Marathon Czech Concert Revives Weary Visiting Critic

Czech RepublicCzech Republic   Ostrava Days 2011 (1): Wolff, Tone, Park, Bakla, Mumma, Jeney, Xenakis, Ferneyhough, Ames, Boulez, Ashley, Cardew, Feldman: Ostravská Banda, Ostrava Days Ensemble, Rhodri Davies (harp), Daan Vandewalle (piano), Conrad Harris (violin), Katalin Károlyi (mezzo-soprano), John Eckhardt (bass), Arne Deforce (cello), Hana Kotková (violin), Fabrizio Rosso (electronics), Roberto Mucchuit (electronics), Thomas Buckner (baritone), Petr Kotik (conductor), Ondrej Vrabec (conductor), John Tilbury (coordinator), Philharmonic Hall, Ostrava, Czech Republic. 30.8.2011 (GG)

Christian Wolff: For Harp Player
Yasunao Tone: Ten Haikus of Matsuo Basho
Sam Park: A Memory of Shadow
Petr Bakla: Melody and Accompaniment
Gordon Mumma: COMITATUS 2
Zoltán Jeney: Psalmus 5
Xenakis: Mikka, Mikka-S, Kottos
Brian Ferneyhough: Trittico per G.S.
Charles Ames: Concurrence
Boulez: Anthèmes II
Robert Ashley: Odalisque
Cornelius Cardew: The Tiger’s Mind
Feldman: Trio

My first night at the Ostrava Days 2011 festival was unfortunately the third night of concerts. Hurricane Irene made a mess of travel from New York City, so after overnight on a plane and a day on a train, I was both thankful and overwhelmed to have a marathon “Night of Solos” before me. This was one concert divided into four parts, the first (which I missed) featuring new works from young composers attending the pre-festival Institute. (Last spring I reviewed two of these, Carolyn Chen’s Wilder Shores of Love and Pendulum #7 from Alex Mincek  here.)

The solos, actually mixed in with some chamber ensemble pieces, began with Rhodri Davies presenting new scores from Christian Wolff, Yasunao Tone and Institute student Sam Park. A harp recital of any kind is a novelty, but hearing these excellent new additions to the repertory was deeply satisfying aesthetically and intellectually. Delicacy of sound is a given, and certainly a feature of both Wolff’s and Park’s contributions (For Harp Player and A Memory of Shadow, respectively), but Tone disrupted this quality. Ten Haikus of Matsuo Basho was surprising and wonderful, aphoristic and structurally gossamer-like (like Wolff), but with the sound run through an amplifier, the result was deliberately distorted, as if the speaker cone had been punctured, or a valve had burst. Tone is mainly known for his deliberate destruction of CD media and digital files to produce dense fields of noise, and it was startling to hear him work both acoustically and quietly.

Of the several music tributes to Basho I have heard, this was the best. Not only were the sections properly short, but Tone eschewed development for pure statement, often creating an illusion of the haikus starting at some point after they began, and ending with the sense that there was still other music left unheard. Mysterious and fascinating, Ten Haikus has a compelling diffidence. Wolff’s work was lovely, song-like in parts, offering Rhodri Davies the chance to improvise and produce unconventional timbres with a bow and other materials. Park’s piece tossed off bright, pellucid ideas like pebbles into a pond, the ripples coming together in different ways, a Minimalist procedure here, a lovely melody there, rising into a brief period of storminess. It seemed a subtly crafted set of variations.

Petr Bakla’s Melody and Accompaniment, a world premiere for piano, was impressive. He has separated melody and accompaniment, so that the delicate, hesitant right hand is constantly interrupted by an aggressive, discordant left. This struggle between the two parts gradually works its way into a kind of free monophony, as if the player were improvising, and the effect is quite strong and pleasing. Bakla misses the indication of a natural ending, and adds a coda that loses a bit of focus, but there is plenty of clear thinking and fine craftsmanship. I was excited at the prospect of Gordon Mumma’s new work, COMITATUS 2 (effectively a violin and piano sonata), but the results were disappointing. Where Bakla is careful and musical, here Mumma is careful and stiff, constrained. The score’s recursiveness doesn’t allow ideas to speak fully; it’s secretive to the point of being uncommunicative.

Zoltán Jeney’s Psalmus 5, played by the Ostravská Banda with singer Katalin Károlyi and conductor Ondrej Vrabec, was small and powerful. His music is entirely new to me, and seems to present an ideal path through contemporary techniques, combining ancient structural ideas with up-to-the-moment tonality. The piece is in two sections, part of a larger work in progress (which makes for abrupt endings). Jeney combines a row of 128 notes, tonal and microtonal, and arranges them in the standard variations of retrograde and inversions so that the opening half, scored for string quartet, sounds like a Renaissance vocal work. The vocal part comes in the second half, accompanied by lusciously dark alto and bass flute, and beautifully sung by the mezzo – quietly intense and memorable.

The solos returned with Conrad Harris, one of the most brilliant and capable contemporary violinists, dispatching Xenakis’s powerful, abrading Mikka and Mikka-S with seeming ease. Not having to worry about the considerable technical demands made the result so natural, so expressive; despite the unusual means, both made perfect sense. This is what great musicians like Harris do with challenges like Xenakis, as well as cellist Arne Deforce, who met the physical demands of Kottos with incredibly assured, beautiful playing. And the same could be said for the amazing bassist John Eckhardt in Brian Ferneyhough’s Trittico per G.S., which is similar to the Mikka pair but even more active in its frequency and density of events, and with a rhythmic complexity that Xenakis does not explore. It was a thrill to see Eckhardt face this hurdle and overcome it, the effort as important as the skill.

On violin, Hana Kotková has a place on this list, too. While Charles Ames’s Concurrence was forgettable – too limited in means to get far – her reading of Pierre Boulez’s Anthèmes II, supported by Fabrizio Rosso and Roberto Mucchiut on electronics, was stunning. The electronic component picks up and reacts to musical phrases – fascinating on its own – but the assurance, power and intensity of Kotková’s playing were dominant. Her perfection of intonation, clarity of articulation and certainty of rhythm made the score seem a masterpiece. Boulez’s works have suffered in some hands and have been revelatory in others, and the fundamental strength of Ostrava Days is that its hands are the best there are.

The “Night of Solos” concluded with some large-sized and scaled works that went late into the evening. Odalisque is an arrangement of the opening aria from Ashley’s opera Atalanta, scored for a mellow ensemble of winds, strings, keyboards and timpani. The composer gives the singer considerable expressive freedom, and so Ashley’s works also tend to succeed or fail depending on the performer. Thomas Buckner is a great Ashley supporter, and sang with such expressive parlando style and directness that he created a small masterpiece of passionate loveliness. Following this was a long, orphic presentation of Cardew’s unique improvisational narrative, The Tiger’s Mind, performed by a dozen students from the Institute and supervised in their rehearsals by John Tilbury. The two parts, “Daypiece” and “Nightpiece,” were played simultaneously by two sextets, and the latter part in relative darkness. Cardew includes conflict: at times musicians from one group wandered slowly into the other to both participate in and interfere with their music-making.

The improvisational discipline of the musicians – also composers at the Institute – was formidable. They began with the most important rule of group improvisation – be the last to make a sound – and proceeded from there with the type of relaxed focus that allows for quiet and space, supported by the full confidence that new material will be discovered and developed. Cardew performances are rare, and this one seemed ideal: abstract but never opaque, and nary a cliché in the ensemble’s sounds, notes and in-the-moment structures. In retrospect, The Tiger’s Mind may prove to be the festival’s summit.

But it will be rivaled by the three members of ONCE (Harris, Deforce and pianist Daan Vandewalle) playing Morton Feldman’s Trio. Exploring extended duration, this is perhaps one of his lesser known works but is also one of his most intellectually probing. While massive pieces like For Philip Guston have a free quality about them – the sensation that events are scattered within a substantial block of time – the fully notated Trio is harmonically and rhythmically certain, moving steadily through time. The musicians gave it an exceptional reading, with alert and careful phrasing, and a steady, flowing pulse. It is often much more difficult to play a single note, spaced in time, with a full, quiet attack and exact intonation rather than to run through a rapid scale, but each sound and sonority, consonant or dissonant, soft or a bit louder, was precise, sure, timeless.

As with The Tiger’s Mind, Trio was played in semi-darkness, with many in the audience stretched out on the floor in the concentration of semi-slumber, not only listening but bearing witness to an event. The length and fatigues of the day dissuaded me from joining them in what would have resulted in a deep sleep, so I ask your understanding: after perhaps forty-five minutes had flown by, I slipped out quietly into the night, feeling secure that the music would not once falter as it made its deliberate, gentle way to the end.

George Grella