Ostrava Days 2023 Live

Sunday 7 April 2024

The Ostrava Days Festival began the new year with a compilation of highlights from their 2023 season, available in a few permutations (the CD version captures only a quarter of the downloadable material and you miss a lot of the best stuff). The download collection focuses on orchestral and larger ensemble works, most of them premieres. It’s tragic but appropriate that the first album begins with the first performance of the late Phill Niblock’s High Noon, given last September by ONO – Ostrava New Orchestra under Petr Kotík’s direction. Hearing one of Niblock’s dense sonic monads executed by a mass of acoustic instruments instead of his usual electronic drones is a powerful experience, with ONO retaining the expected level of intensity to achieve the complex but single-minded nature of Niblock’s music. I hope to hear this live one day. Also present is Christian Wolff, with the premiere of his For 38 Players by Kotík leading Ostravská banda this time. Wolff exploits the instrumentation to produce a particularly lively and colourful work, with the playful inquisitiveness of his discontinuous aesthetic at the forefront. Kotík’s own Outline / Fragment II retains a discernible foundation of his radical steady-state compositions from the Seventies beneath a more elaborate, if not exactly ornate, surface which raises the question of whether he has matured into a more eloquent mode of expression or just mellowed out and regressed towards conventional concert-hall gestures. We’re closer to a Boulez situation here than Glass or Reich so it’s fair to say the former.

Besides Kotík and Wolff, a couple of other names from recent festivals. Bruno Ferrandis conducts Ostravská banda’s premiere of Petr Bakla’s Diptych, an austere work for twelve string players. Bakla reduces everything here as much as he can, sustaining a monotonal line with a slow pulse, the faintest harmonization and gradations in colouring and dynamics to produce the illusion of motion. There is again a Xenakis piece, which seem to take on the role of a yardstick here amongst all the premieres. This time it’s the tour de force for string orchestra Shaar from 1983, which is always welcome, especially as ONO (conducted by Pavel Šnajdr this time) maintains momentum through the steady rhythm passages without trundling. Amongst the newer voices found here, several others lean into the same “less is more” approach heard in the Bakla piece. Michal Wróblewski’s Rhythms no. 3, Glissando appears to feature neither, except in a very subtle way to produce a precarious weave of light, thin material as played by Ostravská banda. James Falzone’s Neither/Nor II inhabits similar territory, even as Ostravská banda require a conductor (Ferrandis) for this piece, with studious attention to each pitch while sounding scarcely any thicker in texture than the original version scored for a trio of violin, piano and vibes.

There’s not enough of Zygmunt Krauze’s music readily available, so fortunately both download and CD include the premiere of his Rivière souterraine 3, with the composer as soloist on piano and Ostravská banda augmented by electronic sounds. It’s a craftily constructed montage of tableaux in which texture and colour take precedence over small-scale shape, where the details are articulated by what I suspect are sublimated examples of Krauze’s predilection for quotation, or ersatz quotation. In my ignorance I’m imagining that the title is a reference to the scherzo from Berio’s Sinfonia, but I’m not looking it up and the album booklet doesn’t say. The provided booklet doesn’t tell us anything about the music really, except that we dodged a bullet when the theatre piece about American politics documented in several photos was omitted from the album. There’s enough theatrics in František Chaloupka’s Allegory of the Cave II., which sounds like it should also be a piano concerto and almost is, making grotesques out of movie soundtrack tropes while occasionally channeling the earlier works of John Adams; it’s a natural fit but as with all grotesques the proportions of wonderment and disgust in your reaction will be a personal matter. Less forgivable is Ian Davis’s Pale Blue World which has a wan presence in this company, with that apologetic air that wafts through too much modern composition these days. As a disclaimer, I’m not an expert on this subject: for example, I keep mixing up Anne Cleare with Anna Clyne. This conundrum has hopefully been resolved once and for all by Canticum Ostrava’s performance of Cleare’s Earth Waves, a nakedly and defiantly weird piece from 2018 that combines the vocal ensemble with trombone (played here by William Lang) and electronic processing. Cleare relocates the contemplation of natural phenomena away from the limited realm of human experience, where the vast majority of it takes place, affirming its strangeness in relation to us while using the human voice as a means for doing so. The trombone and electronics act as transformative elements, both in altering the voices and in guiding them into extended means of expression. That exploratory, expressionist bent recalls the avant-garde of fifty years ago but tackles the medium with more assurance, aware that the technical and technological crudeness of the time is no longer necessary.

Ostrava Days Live 2019–2021

Friday 20 May 2022

Real life, honest-to-god concerts are happening again, so here’s a quick primer on what you’ve been missing. The Ostrava Center for New Music has put out a two-disc compilation of highlights from the last two biennial Ostrava Days festivals. The selection of pieces sets out the Ostrava Days’ credentials on disc one by starting with Ostrava founder Petr Kotík and the ONO – Ostrava New Orchestra killing Xenakis’ Aïs. This piece is now over forty years old and it still confronts the listener with its wild falsetto baritone and thumping percussion. Baritone Holger Falk whoops and wails with just enough control that you forget he’s the same man when he sings in his natural register. This 2019 performance is the work’s premiere in the Czech Republic.

A mix of the old cutting edge and the new is carried through the first part of the album. Xenakis is followed by Kotík leading the Ostravská banda in the world premiere of Christian Wolff’s Small Orchestra Piece. In its own way, it is an equally strange and singular work to the Xenakis, although Wolff playfully acts out of character throughout this piece. His signature late, discontinuous style is elaborated into coherent passages which seem to invite comparison and comment as they abrupty stop and change course. Listeners’ ears will keep pricking up at what appear to be passing references to other music styles or even pieces, such as when the violins come in about two-thirds way through, echoing a Copland pastoral before mimicking Webern’s Symphony.

The next two works form an elegy to the late Frederic Rzewski; as pianist and composer. Kotík’s own Spontano is the oldest piece here (1964), revived here by Rzewski as soloist with Ostravská banda. It’s still a bold piece in a brutalist way as it tries to put sounds together in new ways, or rather keep them apart as much as possible. Rzewski is fittingly brusque in playing terse, unresolved statements against silence, or disrupting occasional blocks of sustained chords built up from overlapping layers of pitch. The final (marked ‘furious’) of Rzewski’s 2019 Six Movements for piano appears by way of an encore.

The remaining pieces consist of new work by later generations of composers. While a musical avant-garde emerged immediately after World War II from a compulsion to create something entirely new and reject pre-existing models, subsequent generations have felt this imperative less and less, preferring, perhaps wisely, to take stock of where all these upheavals have led us today. From this too-close perspective, approach is one of assimilation and transformation, of building something new out of what they understand they already have. That understanding has continued to change and artists have learned to adapt to constantly shifting ground. Earlier attempts at assimilation and transformation resulted in collage and pastiche, as a form of deconstruction, but in recent decades this consolidation has become more sophisticated – a blessing and a curse. As ever, the identifying signs of a truly radical work lie in the differences between that which please and that which astonishes.

Martin Smolka’s Quand le tympan de l’oreille porte le poids du monde, played here by the PKF – Prague Philharmonia conducted by Roland Kluttig, seems to explores a given sonority, turning it back and forth, but then moves beyond this reductive method by expanding the material into extramusical concerns of dramatic build-ups, suspenseful ebbings away, before rising to a calamitous yet inevitable climax. The drama, however, comes from the musical means exploited by the orchestra. Petr Bakla’s There is an island above the city (Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra /Peter Rundel) is another preimiere, which at first seems as still and reverent as the beginning of Smolka’s piece, but takes a different turn by pursuing the more sinister implications of settling down in one place. A benign chorale steadily grows more fraught, developing a more turbulent aspect to its character, with an ominous humming rising up behind the strings.

Violinist Hana Kotková and the Ostravská banda (conducted this time by Jiří Rožeň) perform Ana Sokolović’s concerto Evta (2017). Each of the seven movements is named for a colour in the rainbow, proceding through the spectrum and played without breaks. The movements, or perhaps sections is a more appropriate term, are distinguished less by contrasts in mood as by means of construction. If there is any syneesthetic programme here then it is particularly obdurate on the senses: Kotková and the ensemble, both together and apart, pick up the nervous energy in the writing and produce fidgety patterns made out of reiterations of ascending and weaving patterns that slide and stutter over each other. The piece becomes a study in tension, where knots are slackened from time to time but never undone, only to be pulled tight again in the next phase. The soloist eschews the traditional roles of protagonist or adversary, acting much as a figurehead for the combative, querulous mob. Just checked the notes and there’s talk of chakras and folklore.

Led again by Kotík, Ostravská banda’s premiere of Devin Maxwell’s Bonneville Park II sees a return of brutalist construction. A sequel to his earlier electronic work of the same name, fixed media is also present here in a subtle way to flesh out the acoustic sounds. Here, the emphasis is on clashes of sonority over any movement in pitch, dwelling on contrasting colours and textures in succession to make a piece that is more stimulating than likeable. After a short but satisfying choral work by Georgina Bowden (The Fainting Sun, premiered here by Canticum Ostrava) the set concludes with a rousing finale: Miroslav Srnka’s Eighteen Agents for nineteen strings. Members of Ostravská banda & ONO – Ostrava New Orchestra (Bruno Ferrandis conducting) serve up a suitably hot and sour string ensemble, agressively hazy with its fast chromatic runs played in individual meters so that they sound, if not microtonal, then blurry and melted, even as the phrasing is aggressively jagged. It all winds up with a flourish, playing up to being the tricky but spectaular new-music-crowd-pleaser which then makes you wonder if it’s a little superficial. The piece is ten years old now and perhaps seemed more pointed at the time – like I said, the ground keeps shifting beneath our feet.