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A festival in defiance of circumstance new music marathon 14th - 17th November 2002.

Kratochvil, Matej

There is a certain group of people who ask the same question every year: Will there be a Marathon this year? Although the New Music Marathon has become a major event, giving us the opportunity to hear many important works and greatly raising the level of musical education in the local public, every year its life seems to be in the balance. As yet no patron offering generous and above all stable sponsorship is in sight, and this year the financial problems were exacerbated by the fact that the Archa Theatre, the usual home of the festival, had been closed after the summer floods. Nonetheless, even this year there were inspiring and interesting moments in abundance. A replacement venue was provided by the Ponec Dance Theatre, which may not have ideal acoustic conditions but is at least close to a railway track, so that the sounds of the trains mingled tastefully with the tones of the music (in some pieces this was not in fact distracting). The only missing element were the traditional meetings with composers.

The number of seats occupied (the auditorium was slightly smaller than at the Archa) was a good reflection of the interests of the public today. The Thursday evening offered contemporary classical music in its more academic form, but without well-known names -- the theatre was disagreeably empty. On Friday the audience was larger, boosted partly by the permanent following of the Agon Orchestra, and partly by people attracted by the block devoted to Mare Kopelent Saturday was star-studded and the Ponec was packed to bursting: John Zorn and Steve Reich have a decent following in the Czech Republic but their works are relatively rarely played in concert here, and that is an ideal combination. A second factor was the main star of the evening, the philosopher Egon Bondy, who appeared as a singer. The Sunday concert by Irvine Arditti, the biggest foreign star at the festival, took place in the Rudolfinum Gallery among exhibits of Socialist Realist art. The space allocated for his appearance was full, but this still meant only half the audience numbers of the Ponec. Although Arditti is an absolutely top performer and the piece played, Luigi Nono's La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura, is a major work of contemporary music, the combination is evidently not a huge draw for listeners.

The End of the Avant Garde?

The first course at the Thursday concert offered pieces by Rudolf Komorous and his Canadian pupils Christopher Butterfield, Martin Arnold and Owen Underhill, performed by the Slovak ensemble Opera Aperta. The pieces were written in the last two years and showed how the pioneer of New Music had turned into an academic and how his pupils were following him. Their musical world has its roots somewhere in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and they pick and choose only very cautiously from more recent developments. On the other hand the music is at least written in a way that makes for good playing, and this was evident in the level of performance. The pieces by Pavol Szymansky, played by the OMN chamber ensemble, might be described in the same terms -- they are not about experiment, but about links with tradition -- but on hearing them one is immediately sure that one is dealing with a creative personality. None of the pieces was boring, and the most interesting was the final Recalling A Serenade, in which fragments referring to musical history would appear and then vanish again, as if the musicians were trying to remember a serenade they had once played a long time ago. The third block was also taken up by Slovak performers, this time the Veni ensemble (which overlaps with the Opera Aperta) and Slovak composers of the middle generation Marian Lejava, Bosko Milakovic, Lubomir Burgr and Daniel Matej. The pieces presented confirmed the impression that some composers are now tired of experiments and want to write quite normal music. No particularly memorable experience arrived, however, and during the final pieces (and also the most experimental in terms of sound sources), Daniel Matej's juane, bleue, rouge, in which sounds recorded in the course of an evening in the theatre bar were played into long repeated notes, drowsiness was heavy in the hall.

The introduction to the Friday concert consisted of a block called Czech Young Bloods, in which the Agon Orchestra presented current work by young composers. Ondrej Adamek, Marko Ivanovic and Ivan Acher showed that their generation needs no longer worry about catching up with international trends. What their professors failed to teach them they have sought out for themselves and managed to create their own idiom. Progressive compositional procedures and the use of electronics, for example, can no longer be classified as experiments but as an ordinary part of their musical language. In relation to Adamek's piece Kapky, kapicky [Drops, Droplets], Ivanovic's Protestsong and Acher's Tance sv. Vita [Dances of St Vitus] we can make the general comment that while they have enough original sound ideas, there is an insufficiently strong unifying idea. The germ of such an idea exists in the case of Acher in the use of extracts recorded from the radio and then repeated in a different musical context and in the case of I vanovic in reference to the protest songs of the Sixties.


Apart from Arditti, the only figure with foreign star at the festival was the singer Sigune von Osten, the principal performer at the concert devoted to Marek Kopelent, whose works she has already been interpreting for some years. She was joined by the German ensemble Musica. Temporale conducted by Alicja Munk. Five pieces from the period 1967 - 1983 presented what it is that makes Kopelent so important for Czech music. Here the techniques of the New Music are not employed for their own sake but are combined with a unique poetics.

Sigune von Osten is not only a brilliant singer but also a phenomenal actress, as she had the chance to show in the Agnus Dei and in Snehah, but above all in Black and White and the loudness of the singing, whether through the fault of the singers themselves or the sound engineers, varied disagreeably. Nevertheless, this was a remarkable experience that deserves to be repeated and was not even upset by the noise of the passing express train from Kosice.

There's No Accounting for Taste.

Taste is a peculiar affair, and the end of the concert on Saturday -- the best attended -- offered plenty of material for reflections on this theme. The Malomestsky orchester Pozon sentimental [The Small-Town Pozon Sentimenal Orchestra] (Messrs. Lenko, Burgr, Piacek and Buranovsky -- mostly from the Veni circle) presented repertoire from its CD Urban Songs, with the addition of a few other pieces. The first fifteen minutes made a more agreeable impression that the recording and seemed to be a logical continuation of Reich's minimalism, grafted onto Viennese or Bratislava table music. Decompositions of a fifth chord do not, however, provide much excitement if not combined with something higher, which did not happen in this case. Boredom set in, as was also clear from occasional expressions of protest from the public. The audience was waiting for the main star of the evening, Egon Bondy, with whom Piacek and Pozon had prepared a sequence also entitled Urban Songs. During a dramatic prelude the philosopher sat d own at a table, pulled his cigarettes and ashtray from his pocket, and in his untrained but for that reason all the more expressive voice sang a choice of pre-war Prague pub songs. Cvockarem byl Danda [Danda was a Nutcase], Padla facka [It came to blows], Na Pankraci [In Pankrac]. Despite ostentatious denigration from part of the audience Bondy turned out to be a brilliant performer who knew what each song needed, as was particularly clear from the final piece Hrbitove, hrbitove [Graveyard, Graveyard] sung a capella into a darkening hall. The public was enthusiastic.

What was this kind of performance doing in a festival of contemporary "serious music? Some of the audience undoubtedly asked themselves the question and some answered it by departing early. It is interesting that people who had endured the wild creations of Zorn and the repetitiousness of Reich should decide to leave through the middle of the hall, demonstratively and noisily, during a nostalgic old Prague song.

The organisers decided to hold this year's festival over four days rather than the usual three. This meant that audiences were never as exhausted after the concerts as they had sometimes been earlier. It also meant that there were none of the usual delays in the start of individual blocks. Much of the music that the public absorbed was of good quality, and we can only hope that next year as well the Marathon will manage to overcome its material problems and celebrate its tenth anniversary.
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Publication:Czech Music
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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