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

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