Feldman Classic Caps Second Night in Ostrava

  Czech RepublicCzech Republic Ostrava Days 2011 (2): Matuszewski, Muntag, Smolka, Feldman: Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra, Jiri Kral (tuba), Karel Sin (tuba), Joseph Kubera (piano), Petr Kotik (conductor), Johannes Kalitzke (conductor), Ondrej Vrabec (conductor), Philharmonic Hall, Ostrava, Czech Republic. 31.8.2011 (GG)

Filip Matuszewski: Scherzo
Lorinc Muntag: For 60
Martin Smolka: Still Life with Tubas or Silence Hiding, for two tubas and orchestra in three movements
Morton Feldman: Piano and Orchestra

This concert of recent (save one) orchestral works at the Ostrava Days 2011 festival was full of fascinating musical explorations and interesting arguments, thanks to the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra and three different conductors. The program had the sound of composers and musicians trying new things, and if it was not always completely successful, it was always thought-provoking, and at its best was wonderful.

Though presented without intermission, it had a standard concert feel, with shorter opening works paving the way for more substantial pieces, in terms both of time and music. The first two were from young composers attending the festival’s Institute, where they worked on the scores with the conductors and musicians. Filip Matuszewski’s Scherzo follows the fundamental tradition in being (almost) danceable and full of lively wit. It starts off exuberantly, built on cross-rhythms that are staggered just enough to sound mind-bogglingly difficult, especially for a large ensemble. The Janacek players not only managed the task but performed with a sense of energy and fun, and a lot of credit goes to conductor Ondrej Vrabec (who also led For 60) for keeping not just the beat but the momentum.

Matuszewski has made a piece that blends some of Conlon Nancarrow’s technique with Carl Stalling’s aesthetic. At seven minutes, it seems a little long, perhaps because the idea as presented can’t quite sustain that duration, or because of the scoring, which is thick and heavy – seemingly too much so for the idea. But it is fun, and it does open the eyes. Lorinc Muntag’s For 60 was an immediate and effective contrast. The aesthetic was close to Feldman with his slowly moving sustained tones and chords, but it also seemed to rise out of Wagner and Schoenberg. Muntag begins with stillness – the slow layering of notes over a long, deep pedal – and the sound uncannily recalls Siegfried’s Idyll and the Das Rheingold Prelude. As the music develops, the vertical space opens up, and when the first modulation appears it creates a dramatic new vista, like the first chord change in the long opening of Gurre-Lieder. The slow, quiet movement and sonorities also seem to come out of the ideas of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 4. The orchestra finished with an exquisite niente at the end. It’s a fine piece and the fact that it appears at the apex of a long historical movement as a completely contemporary work is to its credit.

The extended title of Martin Smolka’s Still Life with Tubas or Silence Hiding may indicate to the reader that it was a bit hermetic. There are indeed two tubas featured at the front of the orchestra, but their music is minimal to the point of being non-existent. They provide some color, and when playing they fill in the bottom range of the ensemble (which lacks basses), but in each phrase their music makes up less than an epigram. Smolka uses washes of color in beginning each movement, often scintillating in texture and sonority, and shapes each of the three sections differently. The opening has the most tuba activity – a series of tuttis followed by minor key pedal tones, slowly rocking – and the overall plan develops a sense of drama. In the second movement, the beginning gradually disintegrates into an exceedingly sparse soundscape, with tiny moments of desiccated sound. There were many stretches when conductor Johannes Kalitzke was beating several measures of silence. The final movement seemed to be organized mainly around the absence of sound, the music barely existing. Smolka is hinting at some interesting ideas about space and time, but his organization seems unsure; the thematic repetition of the orchestral chords is in opposition to the way the other music is written. It may be a kind of musical agon, but there’s a lack of clear intention – the music in a way seems to be withdrawing itself from critical judgment.

In this context, Piano and Orchestra is a classic, from which all the others come, directly or indirectly. Petr Kotik and Joseph Kubera are masterful partners in works like this, and under Kotik the orchestra sounded more colorful, sonorous and transparent than in the previous works, even in the Smolka at its most minimal. The delicate exactitude of the piano part can leave musicians wondering what to say, but Kubera has such deep understanding of the material that it sounded like he was carrying on a gentle, sotto voce dialogue with the orchestra, responding with humor and humility to the moments of stentorian conflict and loudness that Feldman interjects. Kotik shaped the music so subtly that his contribution wasn’t apparent until the final measures, which on recordings and in performances have often seemed uncertain, anxiously left hanging. In Philharmonic Hall, all the previous music led to the last notes, which sounded like Beckett: unconventional in traditional terms but completely logical and satisfying in this context, aesthetically absolutely right.

George Grella