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EXCLUSIVE: Orchestral Maneuvers in the Czech - Kurt Gottschalk at Ostrava Days 2015 [REVIEW]

By Kurt Gottschalk on Nov 22, 2015 03:57 AM EST

While the biannual Ostrava Days in the Czech Republic features, primarily, a wide array of post-1950 solo and small ensemble pieces, it is, at its heart, a symphonic endeavor--founded and curated by Czech composer/conductor Petr Kotik. Over the course of nine expansive nights in August, running this year from the 21st to the 29th, the festival hosted three different orchestras, and all three together on the first night. The Ostrava-based Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra and resident ensemble Ostravská Banda did plenty of heavy lifting over the course of the fest, with the Miners Band from Stonava (a brass group from that nearby town in coal-mining Moravia) joining them on opening night.

Lest thoughts set in of atonality run amok among the "agony of modern music" (à la Henry Pleasants) on unarable Czech land, let it be noted that this year's programming included the following: a piece by Salvatore Sciarrino steeped in Mendelssohn, a Helmut Oehring composition which borrowed from Beethoven, an Alvin Lucier work informed by Stravinsky, Richard Ayres' partial elegy for Alfred Schnittke, student composer Ian Mikyska's take on Schubert's settings of Goethe, nods to Schoenberg care of Berg and Alex Mincek, as well as vocalist David Moss' interpretive reading of Wittgenstein and hat tips to two masters of horror in Bernhard Lang's dedication to Boris Karloff and Oerhring's own reworking of Edgar Allan Poe.

Ostrava has a way of beginning before it begins, what with an evening concert and a full day of works for electronics. Rather surprisingly, the pre-opening night concert this year included the European premiere of Czech composer Rudolf Komorous' 1970 short opera Lady Blancarosa. There was no stage set. In fact, there was no stage in the open, repurposed industrial space. A man appeared, lugging an armoire on his back. He set it down and fetched a small, foldng table. Moving like he's been working all day, he then set up a film projector to show stag films on the wardrobe, which he proceeded to climb into. There had been no singing or speaking as yet, just electronic sound, until a pair of sopranos from Budapest arrived.

They turned off the projector and sat at the table, one finally beginning to sing: "yesterday nothing," "is that right?" "can't it begin softly?" The other eventually joined in, singing over her as they fiddled with maps and magazines. It was a short and entertaining period piece. Not a costume drama, but one very much of its vintage. It also set the stage, so to speak, for the operas that would come later in the week.

Opening night proper was held in another refurbished space, which was also host to Karlheinz Stockhausen and Alvin Lucier sound installations for the course of the festival.

The first piece, by Jacek Sotomski (a student from Poland enrolled at the Ostrava Days Institute) demonstrated inherent problems with the large room. Scored for accordion, electronics and two dozen strings, the acoustics created an unfortunate imbalance. While the electronic static poked through the P.A., the sounds from the acoustic instruments drifted skyward and were soon lost, the drama in the contrast reduced to a curiosity.

A recording of Stockhausen's landmark electronic sound collage Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-56) played over the loudspeakers, which preceded his orchestral work Gruppen, fared better than did the acoustic works that night.

The four speakers surrounding the audience delivered the sound like a team of snipers. And even if the edges of Gruppen (1955-57) were a bit blurred, the scattershoot came off well. Although, the space was big enough that the extremes in left and right may have lead to a case or two of seasickness among those in attendance. Those who weathered the storm, however, were treated to a swimmingly evocative (and too rarely attainable) listening experience.

Phill Niblock is a regular presenter at Ostrava and his Three Petals (2014), conducted by maestro Kotik, held its own in the large room: working in slowly shifting drones, yet lacking in clarity and (given the composer's penchant) amplitude. Still, one doesn't dissect Niblock's music so much as submerge into it. The prolonged tones were far from sedentary. They wavered, they swarmed, they glistened and eclipsed one another. Centered around a very close cluster of notes, the music made such notions as, quote, "melody" a non-issue. The 25 minutes of overtones and harmonic convergences gorgeously filled the difficult room, its natural reverb making for a lovely decaying coda before a moment of silence set in.

Kotik's own Variations for Three Orchestras (2003-05) was performed with three conductors at the front, right and left of the audience--the orchestra members reversing their chairs, backs turned on the audience, so the conductors could make eye contact. The piece made beautiful use of the stereoscopic possibilities of the arrangement, with complimentary phrases drifting through the room. Most notably, when a trio of marimbas came into play. The music slowly grew denser, particularly in the percussion (although the presence of the tubas was likely missed by few in attendance). Unfinished romantic phrases wafted back and forth, never quite repeating or building, as if a fitful night for Vivaldi.

John Cage's 1961 Atlas Eclipticalis was paired with his Winter Music from the same year. And on initiative of Kotik, the Stonava Miners Band, with its own conductor, joined in. It was wonderfully sparse after the room-filling pieces that preceded it; notes had time to bounce around the room. Pianist Christian Wolff was stationed at a majestic Bösendorfer at the center of the front stage, anchoring the seemingly unanchorable. With the parade music of the coal mine band on the audience's right, fantastically eclipsing at intervals, the endeavor proved a perfectly Cagean dystopia. The performance was hilariously lopsided. Peals of laughter could be seen around the room, although not heard over such bombast.

Although only one other night came close to the first In orchestral weight, music for large ensembles was featured throughout the week. The Japanese-born New Yorker Ushio Torikai's beautiful Remember, dedicated to victims of terrorism and war, was sung by baritone Thomas Buckner. "Remember me when I am gone away," he incanted over hushed strings. As the piece built, prolonged tones from the brass and reeds seemed to evoke an air raid siren. That was followed with a respite by Ostrava regular Petr Cigler's Daily Patterns. With rhythms conjuring dripping faucets, cellos like rubber bands and a timpani measuring the stress of rushing, it all ended with a collision of strings and horns.

Sciarrino's 1985 Allegoria della notte took Mendelssohn as a cue, imagining the latter's violin concerto as being unfinished and wallowing in the subsequent lack of resolution. The violin harmonies, played breathtakingly by the wondrous Hana Kotková, were released from their earthly chains, floating lightly as an orchestra of pizzicato strings and breathy flutes whispered behind her. Sheet-metal thunder completed the dream state.

Helmut Oehring's Goya III from 2014 carried on the drones that were recurrent throughout the festival. There are, however, drones. And then there are drones. The piece began with a dozen and a half strings so low the players nearly had to lie down. With a trill from first violinist Conrad Harris, the foundation started to slipped away, leaving only cello, having moved up to the higher register, and occasional contrabass slaps. The ensemble returned with the full force of tutti strings, swelling against sporadic bass quadruplets, managing to fall into harmony while swaying top to bottom. A walking bass line and staccato violin broke the swirling drone, but it was able to quickly reform itself. Overall, it was dramatically gorgeous.

Richard Ayres' 1998 No. 31 (NONcerto for Trumpet), on the other hand, was downright befuddling. Enjoyably so, though, what with heroic trumpet, lovely harp lines stuck in rotation and unexpected explosions of fractured polka (calling to mind the Miners from opening night).

The Janáčkova Filharmonie was nearly big enough to rival the triple orchestra night on the "large orchestra" concert. Michal Rataj's Temporis (2015) featured impossibly low bassoons and percussion behind a conversation between cimbalom and harp, which was eventually interrupted by a full-on string attack. Essentially a concerto for Jan Mikušek's cimbalom--a concert-sized hammered dulcimer from Hungary--the piece worked the sections of the orchestra well. Still, it felt as if the star instrument didn't have a chance to shine, at least in the skewed view of this cultural tourist. The cimbalom was heard in its traditional glory, however, the following night during a sort of after-party with the Cimbálová Noc.

Alas, Morton Feldman's instrumental spotlight Oboe and Orchestra (1975-76) didn't fare as well as the cimbalom. The solo part was played with force and precision by Vilém Veverka, the problem in that equation being force. Veverka held the front of the stage like a bird searching for fish in the river below, pushing the orchestra into a volume unbecoming of the composition.

He might have been a better fit in the Xenakis which followed: Troorkh, composed in 1991. The crystalline trombone lines of that piece, as played by New York City's William Lang, pushed the orchestra to more intentional heights.

Beyond its full-throttle amplitude, the piece showed both smarts and wit. The performance, under Kotik's lead, gave clarity to what was nearly an assault of sonic information.

Oehring was heard from again with POEendulum, delivered by vocalist David Moss and orchestra. A surprise, even coming from a composer who is full of them, the work was more radio play than symphony, galloping and crashing as Moss slowly shaped the words from Poe's The Pit and The Pendulum via nonverbal utterances. As Moss built to a bursting-at-the-seams climax, the living soundtrack blared. With the truncated text, it was more mood piece than suspense story, but entertaining nevertheless. And within it all came yet another surprise--a setting of a Lorca poem, given by Moss in a convincing soprano.

The closing concert began with an epic, 70-minute first half boldly juxtaposing Alban Berg and Alex Mincek's Schoenberg dedications. The orchestra breathed with soft inhalations through the premiere of Mincek's Pendulum X: "Harmonielehre," broken by sustained keyboard chords and soft percussion, only to explode with the breathing rhythm remaining implicit. The orchestra journeyed through a series of brass-heavy plateaus, some quite beautiful. Mincek's title (like John Adams' before it) references Schoenberg's über-book Harmonielehre, (literally, study of harmony), for whom Berg's Kammerkonzert für Klavier und Geige mit 13 Bläsern (or, just chamber concerto for piano, violin and 13 winds) was also written. The ensemble on stage included two of the finest among Ostrava veterans: the violinist Kotková and pianist Daan Vandewalle.

Yes, it's rare to hear a pre-1950 piece at Ostrava Days. That said, it was fascinating to experience how warmly Berg's once-objectionable harmonies fell upon ears that had strained for nine days to take in sounds working outside of conventional harmonic structure. To this happily exhausted pair? Well, it could have been Gershwin. Berg's concerto (1923-25) for his teacher's 50th is deeply entrenched in its own structural games, but it is, at the same time, richly musical. Vandawalle's strong, assured hand and Kotková's beautifully lyrical touch were at no time in opposition, simply upholding their shared venture with different grips.

György Ligeti's 1972 Double Concerto for Flute and Oboe came after the break. It's an early experiment in microtonality for the late, ever approachable composer, quickly evident in the wavering reeds behind the opening flute figures, the bass flute echoed by bassoons. The microtones they suggested soon arose in the strings. And then, quite nicely, growing more prominent in the flute and clarinet.

It's hard to overemphasize how natural techniques not common in western music sound in Ligeti's hands. But his use of tones which refuse proper placement on the staff is a good starting place in hearing how easy his genius can appear to be.

For a festival founded on unusual choices, Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Nobody Knows de Trouble I See (1954) seemed an unusual choice for a final piece. Another respite for taxed and trying ears, the old spiritual of the title was handed to a jazz-inflected trumpet against dramatic orchestration, a broken-boogie piano, bluesy organ and percussion that seemed designed for comedic effect where there was no comedy. The ramp up was played wonderfully by trumpeter Reinhold Freidrich, who convincingly quoted jazz styles while existing within the melodrama of the score. The problem he--we, the orchestra, the audience--faced was how, on that evening, to deal with musical levity.

That week, a truckload of refugees had been found dead in Hungary, while we had lived within the riches of beautiful, evocative composition and remarkable performance. Now we (or at least I) wondered, with nagging doubt, if the trouble had passed and whether or not this was a hopeful song. After all, the troubles in the lyric are put in the past tense: "Nobody knows the troubles I've seen."

Or, is that truly past? Are the troubles over? Likely not. And yet, it is a song of survival. It's about surviving despite, just as musical experimentation survives despite, as the Ostrava Banda has survived for 10 years and Ostrava Days for 14. Peter Kotik's remarkable operation in what locals commonly call the "Detroit of the Czech Republic" has survived not by virtue of pampering or patronage, but by determination, by sheer volition. It survives despite.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, REVIEW, Kurt Gottschalk, Ostrava Days, Petr Kotik, Alvin Lucier, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Phill Niblock, John Cage, Christian Wolff, Salvatore Sciarrino, Morton Feldman, Iannis Xenakis, Schoenberg, Berg, Gyorgy Ligeti, Bernd Alois Zimmermann