Ostrava Days (7): Ambitious Closing Concert

16/09/2011

   Ostrava Days (7): Walker, Padovani, Niblock, Rihm, Lang, Ustvolskaya: Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra, Ostravská Banda, JACK Quartet, Alexandr Vovk (baritone), Joseph Kubera (piano), Petr Kotik (conductor), Ondrej Vrabec (conductor), Barbara Kler (conductor), Philharmonic Hall, Ostrava, Czech Republic, 03.09.2011 (GG)

 K.C.M. Walker: Symphony
José Henrique Padovani: canto divisio
Phil Niblock: Baobab
Wolfgang Rihm: “CONCERTO” Dithtyrambe
Bernhard Lang: Monadology XIVa Puccini – Variationen “Butterfly – Ouvertüre”
Galina Ustvolskaya: Symphony No. 2, “True and Eternal Bliss”

Ostrava Days 2011 closed with an ambitious and powerful orchestral concert comprised of a mix of world premieres and masterful contemporary works. K.C.M. Walker’s Symphony was one of the new pieces, which Walker produced through the course of the last two Institutes. (He’s currently a graduate student working with Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan.) As performed by the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra, the work’s power was immediately impressive. Walker takes an exceedingly simple chore, an ostinato, and spreads it out through an orchestra divided into three sections, each playing at a different, proportional tempo, working in a ratio of 3:4:6. Hence three conductors were needed: Petr Kotik steady in the center, Ondrej Vrabec sharp and lively in the fast beat, Barbara Kler graceful and assured in her pulse.

The sound is huge, industrial, dark and clanging. The harmony is simple and spare, and the overall movement is limited to the thick texture gradually thinning out. There is an admirable strength of conviction: its idea is repetition and it sticks to that with determination and confidence, really separating Walker from the problematic nature of some of the other student compositions heard at the festival. While the result may not be to everyone’s taste, the music fulfills its own goals completely, and comes off as a combination of Bruckner and Einstürzende Neubauten, bracingly clarifying and viscerally exciting.

José Henrique Padovani’s canto diviso is also essentially a student work, and is also highly accomplished. It’s lovingly crafted, using the smaller ensemble of the Ostravská Banda chamber group to explore several musical paths. Deliberately formless at first, the music searches with deliberate forward motion first for a texture, then for a chord. Phrases, colors and shapes glide into, against and through each other, and there is an attractive tension in how elements interact, oppose and complement each other. It’s entrancing, and Kler and the musicians gave it an assured and skillful performance.

Phil Niblock’s Baobab, also a world premiere, did not share the same virtues of clarity and purpose. I have never been attracted to his work, and this piece did nothing to convince me. As the music plays for twenty-three minutes – the orchestra cycling between the pitches B, C and B-flat – a silent, two-channel film begins (actually starting before the music and continuing after it has finished). The images show people in Asian countries working at simple, mainly agricultural tasks, including fishing and tilling soil. The static drone of the music has no apparent connection to the images, which are presented without comment. I find the utter obscurity of the work to be a failure of aesthetic morals: artists have an obligation to say something without being coy if they expect us to witness their work, and Niblock refuses to say anything clearly. The music is uninteresting, vastly inferior to say, David Lang’s Slow Movement. The program notes mention that the score was realized by Bob Gilmore, demanding the question of how much the composer actually composed.

After intermission, the second half was extraordinary. Wolfgang Rihm’s “CONCERTO” Dithtyrambe (from 2000, for orchestra and string quartet) is tremendous. It stars and proceeds for a half-hour at a propulsive pace, at a level of activity and density that almost defies the ability of the ear and the brain to follow along. Something is always happening, and almost always virtuosic. The solo part is expressionistic and dramatic, the underlying orchestral music has some truly voluptuous string writing, and there is even an intriguing quote from Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. Afterwards, Kotik told me that they had only two rehearsals, and the confidence on display was a testament to the impressive talents of the JACK Quartet, who played with something approaching casual ease. A contemporary masterwork, its restless energy and complexity say something deeply humane – an acknowledgement of life’s inexpressible aspects.

Bernhard Lang’s deconstruction and reconstruction of Puccini, also a world premiere, is even more complex in a subtler way. Titled Monadology XIVa Puccini – Variationen “Butterfly – Ouvertüre,” Lang’s technique here is different from his more well-known use of fractured loops and scratchy turntable-ism: he’s taking the music apart in small details, including tonally, and turning the fragments into languid, repeated phrases. There are two or three ideas happening at once, and the group sounds like a drunken street band until they gradually come together, producing an intriguing sound that clearly follows the shape of Puccini. The work is fascinating, attractive, droll and entices one to further listening. It may never reveal its true shape, and that is part of what it so uncannily interesting.

In this context, Galina Ustvolskaya’s austere Symphony No. 2 (from 1979 and subtitled “True and Eternal Bliss”) takes on entirely new qualities. Her art is deeply rooted in the Western classical tradition, and her method of honing her expression and technique down to the absolute essentials shares the avant-garde value of radical, even obsessive, simplicity. She repeats her material in blocks – not as a matter of process, as in Minimalism, and not to model structures like either song or sonata form, but in a practice that combines aesthetic, religious and political values. The fundamental similarity to Bruckner is striking – and striking as well is how the forward-thinking qualities of Bruckner are finding their way into the daylight of the contemporary classical music scene – but Ustvolskaya’s personal circumstances were completely different. Living in a society controlled, murderously, through slogans and propaganda, she chose to create her own counter-propaganda, to hammer home one implacable idea until you believed it as well. As unlikely as her success – her music is deliberately forbidding – her honesty is a powerful hook that allows the repetitions to reveal their severe beauty. As in a mantra, the austerity becomes richer through time, and each bit of nuance (she develops through gesture, rather than motif) is full of poetry. The vocal part, a cry of both despair and determination, is heard a cappella until the very end, enhancing the existential feeling. The score is technically simple yet aesthetically difficult, and Kotik, the orchestra and soloists (Alexandr Vovk and Joseph Kubera) gave it both a cold fire and a feeling of deep sympathy. That an artist so disturbing could bring this complex and rich festival to such a rousing and satisfying finish is a tribute to Ostrava Days – and its vitality and importance.

George Grella

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