Ostrava Days (6):Student Compositions Performed with Mixed Results

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Ostrava Days (6): Smith, Feery, Peszat, Sturalova, Ryczek: Conrad Harris (violin), Theo Nabicht (bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet), Thomas Verchot (trumpet), Zuzana Biscakova (piano), Chris Nappi (percussion), Ostravaská Banda String Quartet, Janacek Conservatory, Ostrava, Czech Republic. 02.09.2011 (GG)

Andrew C. Smith:
Amanda Feery: Rattle
Piotr Peszat: IL-3398/LN-H PsychoNeurotic Institute for the very, very nervous
Lenka Sturalova: Scream
Mateusz Ryczek: Shreds of Sleep

While the concerts are the public face of the Ostrava Days festival, the hidden part that will pay dividends in the future is the Institute, where young composers work on their craft with musicians and mentors in lectures, seminars and rehearsals. For many of them, the culmination is a performance as part of the festival, including this afternoon concert at the headquarters for it all, the Janacek Conservatory near the center of the city.

The concert was brief, and the works relatively modest but full of interesting ideas. Repeated exposure to student works over a few decades reveals that when they have problems, the primary concerns have to do with balancing organization and confidence. Composing is tough, and those two qualities are the most hard-earned parts of the craft.

The weaker pieces filled the central portion of the program and each had problems with the aforementioned confidence and organization, although each also had plenty of good ideas. Amanda Feery’s Rattle, for solo bass clarinet, benefited from the impressive playing of Theo Nabicht, starting with notes laid out in an attractive rhythmic pattern, and Nabicht “ghosting” some of the pitches in a jazzy style. There’s an energy that befits the title, but never anything that really shakes loose, and Feery strays, abandoning what seems to be her best material in search of something hopefully more interesting. While development is an important quality in composition, not every idea needs to be pursued, and some music wants us to stick with it. In short: a good core, but a meandering composition.

Piotr Peszat’s work is certainly the only composition that claims as its inspiration Mel Brooks’s movie High Anxiety. The title – IL-3398/LN-H PsychoNeurotic Institute for the very, very nervous – perhaps gives that away, but the style and content don’t. It’s a dialogue between piano (a weirdly tinny one from the Bohemian brand at the Conservatory) and marimba, and has some good quasi-improvisational moments, but it’s both unfocussed and coy, never revealing its intentions. Each instrument is pitched mostly in the middle range as well, which tires the ear a bit. Peszat has a nice Expressionistic language, but not much structure.

Scream has the opposite problem, too much structure that gets in the way of the music. Like Feery, Lenka Sturalova is too restless, not sticking with good material long enough to use it well, but jumping into a canon and then out of it before it has come to any full statement. Only four minutes long, Scream seems too full of notes and activities. The time may seem modest, but it’s long enough to explore something fully.

Andrew C. Smith’s enigmatically titled “-“ is appealing for that very quality. It’s quiet, hesitant and spare, but there’s an underlying tunefulness veiled by the modest and controlled writing. The piece is just long enough, and does just enough. Smith conveys the sensation of just barely recalling music in the memory, and tosses in some charming resolutions of his microtonal lines. Mateusz Ryczek’s closing Shreds of Sleep is also satisfying, featuring a great, slightly greasy string quartet sonority and motion that is deliberately queasy – strong elements, and he sticks with them, limiting his focus on their development. The modest ambitions of these final two works are examples of how assured music is made.

George Grella