlessly from harmonic passages with the strings to dissonant strains that run harsh against the full orchestra, playing with a skillful combination of emotion and intensity. It was the kind of performance that one can experience only in the Czech lands, a product of both tradition and training.

Playing with fire.
Ravel’s Tzigne rhapsody was accurately described in the program as a “veritable minefield” for violinists, packed with nearly impossible technical demands. It would perhaps be insulting to say that Špaček made it look easy – no serious player approaches this piece lightly. But he showed a virtuoso command of the material, once again opening with an extended solo that was both passionate and proficient. His technique throughout the remainder of the piece was dazzling, in particular the razor-sharp pizzicato passages. By the end, even the orchestra was applauding.

After those two pieces, Špaček’s encore – Massenet’s Meditation from Thais – seemed like simple fare, a lullaby for overtaxed hands and ears. But it gave Špaček an opportunity to show that he can do sweet and tender as well as sharp and intense, and a chance to play a duet with the orchestra’s star harpist, Jana Boušková. It was beautifully rendered, rich and delicately balanced, like fine vintage wine.

One of the reasons Špaček sounded so good was the man at the podium: Eliahu Inbal, the Czech Philharmonic’s chief conductor. His handling of the intricate colors in Janáček’s concerto and nuances in the orchestration of Tzigne not only gave the violinist a solid foundation to work off of, but created a dynamic and resonant interplay between soloist and orchestra.

Inbal brought those same sensitivities to Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, drawing a strikingly clean, well-articulated sound out of a large orchestra and full choir. Befitting a ballet score, the piece runs through dizzying changes in mood, texture and tempo, rising through vertiginous ascending scales and then collapsing in impressionist waves and jazz-inflected swirls. Inbal kept it all smooth, polished and moving forward with a driving internal momentum that made the idea of dancers seem almost superfluous. The orchestra was as agile as it has been in many months – particularly at that size – and the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno gave the wordless choral accents a lustrous quality.

It was interesting to sample reactions to the piece after the concert. Daphnis et Chloé is nearly an hour long, and heads were noticeably nodding near the end, so it wasn’t surprising to hear complaints about its length. The number of motifs is small – a deliberate decision by the composer to give the piece symphonic unity, though the repetition can also make it seem interminable.

None of which mattered to this critic. Opportunities to hear Ravel don’t come along very often in Prague, much less performances of this caliber. If it was a lot to absorb at once, it was nonetheless a welcome program, brilliantly executed by an outstanding group of musicians – and a soloist who well deserves his position as concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic.

For more on Josef Špaček:

Photos courtesy of the Czech Philharmonic

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


National Theater
March 4

 Another strong showing by soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin.

After Benjamin Brittenʼs Gloriana premiered at Covent Garden in June 1953, one royal member of the audience wrote, “It was quite long, the intervals seemed endless, stick-up collars grew limp, and well before the end a restlessness set in. ʻBorianaʼ was on everyoneʼs lips.” Thatʼs not a bad capsule summary of the new production that premiered at the National Theater over the weekend.

Written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Gloriana tells the story of the ill-fated relationship between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. What starts as a warm, intimate friendship gets caught up in political intrigue, with dire consequences for the Earl. The cost for the Queen is also high, revealed in an epilogue that strips away her masks of duty and obligation, and finally even her royal raiment.

But Gloriana is not a romance. It is an historical epic spanning roughly 15 years that focuses primarily on the trials, anguish and glory of being Queen. Much time and a great deal of regal, near-religious music are devoted to the pomp and ceremony Her Royal Highness engenders, even while visiting the provinces. Which makes it ideal, adoring entertainment for a new queenʼs coronation. But at this remove, unless you are a dedicated Anglophile or devotee of British history, Gloriana comes off as a tepid costume drama, like watching an episode of the BBCʼs “Masterpiece Theater” with a very good soundtrack.

That said, the music alone is worth the price of admission. Brittenʼs orchestration is brilliant, with fluttering woodwinds, ominous brass and sharp percussion supplying the drama and tension thatʼs absent onstage. Individual instruments or sections of the orchestra are used to create mood, atmosphere and emotion, often in clever, unexpected turns or phrases. And the fluency the composer shows across genres is remarkable, ranging from charming Renaissance dances to sacred choral music to great, glowing Wagnerian fanfares.

Directed by Jiří Heřman – his swan song at the National Theater – Gloriana makes full use of his favorite effects: actors moving in slow motion, objects dropping from and ascending to the ceiling, and a stage filled with cryptic peripheral characters, in this case brightly plumed dancers who add some color and flash to an otherwise dry story. The material is perfect for Heřman, who takes a stately, dignified approach to everything he touches. But in this production, it borders on ludicrous at times. The giant crown that descends to engulf the Queen when she is acting in an official capacity surely sets a record for floating metaphors. And when the Queen descends in a dazzling hoop skirt to take the orb and scepter, she looks like nothing so much as the Infant of Prague.

The productionʼs formal atmosphere is reinforced by an austere set, which at times shows little more than two characters running around a nearly empty stage. Rows of doors in wooden frames along both wings, mirrored by frames dropping in and out of the background, and portions of the stage raising and lowering to create pits and platforms, cast everything in sharp, severe rectangles and squares. Most of the color and imagination are to be found in Alexandra Gruskováʼs lush period costumes.

The only standout singer at the Sunday performance was German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, who commanded the stage in the National Theaterʼs 2008 production of Janáčekʼs The Makropulos Case. Barkmin showed similar authority as Queen Elizabeth, ranging from the stentorian tones of an iron-willed ruler to the soft anguish of a conflicted woman. Kateřina Kněžíková (as Penelope, the Earl of Essexʼs sister) and Martin Bárta (as the Queenʼs secretary, Sir Robert Cecil) made the most of their small roles. Conductor Zbyněk Müller showed a fine appreciation for the nuances of the score, rendering its subtle colors and occasional dissonances with intelligence and clarity. And the chorus was, as always, excellent.

To be fair, Heřman and company did the best they could with challenging material and limited resources. Whatʼs puzzling is why the National Theater would add such an overtly nationalistic and rarely performed opera to its repertoire. The slavish devotion to British history in the program, which takes up nearly as many pages as the discussion of the opera itself, suggests a serious case of Anglofever. A few nights of empty seats, already in evidence at the second premiere, should cure that.

Gloriana plays again on March 11, and on April 9 and 23. For more on the production:

Photo courtesy of The National Theater

Thursday, March 1, 2012


February 26

A special chemistry with Pragueʼs youngest orchestra.

Good to see Jakub Hrůša back at the podium with the Prague Philharmonia on Sunday night. Like many of the Czech Republicʼs finest classical musicians, he is more in demand outside the country – currently, as principal guest conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, music director of Glyndebourne on Tour, and in guest appearances this season ranging from Amsterdam to Dallas. At home, he is in his fourth season as the Philharmoniaʼs chief conductor and music director.

Itʼs not hard to see why. At the age of 30, Hrůša brings an enviable combination of youthful energy and musical intelligence to the stage, along with a solid command of the Czech repertoire. Heʼs proven himself adept at handling material ranging from Britten and Puccini operas to obscure works by Bohuslav Martinů. And heʼs not been shy about adding 20th-century and contemporary works to the Philharmoniaʼs programming mix.

That versatility was on display at the Sunday concert, which opened with the Dances of Galánta, Hugarian composer Zoltán Kodályʼs updating of traditional folk music. Hrůša set a brisk tempo that picked up momentum as the piece developed, perhaps too fast at times, losing a touch of clarity. Still, the orchestra sounded sharp and spirited, and the woodwind solos sparkled.

Dazzling technique.
Tchaikovskyʼs familiar Violin concerto in D major, Op. 35 featured a strikingly young soloist, 19-year old Fumiaki Miura. The youngest winner ever of the Hannover International Violin Competition (in 2009), Miura started playing at the age of three and is currently studying at the Vienna Conservatory. He brought an exceptional instrument – the 1702 “Lord Newlands” Stradivarius, on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation. It has a rich, mature tone that added years to his sound, but otherwise Miuraʼs inexperience with the instrument showed. He confided after the concert that he has only been playing it for a month, which explains why some notes sounded more like scratches than music.

But there is no denying Miuraʼs considerable technical skills. He is precise, dexterous and focused, and showed an impressive knowledge of the violin in eschewing the use of the E string during the second movement, opting to work in the lower register. Though it shimmers on the surface, there is not much depth to Miuraʼs playing, a quality also evident in his encore, Paganiniʼs Opus 38. But thatʼs a fearless choice, and maturity in his sound will no doubt come in time. For now, he is definitely a rising star to watch.

The program concluded with Dvořákʼs Symphony No. 8, which Hrůša opened with an explosion of great ringing tones that never let up. It was interesting to hear his treatment just two days after Sir Colin Davis conducted Dvořákʼs Symphonic Variations, Op. 78 with the Czech Philharmonic, which sounded tired by comparison. Hrůša needed no score to explore the full dynamics of the eighth symphony, balancing an authoritative sound from the full orchestra with colorful woodwinds, lyrical strings and a crisp timpani. His interpretation respected the music while injecting it with fresh energy – even the waltz portion of the third movement had an invigorating, lively feel.

Some of the credit for that goes to the orchestra, which continues to be the most surprising ensemble in Prague. No orchestra that young and that small should sound so good – at least, by ordinary standards. But there is clearly a special chemistry between Hrůša and the players, who are touring Japan for the next two weeks with Miura and Czech horn virtuoso Radek Baborák. The Japanese are in for a treat.

For more on Jakub Hrůša:

Fumiaki Miura photo by Dan Hannen