REPORT FROM OSTRAVA
Ostrava is the third largest city of the Czech Republic, located at the confluence of the Ostravice, Oder and Opava rivers. The Ostrava Days Festival was founded in 2001.
SUMMER WOULD NOT be summer without classical music festivals. They are a welcome annual staple, a combination of a camp for musicians and composers and a vacation destination for concertgoers. There are famous ones in Tanglewood and Aix-en-Provence, and they span the gamut from the chamber music repertoire at Marlboro to Mostly Mozart the biannual International Summer Courses for New Music at Darmstadt. There are the ones that are gone, especially fleeting periods of experimentation and newness, preserved in documents of “Music From The ONCE Festival 1961 - 1966” and even the festivals of aesthetic imagination, the ones that exist only in the ears and minds of interested listeners across the globe, like composer Earle Brown’s excellent “Contemporary Sound Series.” That particular strain of classical music, the one that begins with the legacy of the Rite of Spring, especially with the music of Varese, and proceeded through the post-WWII years, trying to find new ways to make music that respected the values of form and structure while pioneering new styles, lives in the relatively new Ostrava Days Festival.
Founded in 2001 by Artistic Director Petr Kotik and held biannually since, the Festival is already one of the high points for modern, contemporary and experimental music. Like others, it is part training institute, with three weeks of seminars, workshops and lectures for music students, scholars, musicians and composers, and part performance event, with nineteen concerts held over seven days (and that doesn’t include two preliminary days of performances, with an entire evening of multi-media productions as well as a ten hour marathon of electronic music). There is chamber music, and the excellent young JACK String Quartet is in residence, along with groups like the Quasars Ensemble, but the focus is on orchestral music, with Kotik’s own Ostravská Banda and the Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra at the core of the main concerts. There will be a concert of chamber music produced by the composer attending the preliminary part of the event. And there will be a huge and exciting amount of music that is at the heart of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries of Western classical music.
Petr Kotik established the Ostrava Center for New Music in 2000, building on a series of performances with the Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra of music by Earle Brown, John Cage, Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, Martin Smolka and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The Center was formed to produce Ostrava Days, a summer institute and festival, which gives emerging composers, performers, and musicologists an opportunity to work with leading personalities of contemporary music.
The range of composers represented spans continents, generations, thinking and styles: Morton Feldman, Xenakis, Berio, Boulez, Fred Rzewski, Brian Ferneyhough, Cornelius Cardew, Gordon Mumma, Scelsi, Larry Polansky, Lejaren Hiller, James Tenney, Bernhard Lang is a representative, but not comprehensive, list. A comparable line-up at a festival dedicated to the past of classical music would have to cover, in depth, Monteverdi to Mahler. It’s a proper celebration of the ideas in music that have accumulated so richly through time, and a recognition that the importance, quality and even beauty of the music that has been produced in the past sixty years stands as equal to all that came before it.
That it takes time to develop the distance and perspective to place music like this in the context of Bach, Mozart, Verdi and Stravinsky makes the experience of such a concentrated amount of it that much more exciting. And I am pleased to say that I am exciting to be attending the Ostrava Days. Thanks to a generous grant from the Festival, I will be at the concerts from the official opener on August 28 to the final evening on September 3. I will be keeping a diary here at ClassicalTV, sharing impressions, experiences and hopefully new acquaintances. Watch for the first entry the last weekend in August!
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON OSTRAVA DAYS, GO HERE.
• UPDATE 8-30-2011: "Prelude"
International travel is tiring and disorienting, and it seems even more so coming immediately after a hurricane delayed the original start of this trip. I was supposed to be going this way three days ago. But going I am, after what seems a process of cabs, traffic, waiting, flying, bus rides and train stations that feels like it is everlasting, like I’ve been doing it my entire life and will continue to do so until I die, and timeless. It all feels like the same day, even though the calendar tells me that I left my house yesterday and it’s now .... today.
Tonight will be my first concert, and the third of the festival itself. So much of the music that is being presented was made to disorient in some way, to shake loose from several hundred years of traditional methods and conventional wisdom and wandering off into unexplored territory, to literally lose the directions, in order to make up new ones. I may be in the perfect state to listen!
• UPDATE 8-31-2011: "Beyond the Ghetto"
Conrad Harris, Daan Vandewalle and Arne Deforce (courtesy of the Ostrava Days festival)
The first night of music seemed to be an entire night of music. It pretty much was, the only downside being my extreme fatigue meant I could not stay through the entire final piece, an intensely focussed, rhythmically exact, deeply musical performance of Morton Feldman’s Trio, with Conrad Harris on violin, Arne Deforce on cello and Daan Vandewalle on piano. I had been hearing music since 7:00 p.m., and the Feldman would not be expected to finish before 1:00 a.m., so that was it for me.
Walking back to the hotel with a colleague, we talked about the concert, the pieces, what we liked and didn’t care for, and also about the playing. Music from the last fifty or so years has been climbing steadily out of the "New Music" ghetto, left for specialist players and listeners. I’ve written many times about how music like Xenakis’, no less difficult now than it was when premiered, has developed a broad popularity. Another measure of this is that performances are so fine. Musicians are no longer struggling with unfamiliar concepts, they are playing standard repertoire and playing it as if it was old-hat, which it is in a way.
It’s frustrating, though, that the musicians themselves often have trouble getting out of the ghetto, they are still too often obscure, too often thought of as specialists when they are musicians who could play Brahms as well as any other but who, like Harris and the equally amazing Hana Kotková, choose to play Xenakis and Boulez instead. That they make the music sound relatively easy means that they treat it like Brahms, something to approach seriously, to master and then to tell us what they think about it. The playing here is just tremendous. Defroce was a new name to me, and he’s a master, so is John Eckhardt, who played Brian Ferneyhough’s incredibly difficult Trittico per G.S. with understandable effort and complete mastery.
It’s great to bear witness to all this music, great to see people lying on the floor as Robert Ashley, Cornelius Cardew and Feldman sink in to them, and it’s even greater to hear how this music is now to the point where everyone has something to say, something to think, other than "well, let’s see how it sounds."
• UPDATE 9-1-2011: "From The Inside"
Outside of all the great music being made in the concerts at Ostrava Days, there is all the interaction of rehearsals and conversations, the infrastructure of the event and the city. Kotik seems to have developed the festival here because there’s not a lot else in this town, a former industrial center now slowly moving towards being a cultural one. It’s slightly shabby but seemingly well run, uncrowded and, for someone who lives in New York City, eerily quiet at night - walking back from the concert hall a little after 10:00 p.m., an apartment building that took up an entire city block had a total two lit windows.
But inside the festival there’s lots of talk and activity, musicians, composers, critics and fans interacting. Interesting things are happening and making their way out into the world. I spoke with pianist Daan Vandewaale shortly before he was to be interviewed by Czech television - an original five minute talk had become an hour, and he was wondering how his words about the music would translate.
The talking is fun. The mayor hosted a reception at a restaurant last night, with the local pilsner, baked noodles and steak tartar, and everyone got to know each other better. A friend of Kotik’s who comes to every festival likes how sleepy the place is, so she can focus on the music with the same concentration she does when she paints in her studio without distraction. Talking with Vandewaale about how he prepared the score for Morton Feldman’s Trio led to a talk about waltz time and how that form of music became both extremely popular for the growing middle class in the nineteenth century and a means for composers to dig into the ills of society. Josef Kubera talked about discovering new music in Buffalo, a German critic related his recent experiences seeing the JACK Quartet, who are performing this weekend. It was the festive part of the festival.
• UPDATE 9-2-2011: "Quiet Nights, Loud Sights"
Festive night at the Festival...
Being at festivals feels like being inside a world that is a bit separate from the wide world around us. Ostrava Days is starting to feel that way in interesting ways. Part of it is the pace, which for me has been travel, get to a concert, try and grab some sleep, coffee (there’s never enough), dash off these entries and concert reviews, concert, talk and drink until late, repeat. Another writer and I were remarking last night about whether the light of the next day would have us wondering if the things we were witnessing were actually happening ...
It was that kind of evening! There was a long, often beautiful and ultimately powerful concert inside the austere charms of St. Wenceslas Church, choral and instrumental music culminating in a mesmerizing performance of Salvatore Sciarrino’s Infinito Nero, then a fun and completely weird “Night Club” event at a local spot, featuring the Romanian gypsy band, Nea Vasile and Taraful de la Marsa, fronted on some songs by an Elvis impersonator, improvisations led by composer Larry Polansky and harpist Rhodri Davies, and Elvis and the Happy Valley Band, a "composition" by David Kant, created by extracting, or trying to extract, the music from “Teddy Bear” and “Crazy” via software, porting the results into the Sibelius notation program, spitting out the parts without editing and letting the band try their best. Put the Elvis impersonator in front, and it just might work!
I have been struck by the audiences here. There are plenty of composers and musicians involved in the festival who are out to hear the music, of course, but the local audiences are intensely attentive and appreciative. I’m sensitive about noisy people in concert halls, but accept there are occasional things that are natural and easy to let pass. Here, people are not only silent but mostly conscious of every noise. At an orchestral concert, a man sitting in front of me asked the woman near him, quite nicely, to be careful of the accidental noise from her wooden bracelet, something that I had not even noticed. It’s not like this in New York.
The local audience in the club was like this too, listening intently to music that was either willfully goofy and strange, or just odd (and the improvisations were not successful). For the rest of us, well, it seems Petr Kotik and the other conductors spilled some beer outside, and I had the chance to talk with the composer Bernhard Lang - I’m eagerly anticipating heating a new piece from him Saturday night - when we were both ordering drinks at the bar. Festive night at the festival!
• UPDATE 9-3-2011: "Expecting the Unexpected"
My natural inclination when attending a festival of new and experimental music - which is personally close to me - played by a large cast of top level musicians, is that everything will be great. Not everything is great, of course, and some things are really disappointing. I’ve heard two pieces by a particular composer, for example, that may have interesting ideas behind them but are just not good music. And then there’s whole events, like last evenings first concert (yes, of two - there’s a lot of music here)
The concert was mostly music for electric guitar, and that’s an instrument that already raises a lot of interest when it’s seen in the classical context. I can’t help but expect, and want, something crunchy and jangling to the nerves. But the music was surprisingly mild, mostly dull, actually. I expected the ensemble, the ZWERM Electric Guitar Quartet from Amsterdam, to be like New York’s Dither, really experimental and exciting. They were technically polished but they had no musical presence or charisma. There were a couple gems on the program, but the concert didn’t really work.
But then JACK Quartet took the stage for an entire recital on their own, and things were very different. They played a couple strong student works, and some Xenakis (their specialty), and also tremendous pieces from Elliott Sharp - a new one - and a half hour quartet from Horatiu Radulescu, not new but whose work is new to me. This whole concert was one of the musical events of the year, the selection of pieces opening up a doorway into an whole other universe. What I wanted from the guitars, interesting and great sound, I got from the quartet, in greater and deeper quantities than I could imagine. I literally heard things I never heard before, and never imagined before. The Radulescu piece seemed to both stop time and be over in a flash.
A great experience, and also a great discovery. I know I’m going to obsessively seek out as much of this composer’s music as I can, for good or ill! I talked with Kevin McFarland, cellist in the group, at a Tolkein themed bar (true!) afterwards, and he said they hope to play and even record all the quartets. This one was not just technically demanding but written in a very personal notation, with symbols I could not comprehend, and McFarland said they worked with a violist who knew Radulescu and could interpret for them. Some of the other pieces pose even greater physical and technical challenges. That makes it all the more exciting.
• FINAL UPDATE 9-4-2011: "End of Days"
The final concerts of Ostrava Days - a student one in the afternoon and a powerhouse collection of music from composers at the Institute, Wolfgang Rihm’s “Concerto” Dithyramb and Galina Ustvolskaya’s Symphony No. 2 - had me thinking about classical music, the music commonly thought of as containing the standard symphonies, piano sonatas, opera and the like.
Ostrava Days is advertised as a festival of “new and experimental music,” and it is that, but that slogan itself demands some explanation. There are other writers here covering the events and their focus and background tends to be heavy on the experimental side, especially as that music bleeds into genres like jazz, rock, electronic and improvised music. My natural perspective, of course, is as a classical composer, and that means the new and experimental music sounds, naturally, classical to me.
The music tonight was a great example. One work, from Phil Niblock, came out of an experimental tradition that could be separated from classical history and found in experimental rock and electronic music, but the remaining pieces, from the student works to Ustvolskaya’s symphony would not be possible without the legacy of Monteverdi and Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner (I heard a lot of their legacy tonight), Debussy, Stravinsky (of course, since he leads to Varese who leads to Xenakis who is the aesthetic godfather of most of these composers and musicians), and even Puccini, whose overture to Madama Butterfly Bernhard Lang took apart and reassembled in highly unusual and pleasing ways in a world premiere work.
The point is that none of this music exists outside of history and musical culture, and in their own ways each piece is as traditional as all those composers. More things may be generally allowed than 200 years ago, but there are still rules for success and failure. Making new and experimental music does not mean anything goes, it means developing material and ideas and putting them together in different ways until the desired results are achieved, just like Schumann did it, and while tastes may change, the value in the practice of composing remains. The goal is not some new way to make a hip pop song, but a new way to shape common materials, or uncommon ones, into abstract structures that are about the simultaneity of the listening experience: intellect, emotion, space, time and meaning.
All music is new at some point in time, and repeated listening breeds the familiarity that develops into the special feeling of anticipating a passage and relishing its arrival. New and experimental music is mostly not that familiar yet, and is often complex to the point of defying expectations for standard repetitions, like in sonata form. That doesn’t make it harder to listen to, or less satisfying, but different. The attentive ear tends to grasp pretty quickly something new and even strange, and the strangeness turns into familiarity pretty quickly. Still, so many concerts of new music can fill one up, and as I prepare for a very long night and day’s journey back home I’m looking to listen to some favorite Bruckner and Debussy, those old, and still new, experimental composers.