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EXCLUSIVE: Small Ensemble, Big Thinking - Kurt Gottschalk at Ostrava Days 2015 [REVIEW]

By Kurt Gottschalk on Dec 26, 2015 02:56 AM EST

Ostrava, a smallish Czech city of some 300,000 people about 10 kilometers from the Polish border, hosts the biennial Ostrava Days, a small festival, itself, but with audiences usually numbering a couple hundred. Both city and fest think big. In recent years, Ostrava has seen a remarkable amount of development via commerce and construction, as well as a laudable push to renovate the industrial facilities if its mining past into theaters, galleries and other art spaces. For its part, Ostrava Days is oriented toward big music--the 2015 edition even featuring a night of works for three orchestras--all the while making room for smaller-scale compositions.

One such evening this summer, under the banner "Solos Into the Night" (which duly stretched to 1:30 in the morning, Central European Time) was built largely around solo performances; more to the point, around virtuosic solo performances. Cello pieces by Kaija Saariaho and Christian Wolff were played, respectively and exceptionally, by John Laitenen and Charles Curtis.

Iannis Xenakis' Embellie for lone viola, from 1981, was given an especially stunning rendering by FLUX Quartet leader and S.E.M. Ensemble concertmaster, Conrad Harris.

Meanwhile, bassist James Ilgenfritz successfully navigated the many knots of Elliott Sharp's Aletheia (2014). Also, the Berlin-based vocal calesthenicist David Moss read from/riffed on Wittgenstein, as if avant-garde performance were stand-up comedy without the jokes (which some, no doubt, would say it is).

It takes a special player to impart the connectivity running through Wolff's often disparate phrases. To wit, Curtis wasn't the only soloist to rise to the challenge. Enter, then, the exceptional pianist Daan Vandewalle. He gave a recital pairing two of Wolff's works, the Long Piano (Peace March 11) (2004-05) and the 1960 Suite II, the latter with Daniel Costello on French horn. Long Piano, in particular, never sounded brittle or overly abrupt. Under Vandewalle's hands, the piece made no unnecessary flourishes, especially in the surprising, mid-phrase ending, which he delivered without hesitation. Indeed, without so much as an extra breath.

Again this August, the selection of contemporary chamber works across the nine days was well programmed. Alvin Lucier's mesmerizingly loping Orpheus Variations (2014) for cello, French horn, paired flutes, trombones and trumpets was a triumph, thanks to longtime collaborator Curtis. Moving like a spider pacing up and down his cello's neck, he was not just a joy to hear. No, Curtis was a pleasure to watch, too.

As in New York earlier this month, Orpheus was conducted by Petr Kotik, which made plenty of sense. The interlocking lines and doubled instruments bore a striking resemblance to his epic Gertrude Stein setting, 1978's Many Many Women, which was presented at Ostrava in 2013.

(Photo : Courtesy of Phill Niblock)
Maestro Kotik, sans baton.

A septet of members from the Ostravská Banda played Bernhard Lang's 2014 dedication to Boris Karloff (DW 23b...Loops for Dr. X), which included references to horror movie organ stops, surf- and theremin-informed electric guitar and samples of Karloff's voice (alongside instrumental motifs modeled after it). Compelling string bass, piano, flute and clarinet lines held the center strong. Somehow, the German composer's paean to the English actor never strayed too far from camp, nor do its notes on fall into it wholesale. Perhaps most surprisingly, the piece reconciled its humor with foreboding tones and, quote, "serious composition" into bold, repeating and splintering lines.

A night entitled "Voices and Instruments" at St. Wenceslaus Church--a 14th-century Gothic chapel and the oldest building in the city--was, along with the "New Opera" evening, the fest's focal point for vocals. Once more, some small ensemble pieces shared the bill. The evening began dramatically enough with Peter Graham's Death Has a Smile on Its Face (2014), care of Pavel Zlámal's bass clarinet singing and screaming and filling the small, resonant room. Ultimately, the strings slowly overtook Zlámal's single, lowly reed, while a mixed chorus barely made any audible sound.

(Photo : Arathan Photography)
Zlámal interupts a most pregnant pause there in the fourth-tallest building in the Czech Republic.

Completed in 1953, György Ligeti's Six Bagatelles were lovely followers--brief and joyful pieces for wind quintet. Likewise, the late Russian composer Galina Ustwolskaja's Octet for two oboes, four violins, piano and timpani, composed six years before Ligeti's, was divided into short sections rich in melodic invention. From a current vantage, at least, both used fairly conventional instrumentation and form to create abstract, yet powerful expressions.

Rolf Riehm's 2015 Adieu, sirènes for two cellos, two trumpets and voice drew lines between the myth of the sirens and the losses in the Syrian civil war, all while quoting The Epic of Gilgamesh, Ulysses and Kafka. The piece also marked the third festival appearance of mezzo soprano Annette Schönmüller, the one that made her truly unforgettable. Johannes Kalitzke, one of four principal conductors this year, conducted his own Memoria for two trumpets and two trombones, placed around the chapel with electric guitar, theorbo, electric keyboard and percussion. The brass filled the room with long tones and a dissonant fanfare, soon growing to a near cacophony.

Since 2012, on alternating years, the festival has hosted a new component: "New Opera Days Ostrava," or NODO. That model seeped into this year, with two chamber operas on a single night in the beautiful red and gold interior of the Dvořák Theatre. The first was a partial staging (all but the final scene) of George Lewis' Afterword, a telling of the early days of the seminal Chicago jazz collective the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

(Photo : NewMusicOstrava.cz)
Founded in May of 1965 by pianist Muhal Richard Abrams...

Afterword remains an odd work, the bulk of it occurring at an organizational meeting, based largely on Lewis' invaluable tome, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

In other words, it was not action-packed. The music, though, was fantastic, its bold lines from the chamber carrying a narrative that delved more into sociology than drama.

(Photo : NewMusicOstrava.cz)
. . . AACM turns 50 this year.

Kotik's Master-Pieces, another setting of Stein, with soprano Kamala Sankaram carrying nearly the whole of the vocal duties, received its third performance in a radically reworked version. Besides an entirely new stage set from previous iterations at NODO 2014 and New York's Paula Cooper Gallery that December, this version particularly benefited from an expanded, opening instrumental section, replacing the solo violin introduction.

Stein's typically circular text revolves around the nature of artistic masterpieces, themselves. And Sankaram duly delivered 75 impressive minutes, while moving down a ramp, at a snail's pace, that filled the colorless stage.

(Photo : NewMusicOstrava.cz)
Kotik's libretto is cobbled together from Stein's WWII diary and her 1936 lecture, What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them?

In past productions, Master-Pieces was a meditation on what makes, well, a masterpiece. Now, it may well have been one. Against the stark and angular staging, in any event, this revised score features some of the warmest music Kotik has written.

Occurring near the end of the festival, it was difficult not to listen to Stein's own unanswered question and not think about the nebulous nature of "masterpieces," per se. We know what kings and dictators are, what constitutes a blizzard or a hurricane, even how a hit single is determined. But a masterpiece? Who makes such a judgment? Suffice it to say Ostrava Days 2015 was nine days of brilliance, maybe even mastery. And anyways, "masterpiece" sounds like something for the mantelpiece. Ostrava Days is music that's living and breathing, a bit of tradition well-steeped in the contemporary.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, REVIEW, Kurt Gottschalk, Ostrava Days, Petr Kotik, Alvin Lucier, Phill Niblock, Christian Wolff, Iannis Xenakis, Gyorgy Ligeti, Kaija Saariaho, Elliott Sharp, Bernhard Lang, Peter Graham, Galina Ustwolskaja, Rolf Riehm, George Lewis