Thursday, May 31, 2012


June 1

Padmore, right, and Lewis: Letting Schubert be Schubert.

British tenor Mark Padmore makes his Prague debut this week in style: As a featured soloist in Prague Spring, giving a recital with his favorite accompanist, pianist Paul Lewis. The duo have won critical acclaim for their recent recordings of Schubert lieder, including a Gramophone Award for Best Solo Vocal for their 2009 release Winterreise. On Friday night at the Rudolfinum, they will be performing Schubertʼs Schwanengesang cycle along with a challenging set of Beethoven songs, including the An die ferne Geliebte cycle. Still a rising star at the age of 52, Padmore graciously agreed to an e-mail interview about his current repertoire and career plans.

Beethoven isnʼt typically thought of for his songs. What drew you to that work?

I love An die fern Geliebte. I think it is one of the greatest song cycles and hugely influential, particularly for Schumann. The poetry is perhaps not of the highest quality, but it is really great Beethoven.

What have you and Paul Lewis tried to do with the Schubert song cycles?

We both try to get out of the way. Really, it is Schubert that you should be listening to, not Padmore and Lewis. The idea is to take you beyond or past the personalities, frailties and ego of the performers, and communicate something of how the composer felt and thought. That is really interesting – much more interesting than either of us.

You started out studying piano and clarinet. When and why did you decide to focus on singing?

I decided that I didnʼt want to be a member of an orchestra when I was about 17. I had always enjoyed singing, so I began to concentrate on that. Playing clarinet and piano had made my sight-reading pretty good, so although I didnʼt have a particularly strong voice, I was able to be a good member of a choir. I didnʼt really develop a solo career until I was 30.

You first made a name as a soloist in early music, and then 20th-century music. Now youʼre in between, so to speak, with the classical and Romantic repertoire. What attracted you to that period?

Above all I love the music of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Janáček and Britten. Fortunately, they all wrote music I can perform, particularly Bach, Schubert and Britten. In the end, it is the thrill of communicating with an audience that keeps me singing. I love trying to let an audience share my experience with some of the greatest music ever written.

Do you have plans to explore other periods and/or composers?

I hope I never lose the urge to explore new repertoire. There are always new things to see, read and hear, just as there are always new things to find in the great works of art. How could anyone think that they understand Bachʼs St. Matthewʼs Passion or Shakespeareʼs King Lear or Picassoʼs Guernica – they are beyond comprehension. But we can and must approach these masterpieces to learn from them.

You are a veteran of period ensembles and the opera stage, but your schedule is almost exclusively recitals and soloist appearances now. Whatʼs kept you there?

The great thing about recitals is that you create the whole world of the songs with just two people – the singer and the pianist. If the two of you are trying to do the same thing, it is possible to create a really powerful effect. In the opera house, too often one or more of the elements donʼt gel. Either the conductor or the director is not very good, or the chorus doesnʼt want to act, or the other soloists are egomaniacs. It is very hard for everything to work together.

Do you see yourself going back to the opera stage at some point?

I am looking forward very much to singing Captain Vere in Billy Budd at Glyndebourne next summer. I love being on stage, but I also donʼt enjoy being away from my family for weeks at a time. So my opera appearances will be limited.

What do you hope that the audience in Prague takes away from your concert?

I really hope that the audience can be delighted by the genius of Beethoven and Schubert. The music is joyful and melancholy and moving and terrifying. I hope that the excitement that Paul and I feel in performing this comes across to the audience.

For more on Mark Padmore:

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


May 23
Obecní dům
May 25
Prague Conservatory
May 28

Andsnes played and conducted from the keyboard.

Beethoven has been a dominant presence in the festival over the past week, with his piano works providing some revealing points of comparison. Beyond the usual differences in approach and style, they provided a showcase for musicians at different points in the careers, all coming to Beethoven with their own ideas and objectives. Was a major composer ever so malleable?

As detailed in this space last week, Norwegian pianist Lief Ove Andsnes came to Prague to start recording a complete set of the piano concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. He performed in an unusual configuration – in the middle of a 45-piece ensemble, back to the audience, lid removed so he could see and conduct the players. It proved to be an effective arrangement. The piano tones lost a bit of depth, but Andsnes’ connection with the orchestra seemed almost psychic, producing a clean, cohesive sound with remarkable consistency and integrity.

It was obvious that Andsnes put a lot of time into preparing concertos No. 1 and No. 3. There wasn’t a phrase that hadn’t been thought through and developed along the lines that the pianist articulated at his press conference – brotherhood, beauty, spirituality. His connection with the music was deep, rendered dramatically in some passages, lyrical in others, all played with a light touch and very fine control.

The orchestra provided seamless accompaniment and surprising sophistication, given its makeup of members from 20 different countries. An interlude of Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète was particularly impressive, performed with elegance and depth without the benefit of a conductor. The only disappointment was the audience, which applauded after the first movement of both concertos. Andsnes said he chose the Rudolfinum for its superb acoustics. Perhaps he should return during the regular season, which tends to attract more intelligent listeners.

Blechacz, all style and no soul.
The contrast could hardly have been more dramatic two nights later at Obecní dům, where Polish piano star Rafał Blechacz performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Warsaw Philharmonic. Just 27, Blechacz already has an enviable set of awards to his credit (including all five first prizes at the 2005 Chopin Competition) and a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon that most musicians would give up their firstborn to have. But his playing was strikingly shallow. Seemingly effortless and technically dazzling, it nonetheless lacked any sense of personality or conviction, a brilliant gloss with no depth. Whereas Andsnes played with electric intensity, Blechacz seemed content with a bright, breezy cover.

The orchestra was also one-dimensional, opening with a respectful but uninspired version of Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel, and offering similarly thin accompaniment on the Beethoven concerto. The second half was better, as it should have been for one of the orchestra’s signature pieces, Witold Lutosławski’s seminal Concerto for Orchestra, which the Warsaw Philharmonic premiered in 1954. With soaring strings, playful woodwinds, deep dynamics and vivid colors across a broad palette, it was a powerful demonstration of the impact the piece had nearly 60 years ago – and still does. Otherwise, it was a lackluster performance, leaving this critic wishing that Antoni Wit and his well-regarded ensemble had stayed with their apparent strengths in the Polish repertoire.

A heartfelt showing by Arnicane.
But this is Prague Spring, so inspiration is never far away. In a recital at the conservatory on Monday night, Latvian pianist Arta Arnicane showed why she won last year’s competition with a refreshing, spirited performance of Beethoven’s Sonata in D major, Op, 10, No. 3. Arnicane’s physical style of playing added zest to the opening movement, and her disciplined but imaginative phrasing created wonderful atmospherics in the second. A clear and distinctive voice was evident throughout the remainder of the piece, which she played with a beguiling combination of gracefulness and authority.

That mix was even more potent in Schumann’s Symphonic Études, which were riveting. Arnicane has soft hands that never lose their finesse even in the most demanding passages, which made for an exceptionally fluid performance and a clear but rousing finale. Though her sound lacks seasoning, her playing comes straight from the heart, a quality reflected in her choice of a second encore – Satie’s familiar Gymnopédie No. 1, a technically simple but emotionally satisfying finish.

In all, a smart and sensitive performance from a very promising young artist. Remember the name Arta Arnicane. You did not hear it here first, but you will definitely be hearing it again.

Photos: Andsnes & Arnicane, Zdeněk Chrapek; Blechacz, Ivan Malý 

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Prague Conservatory
May 28

After last year's award, a return engagement.

When she completes her master’s degree in Music Pedagogy at Zürich’s University of the Arts next month, Latvian pianist Arta Arnicane will already have five major competition awards to her credit. She took top prizes at the Animato-Stiftung competition in Switzerland, 1st Sussex International Piano Competition in the UK, Baltic International Piano Competition in Poland and Premio Iturbi in Spain – all in 2010 – and last year won the piano competition at Prague Spring. Already in demand as both a concert soloist and chamber music performer, Arnicane was invited back to Prague Spring this year to play a solo recital. Herewith, her thoughts on the awards, her career and playing in Prague.

How did you come to be a pianist? Was it something you always aspired to as you were growing up?

I started playing the piano at the age of four. My mother, Nora Luse, was my first teacher. Both of my parents are musicians and of course that influenced my choice of profession. And I always wanted to compose, although I have never had enough time to devote myself to composition. But for sure I could never imagine my life without music!

You won four international competitions in 2010. Was there something special about that time for you?

I wish I could offer an amazing story behind my achievements, but the truth is rather simple. It took some time for me to get to this moment of success – a journey of searching and doubts, of course. I suppose passion and patience is all it takes, as well as self-confidence and a bit of luck.

What was your experience like in the Prague Spring competition last year, and how did you feel when you won?

Winning the 2011 Prague Spring competition certainly was a very special moment. I had heard of the competition ever since I was a little girl, as my father was awarded Second Prize (with no First Prize given) twice in this prestigious competition for bassoon: 1974 and 1977. As I was playing at the Rudolfinum, I was thinking of him playing there about 30 years ago. I was very excited with all the additional prizes I was awarded at the competition, but the very most important prizes for me are the concert engagements!

What are your feelings about coming back to the festival as a performer this year?

Being back with concerts is exactly what makes me happy, so I am looking forward to the recital very much. Besides, the city of Prague is very beautiful and inspiring, I wish I could visit more often.

What direction do you hope to take your career, and what types of music or composers would you like to explore?

I am completely devoted to music and performance and would like to fill my life with it entirely. I hope to have more chances to play chamber music, and many opportunities to perform with an orchestra my favorite repertoire: piano concertos by W.A. Mozart. But there is an incredible amount of music to learn, and the world is changing, with new and interesting ideas regarding performances developing. So I rather look forward to having more time not only to perform music, but also create or take part in new and interesting projects.

What will you play at your Prague Spring recital?

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Opus 10 No. 3 and the full version of Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, with my own interpretation of the order of additional variations. This enigmatic piece is fascinating, especially because of this almost compositional task. I look forward very much to presenting my concept to the festival audience.

What do you hope the Prague Spring audience will take away from your performance?

I always try to find beauty in all aspects of programming and interpretation, and then hand it over to the audience. I wish that people would experience something special at my concerts, like a magic journey, and leave with a heart full of positive emotions.

For more on Arta Arnicane:

Thursday, May 24, 2012


National Theater
May 22

Happiness is a miracle machine and a stifled wife.

It was déjà vu all over again on Tuesday night, when the Moravian-Silesian Theaterʼs production of Stravinskyʼs The Rakeʼs Progress brought some familiar faces back to the National Theater. Joining the cast for bows after the performance were director Jiří Nekvasil and set designer Daniel Dvořák, a formidable team at the Prague State Opera and National Theater a decade ago. The enthusiastic applause suggested they havenʼt lost their touch.

In theory, the story of a man who casts aside a gorgeous fiancee and promising career for a life of debauchery that ends in an insane asylum is not grist for a lively comedy. But with tongue-in-cheek humor and increasingly outrageous sets, props and costumes, Nekvasil and his team created a witty, refreshingly modern version of the Faust tale. Broad acting, great timing and a brisk rendition of Stravinskyʼs surprisingly traditional score give it strong appeal without sacrificing any intelligence or depth.

The production opens in straightforward fashion – with the title character, Tom Rakewell (Jorge Garza), and his betrothed, Anne Trulove (Jana Šrejma Kačirková) professing their love around a model house and yard mounted on a swaying platform. The promise of domestic bliss turns out to be just as shaky when Nick Shadow (Ulf Paulsen), the devil in disguise, enters from the loge at stage left and persuades Tom to run off with him to the bright lights of London. The main light turns out be a flashing electronic message board offering lurid enticements of money, business and entertainment, echoed in a scarlet-themed brothel where Tom quickly succumbs to the pleasures of the flesh.

Anne comes searching for him in virginal white, but by then Tom is clothed in kingly gold and trailed by a decadent entourage carrying his new bride – Baba the Turk (Yvona Škvárová), an improbably large, bearded woman. He sends Anne away, stops his hairy wifeʼs nagging by putting a large cardboard box over her head, and turns his attention to Nickʼs newest gimmick, a preposterous machine that can supposedly transform rocks into bread. Investing in it drives Tom into bankruptcy, and the message board mockingly flashes BANKROT as his estate is auctioned off, then counts down the final seconds as the devil prepares to drag him into the steaming pit of hell.

Nekvasil takes full advantage of the operaʼs comic opportunities. Tom and Babaʼs domestic hell is portrayed like a TV sitcom, with Škvárová throwing a temper tantrum and fuming in fractured musical phrases. The miracle machine looks like a cross between a clothes washer and an industrial vacuum cleaner, painted in cheap gold. Still, the key to comedy is timing, and Nekvasil is a master at moving his characters around with stage with fluidity and precision. A pregnant pause and salacious “Well?” from Nick after offering another temptation to Tom was enough to draw giggles from the audience.

Garza is a solid tenor but with limited emotional range; his character only took on urgency in the final act. Paulsenʼs smooth bass-baritone and oily, leering manner were note-perfect for the devil. Šrejma Kačirková was a beauty with brains, singing with heartbreaking tenderness as she watched her man slip away. And Škvárová nearly stole the show in her brief turn as the demented bearded lady. The only weak showing was by the chorus, which stumbled through some of its choreography and served up mostly tepid vocals

Musically, the most striking thing about Rake is how conventional it is. With standard arias, recitatives and choral numbers, it hardly sounds like an opera written in 1951, much less by Igor Stravinsky. But there are clear and classic Stravinsky elements, particularly in the woodwinds, which conductor Jakub Klecker did a fine job of drawing out in a spirited, nuanced performance in the pit.

Intentionally or not, this production references some well-known works. The climactic confrontation with the devil would fit neatly in Don Giovanni, and the final scene in the insane asylum called to mind the closing moments of Miloš Formanʼs Amadeus. While those are good company to be in, Nekvasilʼs Rake stands on its own as a fresh and amusing take on an age-old story. The veterans, it seems, can still deliver.

Photo: Martin Popelář

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


May 22 & 23

Andsnes, left and Richter laying out their big plans.

Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes’s concerts with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra this week mark more than his return to Prague Spring after a 20-year absence. They are the beginning of an ambitious three-year effort to tour and record a complete set of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. By 2014, Andsnes plans to have the five concertos on three Sony Classical discs, and 70-plus concerts scheduled to present them to the world.

The project, which started with performances in Norway, Italy and Germany earlier this month, holds special significance for Prague. For one thing, Concerto No. 1 may have premiered here in 1798. “We are still trying to find out,” Andsnes said at a Monday press conference with MCO General Manager Andreas Richter. “It might have been Vienna.”

More importantly for contemporary audiences, all the recordings will be made at the Rudolfinum, starting Tuesday night. Asked about that decision at the press conference – particularly given the choice of so many other spectacular concert halls – Andsnes shrugged and made it sound simple. “We discussed all the very best places we could think of,” he said. “And we decided this was the best.”

Certainly there’s no arguing with the Rudolfinum’s excellent acoustics. But Andsnes also has a personal connection to Prague – his first piano teacher, Jiří Hlinka, who trained here and moved to Norway in the early 1970s, becoming an instructor at the Musikkonservatorium in Bergen. Andsnes studied with him for eight years, the first before he was even enrolled in the conservatory, and had to make a three-hour commute to see Hlinka.

I was a rather shy boy from the west coast of Norway, and I needed to meet someone who was passionate about the music,” Andsnes said. “Jiří was extremely inspirational. I learned many things from him, including Czech music. Janáček is still one of my favorite composers.”

As for Beethoven, Andsnes speaks of him with almost religious devotion. He came to the composer as a child, fascinated by what he called “the power of his music, the violence of it.” Now, at the age of 42, Beethoven has deeper meanings for him.

The last four or five years, I’ve come to feel his music is not just radical and modern, but spiritual and meaningful,” Andsnes said. “Beethoven had such a belief in the beauty and power of music – he hoped it would change the world and bring people together. The idea of brotherhood is a strong motivating factor in his music.”

For this project, just getting it right will pose a challenge. In his performances this week, Andsnes will not only play concertos No. 1 and No. 3, but conduct them from the keyboard. At the press conference, he was quick to downplay that part of his role.

I can only do that because this is such a fantastic orchestra,” he said. “You need incredible players to do it. I will be partly leading, partly conducting, but partly they will be playing by themselves.”

Andsnes also seemed eager to convince his audience that conducting is not a gimmick.It will be very different from the normal soloist situation, where you’re sitting away from the orchestra,” he explained. “I will sitting in the middle of the musicians, playing a piano with no lid so that I can see everyone. There’s an element of dialogue in the first three concertos, and this will allow us to react to each other directly, musician to musician.

It’s what I’ve always dreamed of – a collaboration. Discovering the wealth in this amazing music is something we will do together.”

The recording and tour dates for the project are carefully mapped out, with more cities being added all the time. But exactly where the Beethoven concertos will take Andsnes and the orchestra musically, not even GM Andreas Richter can tell.

We are embarking on a journey,” he said at the press conference. “And we’re not entirely sure what will happen.”

For more on:

The Prague Spring concerts:
Leif Ove Andsnes:
Mahler Chamber Orchestra:

Photo: Ivan Malý

Sunday, May 20, 2012


National Technical Museum
May 14
St. Agnes’ Convent
May 16
Obecní dům
May 18

Unorthodox instruments in Cage's Water Walk.

Certainly not Prague Spring. The grey lady, a ripe 67 this year, seemed like the queen of contemporary music during the first week of the festival, rolling out three programs of groundbreaking 20th-century compositions and new works by Czech composers.

John Cage was the featured artist in Monday night’s concert at the Technical Museum, where the Agon Orchestra played amid giant steam locomotives and antique cars and planes. Three of his pieces were chosen more for show than sophistication: Water Walk, in which the performer produces a series of liquid sounds (splashing a cymbal in a bathtub, watering flowers) interspersed with piano glissandos and noises from a rubber duck, electric mixer and other props; Root of an Unfocus, an abstract piece for prepared piano; and Imaginary Landscape No. 4, where instead of playing instruments the musicians manipulate the volume and tuning of 12 radio receivers.

For the uninitiated, the pieces were a dramatic, amusing and occasionally baffling demonstration of how far Cage pushed the boundaries of conventional music. Conductor Petr Kofroň and his ensemble performed them with an impressive combination of discipline and spontaneity. The band’s keyboard player, Michal Nejtek, wrote an orchestral arrangement of another Cage piece for prepared piano, And the Earth Shall Bear Again, that throbbed like a machine in the industrial setting, and made for a particularly smart, authoritative encore.

The rest of the program was uneven. With players scattered throughout the upper walkways, Brian Eno’s Discreet Music never quite coalesced properly. Nor did Frank Zappa’s Music for Low-Budget Orchestra, even with the full ensemble onstage. David Lang’s insistent Pierced was better, with deep, hypnotic rhythms that resonated throughout the exhibition hall. There were two world premieres – Kofroň’s Imaginary Symphony, which called to mind the sophisticated jazz jams of Weather Report, and Ivan Acher’s Iz iz am am dž i ťing, a Cage knockoff that started with a ping-pong ball assault on the piano strings and went downhill from there.

The audience, a capacity crowd spilling from the walkways, seemed not to know or care much about the quality of the music – which was fine. The novelty of the venue made the concert a bonafide event, and the big turnout convincingly demonstrated that modern music and enthusiastic crowds are not always mutually exclusive.

Composer Kopelent.
Real modern music aficionados were at St. Agnes’ Convent two nights later for a tribute to Marek Kopelent, the influential contemporary Czech composer whose work was banned by the communists. A refined program offered a retrospective of Kopelent’s career that included three string quartets, a duet for flute and vibraphone, several interludes for solo oboe and Agnus Dei, a sacred cantata for soprano and chamber group. The music was revolutionary when it was written (largely 1963 through 1983), and still has a sharp avant-garde edge, particularly in the hands of expert players. The Fama Quartet, which performs Kopelent’s work regularly throughout the year, was exquisite, rendering the string quartets in fine detail. Oboist Vilém Veverka spun haunting lines and blew himself red in the face on the energetic London Spring Greeting. And while the chamber ensemble for Agnus Dei was only adequate, soprano Irena Troupová was superb, delivering the text with passionate intensity.

The presentation was equally impressive. At Kopelent’s request, the pieces were performed as a continuous work, flowing into each other except for the break at intermission. The effect was mesmerizing, especially with Veverka playing two of his three pieces unseen, from adjacent rooms where the sound floated evocatively into the concert hall. In all, it was a classy and heartfelt homage to a man who well deserves it.

Modern maestro Metzmacher.
The title of this review is taken from a CD of the same name compiled by Ingo Metzmacher, a German conductor who has built his career on the 20th-century repertoire. Conducting the Czech Philharmonic at Obecní dům on Friday night, Metzmacher showed what works by Janáček, Bartók and Schönberg can become in skilled hands – powerful, compelling narratives with deep psychological undercurrents manifest in carefully nuanced layers and sudden, almost violent explosions of sound.

Metzmacher gave the driving internal dynamics of Janáček’s Jealousy a silken gloss. His reading of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin – the entire ballet, not just the concert suite – was masterful, richly detailed and wildly expressive, yet perfectly balanced between delicate solos and full orchestral outbursts. And for all its brashness, Schönberg’s Pelleas und Melisande was a study in subtlety, ebbing and flowing in shimmering waves, with vivid colors and bright, burnished tones signaling the last of the composer’s conventional works.

In theory, the Czech Philharmonic shouldn’t be able to play this kind of music. But with Metzmacher at the podium the orchestra was brilliant, performing outside its standard repertoire with eloquence, intelligence and warmth. Conducting without a baton, Metzmacher had fingertip control of the sound, which was emphatic but clean, never harsh or cold. Even by Prague Spring standards, it was an outstanding pairing of a world-class orchestra with a conductor who has complete mastery of complex material – and the perfect cap to a refreshingly modern opening week.

Photos: Agon & Metzmacher, Ivan Malý; Kopelent, Zdeněk Chrapek

Friday, May 18, 2012


An iconoclast who worries about being normal.

From the earliest days of his career, German conductor Ingo Metzmacher has been a champion of modern music. As music director of the Hamburg State Opera, he made it a staple of the programming, even producing a recording of selections from New Year’s Eve concerts titled “Who’s Afraid of 20th-Century Music?” Metzmacher has left his mark in Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Berlin, Zurich and Salzburg with productions of modern operas such as The Rake’s Progress, From the House of the Dead, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Wolfgang Rihm’s Dionysos. For Prague Spring, he will be conducting a challenging program with the Czech Philharmonic: Janáček’s Jealousy, Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin and Schönberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. Herewith, his thoughts on the program and the art and practice of modern music.

How and when did you become interested in modern music?

My father was a cellist and he loved Romantic music, so I grew up with chamber music from Bach to Reger. When I decided to go into music, I needed something for myself. I was lucky to meet some people who introduced me to modern music, and I was fascinated. The history of modern music is the history of liberation from certain sounds and harmonies, the so-called “nice sounds.” I like that very much, because it’s what I was looking for – liberation for myself.

Is it difficult being an advocate for an art form that’s not always well-received?

I like this idea. I don’t mind having resistance sometimes, because it’s nice to convince people of something you believe in. It’s actually a great process. I’m very suspicious of myself if I become too conformist. I don’t like the mainstream, I want to walk a bit on the wild side.

How did you put together the program for your Prague Spring concert?

Well, it started with Pelleas und Melisande, which I did with the Czech Philharmonic two years ago. But the idea was to create what I call this magic triangle. Because I think the music from Bohemia and Moravia, and from Hungary and Romania, and Vienna, where it all came together with the German influence – this is really the heart of music in Europe. I mean, this is where most of the energy came from, for centuries. So it’s no wonder that this area produced these three enormous figures – Janáček, Bartók and Schönberg – and I’m really happy to put them together in one program.

What is it that makes this part of the world special?

It’s because of the different cultures which mingled, and also the very strong folk music element. I’m thinking even of Brahms coming from Hamburg, where you have mainly Telemann and Bach. Brahms came to Vienna, and he went most probably to a pub, and heard gypsies playing, and he thought, “Oh, that’s great, I’m going to write some Hungarian dances.” There was this melting pot of very lively musical traditions – from the people, not only the composers.

Is that still true?

I think that’s one of the troubles of late 20th-century music – composers completely cut the roots to so-called popular music. It never happened before, this is the first time. And it’s not good, it doesn’t work. Even Beethoven and Mozart were picking up tunes from the street, like Charles Ives did. So I think there was something wrong when popular music and so-called serious music went apart. I don’t know why it happened, but it’s a pity.

The pieces on your Prague Spring program all have powerful psychological undercurrents. Do you try to bring that out in the music?

Of course. What interests me for example is this effect of playing on the bridge – the so-called ponticello – which for strings means that you play the pitch, but by going near the bridge you underline the overtone spectrum. So you hear more of the inner world of the pitch; it’s like you go into the psyche of the sound. It makes people uneasy to hear ponticello, which is very often used for mysterious moments, anxious moments, fright. It’s used a great deal by both Bartók and Schönberg in their pieces, and I always love to emphasize it.

How has it been working with the Czech Philharmonic?

I think it’s a unique orchestra, because it’s the only orchestra in the world whose name is really right. There are only Czech people playing in the Czech Philharmonic. All the other orchestras are now globalized. Even the Vienna Philharmonic has I think an Australian trombone player. But the Czech Philharmonic has a very special sound which you don’t find anymore in the world. It’s very local, very rooted in this city and country, with a very clear tradition of Czech music-making.

And how does that manifest itself?

It was astonishing for me when the orchestra played Janáček in rehearsal. It sounded right immediately, from the start. We have a concert in Dresden on Sunday where we’re going to do the Dvořák piano concerto, and I’m very curious to hear how they will play it – because that’s their daily food, so to speak. I don’t know if I can tell them anything about how to play it; rather, I will learn from them, because they know how to do it. Which is actually great, to encounter this kind of tradition.

What accounts for that facility?

It’s in the genes, most probably, because the music is from here, and they feel it, and there’s kind of an undercurrent – they just know. This orchestra doesn’t play much Janáček, they’re not an opera orchestra. But they feel it immediately; it’s close to their hearts. It’s like when I hear Bach or Brahms, I feel immediately it’s very close to me. It has to do with the culture, the food, the weather, the language – everything.

What do you hope the audience will get from your Prague Spring performance?

An adventure. It’s a special event to hear these three pieces performed together, and I think we will create some excitement.

For more about Ingo Metzmacher:

Photo: Anja Frers

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


May 4
May 6

When you go to hear an orchestra, what youre really going to hear is that nights conductor.”

The worldly Canadian conductor Kerry Stratton once passed on that bit of wisdom to this critic, and nearly every concert proves him right. The strengths, weaknesses, styles and predilections that each conductor brings to the podium are cast in particularly high relief in Prague, a city with five working orchestras and a nonstop parade of local and visiting maestros. Two recent appearances offered instructive contrasts from the East.

Surprisingly lackluster
On Friday night, Japanese conductor Kazushi Ono led the Czech Philharmonic in a program of Dvořák and Rimsky-Korsakov. It’s a bit of a misnomer to characterize Ono as Japanese. Though he was born and trained in Tokyo, much of his work has been in the West, with orchestras and opera houses in the UK, Germany, Belgium and France, where he is currently Principal Conductor of the Opéra de Lyon. He is especially noted for his work on operas by a wide range of composers – Stravinsky, Strauss, Shostakovich and Wagner, including a complete “Ring” cycle – and world premieres of new operas.

Unfortunately, not much of that expertise was in evidence at his Prague appearance. The opening piece, Dvořák’s symphonic poem The Water Sprite, was notably flat and uninspired. Its dramatic contrasts remained one-dimensional throughout, never developing any color or flair. And some of the notes were so labored as to sound almost atonal. The second selection, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Fairy Tale, Op. 29, picked up some dynamics and interesting tones in the strings and brass, though nowhere near what the piece offers in drama, verve and flat-out thrills. It was a credible reading, but largely lackluster.

Scheherezade sounded better in the second half, thanks mostly to some fine work by first violinist Irena Herajnová and harpist Barbara Pazourová. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Arabian fantasy is so inherently rich and colorful, and his instrumentation so fascinating to watch, that it’s hard not to do a crowd-pleasing performance. This one was ragged around the edges, more lively and engaging than the first half, but certainly not the caliber one expects of the Czech Philharmonic.

Since a number of the orchestra’s front-line players were not performing on Friday, it’s tempting to say that Ono did the best he could with the Czech Philharmonic B team. But that didn’t seem to be the problem. By the end of the evening, the impression Ono gave was of a man trying to drive a Cadillac who is used to being behind the wheel of a Buick.

Impeccable elegance
On the same podium two nights later, Russian conductor and violinist Vladimir Spivakov gave exactly the opposite impression – of a musician with a strong, distinctive voice that comes through clearly even when he’s leading a relatively junior ensemble like the Prague Philharmonia. Currently Music Director and Principal Conductor of the National Philharmonic of Russia and the Moscow Virtuosi chamber orchestra, which he co-founded in 1979, Spivakov has also been a noted violin soloist for nearly 40 years, playing with major orchestras on stages from Cleveland to Vienna. His many other distinctions are too numerous to list here, though it’s worth noting that Spivakov is a celebrated humanitarian off the stage, working chiefly through an eponymous international charity that he established in 1994.

The two Mozart pieces that comprised the first half of Sunday’s concert – the overture to La clemenza di Tito, and the Violin Concerto No. 2 – were stately, measured affairs, very different from the typically bright, even sprightly interpretations usually heard in Central Europe. Dusky in tone and more cerebral than one normally expects from Mozart, both works had a smooth elegance, mirroring Spivakov’s motions at the podium, which were technically impeccable and remarkably fluid.

As for the question of how one conducts a chamber orchestra and plays a Mozart violin solo at the same time, the answer in Spivakov’s case is, very well. He almost made it look easy, playing with a sweet, soulful sound that gave away nothing in intelligence while maintaining lush accompaniment with occasional turns and gestures to the orchestra. Even the visual aesthetics were pleasing, with Spivakov playing in the classic posture, tall and upright with his shoulders back, right foot slightly forward as he stepped into the more intricate passages. After he finished, even the musicians behind him were applauding.

If there was not much new in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in the second half, there were nonetheless some impressive elements: deep internal dynamics on the order of a large symphony orchestra, lustrous woodwinds, finely articulated strings and a masterful tempo that only got away in the final movement. There was an unstated bit of humor in the finale, as Spivakov seemed to be challenging the players to keep up with the sudden accelerated pace. Not everyone could, but the overall effect was invigorating.

All of which was a good warm-up for Prague Spring, which starts on Saturday with another Russian, Vasily Petrenko, conducting the Czech Philharmonic in the traditional opening performance of Smetana’s Má vlast. Conductors from seven other countries will follow, offering more lessons in Stratton’s maxim and a world of great music.

For more on Vladimir Spivakov:

Photos: Ono by Martin Divišek; Spivakov by Valery Plotnikov