Ostrava Days Festival (3): Varied Program Weak in the Middle

Czech RepublicCzech Republic  Ostrava Days Festival (3): Hanlon, Lyon, Ueda, Polansky, Gronewicz, Riehm, Chutková, Graham, Sciarrino: Canticum Ostrava, Ostravská Banda, Pauline Kim (violin), Conrad Harris (violin), Theo Nabicht (contrabass clarinet), Milan Osadsky (accordion), Beatrice Gaudreault-Laplant (english horn), Marta Tománková (soprano), Katalin Károlyi (mezzo-soprano), Jurij Galatenko (conductor), Petr Kotík (conductor), St. Wenceslas Church, Ostrava, Czech Republic. 1.9.2011 (GG)

Ben Hanlon: O Frondens Virga
Eric Lyon: Noise Tryptych
Rita Ueda: ame potsu potsu
Larry Polansky: 3 New Hampshire Songs
Michal Gronewicz: De Psalmo VI
Rolf Riehm: Ton für Ton (weisse Strassen Babylons)
Lucia Chut´ková: Desertshore
Peter Graham: Cantiga del amor final
Salvatore Sciarrino: Infinito Nero



This concert, a mix of vocal and instrumental works in the austerely lovely St. Wenceslas Church was long, sometimes uneven, often rich, and with an unusual yet satisfying shape. Two intermissions separated the weaker middle from the fine bookends, and the final portion was both the most involving and yet seemed the most fleeting.

Some of the choral music had a liturgical basis. Appropriately the evening opened with Ben Hanlon’s modest, lovely, a cappella setting of the Hildegard Von Bingen prayer, O Frondens Virga, built from plainchant to lush harmonies extended beyond equal temperament into a canon – all within an elegant and compact five minutes. A celebratory piece by Michel Groniwicz, De Psalmo VI, was contrasting with its immediate, palpable expression of the Psalm’s anguish and sense of surrender. He used the simple device of dissonant, descending arpeggios in the strings under shining, complex vocal harmonies to mix mysteries of terror and delight. The Canticum Ostrava sang both with skill.

They seemed less sure, though enthusiastic, in Larry Polansky’s 3 New Hampshire Songs, a setting of three secular texts connected to life in his native state. The writing is clear and careful and seems to want to set down a specific sense of communal, participatory music, of the type that Charles Ives explored but with less of his deliberately amateurish sound. The choir had the notes, but the shape and meaning of the words – the state motto, traditional Shaker nonsense words and an old state law barring homosexuals from adopting children – seemed to elude them. They worked with an even more foreign language, Japanese, in ame potsu potsu, Rita Ueda’s setting of syllables and phonemes from the word for “rain.” (Although I don’t think there is any relationship between their output, the text/sound performer Tonomi Adachi starts from the same basis, using his mouth, body and gestures to produce a physically onomatopoetic sound.) Ueda has produced a lovely representation of sound as experience, using only high voices. There is a nice touch of the ensemble dividing, and some singers walking through the audience humming sustained tones, and I wish this had been explored more. The singers return quickly, which makes the device seem more arbitrary – but it is a pleasing effect overall.

On the instrumental side, the soloists were phenomenal, the music less so. Eric Lyon’s Noise Tryptych is an excellent piece. The first two movements alternate between fragments of folk music stitched together with terrific craft and a personal sound, and a game-type second section where the performers react to timed signals from computers and produce a grab bag of “noise”-type material. A final section then skillfully and efficiently brings the two ideas together. A brief mishap – one of the computers fell off a stand – forced violinists Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim to restart the second section, with some initial loss of energy, but it also allowed the listener to hear the structure of the music more clearly, and by the end the performers had regained what was lost, with a surplus.

Theo Nabicht is a frighteningly virtuosic clarinetist, and Rolf Riehm’s Ton für Ton (weisse Strassen Babylons) puts him to the test, but with mixed results. There is some great material – long, deliberately paced, sinewy lines – and some bad (aggressively noisy music that is straight out of the hoariest free-jazz clichés). The composer seems to set up goodwill with the listener, and then subvert it in destructive ways, which is off-putting. Lucia Chut’ková’s Desertshore, for accordion, is more straightforward, an extended fantasia that builds from quiet to powerful. The writing is idiomatic and organic, and the music is never bad, but it also never seems to have a lot to say.

Cantiga del amor final, Peter Graham’s meditation on the death of Maggie Hemingway, may have fit better in a different program and different hall, but amidst the music surrounding it and in the resonance of the church it was a dreary experience. I accept the sincerity of his expression, and the piece starts with an interesting, churning Romanticism, but it devolves quickly into sentimentality. It’s poorly organized: he doesn’t seem to recognize his own best material, and manages to be bizarre and obvious at the same time. The orchestration is far too dense for a church, and the english horn soloist in particular was frequently overpowered.

Those pieces fell in the middle of the concert, which ended with a brilliant performance of Sciarrino’s great Infinito Nero, with exceptionally idiomatic and expressive singing from Katalin Károlyi, an impressive performer. Petr Kotik and the musicians kept a fine control over tempo, the almost imperceptible pitched clicks of the winds, coupled with fragments from the piano and strings conveying the composer’s fine and grand aesthetics, and his love of night sounds. This is music that inhales and exhales on a large scale. The work is a great exemplar of the true avant-garde, relying on organic simplicity rather than synthetic complexity, and goes right to the core of human thinking and feeling. And in this superior performance, like the best aspects of this festival, the experience seemed to both stop time – and pass by in an instant.

George Grella