10th Ostrava Days: AN ALLIANCE BETWEEN THE OLD AVANT-GARDE AND TODAY'S ENTHUSIASM.
Since its beginnings, the Ostrava Days Festival (under Kolfk's leadership) has consistently presented contemporary music and the great classics of the second half of the 20th century. It is the biggest event of its kind in the Czech Republic. This year's edition took place from the 22nd to the 31st of August. The Ostrava Days institute hosted thirty-five students and sixteen lecturers including Christian Wolff, Chaya Czernowin, Miroslav Srnka, Petr Kotik, Marc Sabat, Peter Ablinger, Bernhard Lane, Klaus Lana, and others.
The festival was composed of sixteen events in ten days. This included thirteen concerts, one nineteen-hour concert marathon, one five-hour mini-marathon of electronic music, and one five-hour panel debate with twenty guests. Almost all of the festival concerts were recorded by Czech Radio, which will gradually present them in its broadcasts.
The festival saw performances by two symphony orchestras (Ostrava New Orchestra and the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra), two chamber orchestras (Ostravska Banda and Studio Dan), three string quartets (DoelenKwartet, Ouatuor Bozzini, and Slavikova Quartet), six conductors (Peter Rundel, Johannes Kalitzke, Petr Kotik, Lilianna Krych, Bruno Ferrandis, and Jurij Galatenko), twenty-three soloists, and a number of occasional ensembles.
Ostrava Days presented eighty pieces altogether, of which twelve were world premieres. The oldest piece was written in 1938, the youngest were finished during the Festival.
The New York Roots of the Ostrava Festival
This year's dramaturgy accented the founding ideas of Ostrava Days, which have their roots in the avant-garde of the sixties and later, this year with a significant focus on the USA. The festival put on world premieres of two compositions by the last living protagonist of the New York School of the '50s, Christian Wolff. Pieces by the institute students were also convincing above their usual standard (they form part of the festival every year). This anniversary edition presented in concentrated form everything which the organising Ostrava Center for New Music has achieved since the year 2000.
Paradoxically, this was the first edition not to include a piece by John Cage. His music, ideas, and positions have been essential sources for the festival since its inception, and his pieces appear regularly not only at Ostrava Days, but also at the allied New Opera Days Ostrava biennial. A personal meeting with John Cage in 1964 was also an exceptional artistic and human impulse for Petr Kotfk himself. The absence of Cage's music was, however, excellently covered by a stream of programming focusing on the New York avant-garde from a wider perspective, but mostly on its minimalist component and composers who were influenced by minimalism to various degrees. This review will focus on this dramaturgical component and the festival's world premieres.
Radical Music of Minimal Change
The 2019 edition of Ostrava Days began on Thursday the 22nd of August with a performance of the minimalist classic In C (1964) by Terry Riley. The conceit took place in the renovated Old Baths of the former Hlubina Mine (now known as Provoz Hlubina), part of the industrial zone of Lower Vitkovice. Over the last few years, this conglomerate of mines, coking plants, blast furnaces, and steelworks has become one of the most charismatic areas of Ostrava.
As one of the founding pieces of its genre, In C became the first link in a chain running throughout the festival and reminding us of minimalism in its radical form. Even part of the festival audience (an experienced audience) was perhaps surprised that minimalism isn't just the pleasantly flowing planes characteristic of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman. Fifty three musical patterns which, played collectively, make up In C, were somewhat lost in the Ostrava performance - the large ensemble with drums sounded more like a pulsating rock band.
Even so, you couldn't miss the connection between In C and Julius Eastman's Crazy Nigger (1979). It was performed as the second piece in Friday's nincteen-hour marathon. The longest concert in the history of the festival began on Friday afternoon in the parking lot with Dieter Schnebel's Harley Davidson for nine motorbikes, synthesiser, and trumpet. Joseph Klibera led the performance of Crazy Nigger for four pianos, having performed the piece with Eastman in the past. It was an authentic and thrilling performance of a nervous and aggressive music which reminded us how even a minimalist stream can be fierce and grating. In addition to Kubera, the performance in the foyer of the Jiri Myron Theatre featured Daan Vandewalle, Alexandr Stary and Miroslav Beinhauer.
About five hours later, the hall of the same theatre saw a performance of Composition 1960 #7 by La Monte Young. The long perfect fifth was performed by members of the Ostrava New Orchestra led by Petr Kotik. Music of minimal change checked in with another of its uncompromising manifestations.
A large study into the "minimalist" part of Morton Feldman's thinking took the form of For Philip Guston (1984) for flute, percussion, and piano. This performance of the four-hour composition began at around seven in the morning in the foyer of the Jin Myron Theatre, and it was the penultimate piece in the marathon. The last piece was a spatial composition by institute resident Theo Finkel, Super-Ostrawitza. The marathon then concluded with a brunch for both performers and audience on both banks of the Ostravice river.
Another significant contribution to the minimalist line of the festival was a performance of Yves Klein's Symphonic Monotone-Silence (1949) as part of the vocal concert on the 27th of August. Twenty minutes of I) major in the Cathedral of the Divine Saviour were followed by twenty minutes of silence in which the effect of the preceding sonic experience could fully develop.
Sometimes obsessive repetition of musical patterns is one of the central features of Morton Feldman's Neither (1977). A performance of this genre-defying piece provided a fantastic close to the festival on the 31st of August in the Karolina Triple Hall. Feldman, of course, was not a minimalist in the true sense of the word - his phenomenally diverse and contrasting work with the sound of the orchestra falls entirely outside stylistic boundaries. Feldman's musical thinking, however, took minimalism into account, and it was certainly one of the essential intellectual sources of the festival. Neither was performed by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Rundel, with Claudia Barainsky singing the soprano part. The stage installation, by director Jiri Nekvasil and scenographer David Bazika, perfectly captured the uncertainty of the situation as inscribed into the text by Samuel Beckett. Feldman's Neither was preceded by the festival's last world premiere: There Is an Island Above the City by Petr Bakla. The orchestra played with precision, and, most importantly, without vibrato and traditional phrasing - as the author demands. This allowed the remarkable structure of the composition to step into the foreground.
World Premieres Are Our Daily Bread
The Ostrava Days Festival applies themselves to works by living authors as if it were a matter of course, so from the perspective of the festival, Bakla's premiere was nothing special - just like the other eleven premieres which came before it. But looking in from outside, it is exceptional that at Ostrava Days, composers get the chance to work with a large orchestra or with variable ensembles of excellent musicians, regardless of their experiences and credits. Thanks to top class performances, even very young composers can test out their pieces.
However, two of the most anticipated premieres of the festival were by a legendary composer. Eighty-five-year-old Christian Wolff was present at the first of them: Small Orchestra Piece was performed by the festival chamber ensemble, Ostravska Banda, at their first concert of the festival, on the 26th of August in (he Karolina Triple Hall. Its fragmentary style is typical of Wolff, in places approaching dadaist collages. Furthermore, Small Orchestra Piece is partially based on collective improvisation. The performance was conducted by Petr Kotik with an infallible sense of style.
Wolffs second premiere was a string quartet, Out of Killer. Compared to Small Orchestra Piece, the quartet, performed by the Canadian Quatuor Bozzini on the 29th of August in Provoz Hlubina, had a much more compact and logical character, almost as if classicism had risen from the depths and shone through in places. The Ouatuor Bozzini composed their programme from a combination of festival composers (including one institute resident) and their standard repertoire.
Christian Wolff was part of the group of artists around John Cage, but in the '60s, he also befriended composer and pianist Fredric Rzewski. Eighty-one-year-old Rzewski was also a guest of the festival. A number of his pieces were played and he performed the world premiere of his 6 Movements himself. This was at Provoz Hlubina on the 28th of August, closely followed by Alvin Curran's performance of his Shofar Rags, for the shofar - a Jewish instrument made from the horn of a kudu antelope -, piano, and electronics. Curran's premiere, on the boundaries of sonic delicacy and brutality, was one of the most impressive experiences of the festival.
One of the biggest surprises was the premiere of Petr Kotik's violin concerto, Wednesday at RW on Spring Street. It seemed as though Kotik had forgotten his expansive sonic musings, writing instead a heartfelt piece with arching melodic parts in the violin, played excellently by Hana Kotkova. You could occasionally hear Kotik's typical fifths or percussion figures, but the melodic layer was markedly dominant.
Students at the Ostrava Days institute also got several premieres. One of the most successful was In The Summer Every Truth Is Like A Saturday by James Ilgenfritz. It was performed at Provoz Hlubina on the 28th of August by Studio Dan, a chamber ensemble from Vienna whose energy and style constantly reminded us that its usual stage is the Viennese jazz club Porgy & Bess.
Two large orchestral premieres by Czech composers were heard during the concert at the Karolina Triple Mall, which officially opened the festival on the 25th of August, although concerts had already begun four days prior to that. Only the first finished movement from Petr Cigler's Horn Concerto was heard. The virtuosic solo part was performed by horn player and assistant to the principal conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, Ondrej Vrabec. Just like Cigler's piece is gradually built up from logically arranged series of chords, Vrabec gradually constructed his instrument from the mouthpiece to the full horn. The second premiere of the opening concert was Movis, a piano concerto by Michal Rataj. Based on distinctive rhythmic figures, the piece gradually relaxed until it nearly flew off in a jazzy improvised cadence. The piano part was performed by the excellent Daan Vandewalle.
Natural Connections Outside Borders and Nationalities
The Rataj - Vandewalle connection seems like a real expression of the spirit of Ostrava Days and their insistence on the essence of a music which knows no borders. The music of composers and performers from around the world enters close relationships in which nationalities play no part. However, Czech composers also receive extraordinary opportunities for direct confrontation with their colleagues from abroad. The Czech musical present enters into direct interaction with the world scene, at intensities unheard of at any other festival in the country.
This consciously developed communication freedom makes Ostrava Days an exceptional event on the international level too. The creative community arises from the compositional courses by young composers and returns in mutual influences and collaborations by mature composers and first-class performers. This year's programme saw meetings and confluences by acclaimed American avant-gardists and the youngest composers of today. Thanks to Petr Kotik, the bridge between Ostrava and New York seems to be a natural and unbreakable bond.
This year's edition of the Ostrava Days biennial saw thirty-one performances of pieces by institute residents and four world premieres by Czech composers (and one by a Czech-American composer). Probably the strangest of these was the first full performance of Peter Graham's Fantasia for six cellos. The graphic score was created back in 1974, and except for one obscure and incomplete performance, it had never been played.
Whether it was brand new pieces or debts from the past, all the premiered and student pieces received the same care from the musicians and the same attention from the audience. Not even in their anniversary edition did Ostrava Days present stars from the media - the only important space was reserved, once again, for music.
by Boris Klepal
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2019|
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