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Who plays contemporary music in the Czech Republic?


For music to be "contemporary" it is not enough for it to have been written recently; it also has to express something of the pulsing cultural spirit of its time. At first sight of the score, or first listening, it has to be clear that this is music that could not have been written at any time but now--of course with some latitude allowed for impulses coming from the last decade, or even decades, where these have remained or re-emerged as an active inspirational element in music. On that first listen, the instruments used, the sound material, the compositional technique, are all audible. But often it is only on a second listening that that the specific way of thinking essential for the "contemporary" character of contemporary music, can be heard. As in the case of historically authentic interpretation of early music, so too for performance of new music, specialised ensembles have proved their worth, and in their very existence and profile these ensembles tell us much about the situation of contemporary music in the music-culture community.

In the Czech Republic there are at present around ten chamber ensembles that have chosen contemporary music as the focus of their professional life. Some are "occasional" groups, others permanent, but at the centre of each one of them we typically find a strong and determined person--a composer or musician--who has acted as a magnet for kindred souls. Here we shall look at the permanent groups.

MoEns was formed in 1995--under the name Mondschein Ensemble--with the aim of bringing to Czech musical life a stable music ensemble that would systematically engage in the professional performance of contemporary music. In its way it cleared the path for other groups founded later, even if these were orientated to different repertoires and many of them failed to put down lasting roots. In its time MoEns was venturing on virgin territory, because the wider public in the Czech Republic had no more than a fragmentary knowledge of international contemporary classical music, and so the ensemble focused on the presentation of the fundamental works of the "classics" of the post-war modern movement in music and its successors and the contemporary composers whose music was usually played at international contemporary music festivals, and on encouraging new work by Czech composers, especially those of the 1960s and 70s generation. In its long-term concert projects it presented music by M. Kagel, S. Reich, G. Kurtag and L. Andriessen, for example, and current trends (the New Complexity movement) or the new music of selected regions (Lithuania, Finland, Hungary, Japan, Germany). Over the years MoEns has premiered several dozen new works, mainly by Czech composers. It regularly appears at contemporary music festivals in the Czech Republic (The Exposition of New Music, New Music Marathon), and has performed at international festivals in Germany, Austria, England, Canada etc. It has recorded composer profile CDs of the music of Peter Graham and Miroslav Pudlak and the anthology The End of the 20th Century in Czech Music. The moving spirit of the ensemble is the composer and conductor Miroslav Pudlak (b. 196r), who together with the clarinettist Kamil Dolezal, violinist David Danel, cellist Milada Gajdova and composer and pianist Hanus Barton forms the core of the group. On the Czech music scene MoEns has the reputation of a solid, trustworthy group that does excellent work for contemporary music. Its name--MoEns--is a shortening of the original name of the group, which the composer Peter Graham used as the title for a piece written as a commission for the ensemble.


The Berg Chamber Orchestra is the same age as MoEns but took rather longer to establish a reputation with the public. It was formed by the conductor Peter Vrabel (b. 1969), who has remained its artistic director to this day. The orchestra has developed its profile on the basis of a post-modern vision of the tolerant co-existence of contemporary and classical music, and so its concert programmes combine works by classical and romantic composers and composers from the beginning of the 20th century alongside recent and entirely new pieces. Its concerts are often multimedia in conception, involving elements of movement or video, and are held in a whole range of classical and alternative venues. It had a great success, for example with concerts in the historical Prague water purification plant, today an eco-technical museum. The orchestra also appears at jazz festivals, plays for theatre productions and records film music. Lively contact with the public is an intrinsic part of its image. For each season it prepares around ten concerts, and an innovation in its last season was the regular presentation at every concert of one new piece by a young Czech composer and at the end of the season a competition for the most successful piece premiered by the Berg Chamber Orchestra. This project was useful as well as successful and the orchestra will be repeating it in the current season.

The ensemble Konvergence was formed by a group of like-minded composers of the same generation led by Ondrej Stochl (b. 1975) in 2002. The group's aim is similar to that of MoEns--to present works by young Czech and international composers plus music by important 20th-century composers whose music is still relatively unfamiliar to Czech audiences. It shares with the Berg Orchestra a strong interest in cultivating feedback from the public. Konvergence plans its concerts with exceptional care to ensure that they are musically unified in spirit; drawing up the programme for a concert is always entrusted to just one of the members of the group so that it will reflect his or her distinctive individual viewpoint. The ensemble comprises two violins, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, piano and when necessary it is joined by one or more of its stable circle of guest performers. Each year it puts on its own concert series of around eight concerts, and it has also performed at festivals of contemporary music in the Czech Republic (The Exposition of New Music, Forfest, Prague premieres) and abroad (Germany, Slovakia). Since its founding it has undergone several changes in personnel, and currently its core composers apart from Ondrej Stochl are Tomas Palka, Michaela Plachka, Marie Sommerova, Pavol Rinowski and Jan Rybar The ensemble has published a profile CD presenting pieces by members-composers and also works by Toru Takemitsu and Kaaja Saariaho--composers whom, together with Morton Feldman, Jonathan Harvey, Gerard Grisey and others the group regards as major models. In 2009, Konvergence will be performing for example at the Prague Spring International Festival.


The Ostravska Banda ensemble was formed in 2005 as the ensemble-in-residence for the biennale Ostrava Days of New Music--a festival founded in Ostrava by the composer, conductor and flautist Petr Kotik (b. 1942), who is also the ensemble's artistic director. Zsolt Nagy, Roland Kluttig and Peter Rundel have been guest conductors. The ensemble consists of 23 musicians from a range of different countries who come together on ad hoc basis--for the biennale or concert tours, but who work with great commitment and intensity. With the foundation of the festival and ensemble Czech-American Petr Kotik has imported a different style of work into Czech music culture. He takes as members of the Ostravska Banda only top musicians who, "may perhaps turn up two days after rehearsals have started, but unlike average players who come to every rehearsal but have their limits, with these players you can do things that you could never achieve with average musicians. "The Ostravska Banda has appeared in France, Poland, Germany, Slovakia, the Netherlands and the USA, and played at the Prague Premieres contemporary music festival and the Prague Spring international music festival. The core of the Ostravska Banda repertoire derives from Petr Kotik's own background--American modernism in music from the circle of John Cage and his successors--but overall it is far wider, including many works of the European post-war avant-garde and pieces by Czech composers.


Since 1994 a new orchestra--the Prague Philharmonia--has been active on the Czech music scene. It was founded by Jill Belohlavek as an orchestra of classical type, energised by the youth of its members. As time went by, however--and it didn't take very long--the Prague Philharmonia started to include in its programmes 20th-century and even 21st-century music accessible in terms of its instrumental combination. When Michel Swierczewski (b. 1955) became the orchestra's chief guest conductor, he introduced the subscription series The Beauty of Today (Le bel d'aujourd'hui), devoted to music of the 20th and 21st centuries. By coincidence at just the same time as Petr Kotik embarked on a similar kind of project in Ostrava, Michel Swierczewski decided to try and use the Prague Philharmonia to create a centre of contemporary music in Prague that would not just educate and acclimatise audiences but would be a magnet for students of music and musicians and visual artists and people in other branches of the arts. The series took off (this year it is in its fifth season) and although Michel Swierczewski no longer has a permanent engagement with the orchestra, he continues to work with it and this year came up with another idea to add to The Beauty of Today. This is a new ensemble named Prague Modern (with Michel Swierczewski as artistic director)--it is a group that it is too young for us to attempt any assessment as yet (its first concert was on the 30th of September 2008), but it certainly deserves all our best wishes for future success. Prague Modern is taking part on the Beauty of Today subscription concert series and at the same time--in collaboration with the music faculty of the Prague Academy of Performing Arts--it is presenting a separate chamber concert series with a different programme involving an emphasis on young Czech composers whose works it will perform. The core of the ensemble consists of musicians from the Prague Philharmonia and their guests.


The Fama Quartet is another ensemble hatched from the Prague Philharmonia. It was founded in 2005 by the violinist David Danel (b. 1974), who also plays in the MoEns ensemble and is a member of the Ostravska Banda ensemble. In the 20th century the Czech Republic was often known as a quartet superpower--a reputation that it gained thanks to a number of top quartets whose main repertoire, however, was classical quartet music. By contrast the Fama Quartet concentrates on the quartet repertoire of the 20th century and up to the present. It has been appearing in the concert series of the Prague Philharmonia including the Beauty of Today series, and was the first Czech Quartet to present Karel Husa's String Quartet No. 4 "Poems". In the Czech Republic it has performed at festivals organised by domestic associations of composers, at the Contempuls festival and has made guest appearances in the Essen Philharmonic YOUrope Together project and a festival of classical music in Afyon in Turkey. Currently it is engaged in the project. A Musical Bestiary--which includes commissioning of new pieces inspired by J. L. Borges.

It usually takes a new ensemble some time to find its own identity and the kind of recognised place in its own cultural environment that makes it a group to be reckoned with among the organisers of concert programmes and a group whose every new project is a signal to people tuned to the same or similar interests that--hey, something interesting is in the air! MoEns, the Berg Chamber Orchestra and Konvergence all now have behind them long years of hard work testing out and formulating their visions in various different arenas of musical practice--at concerts and in the studio. The packed halls at concerts of the Berg Chamber Orchestra shows that the ensemble already has its own faithful audience that follows it wherever it goes--literally, in fact, because the Berg Chamber Orchestra moves from concert hall to concert hall during the season. This is an integral part of its identity, a strategy that has proved its worth and has helped to forge bonds with the public. It takes the ensemble from the Hall of the Czech National Bank to the Kampa Museum of Modern Art, from a synagogue to a former factory, and of course the various classical concert halls. Konvergence, whose venues are typically more intimate, has found "its" platform in the charming Chapel of St. Lawrence in the historical centre of Prague--it is a deconsecrated chapel that is the club concert hall of the Prague Spring International Music Festival. Not far from here is the music faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts, which has two concert hails where MoEns and the new Prague Modern and Fama Quartet ensembles often hold their concerts. It can always be said that contemporary (classical) music deserves to be played more often and more performers should be specialising in it. Nonetheless, the fact is that in the Czech Republic contemporary music is doing--quite--well.


Contemporary music in the Czech Republic

A look at the history of performance

Viktor Pantucek

After 1948 the Czech Republic, already weakened by the experience of occupation and war, faced another fateful upheaval as the whole cultural and social system came under the control of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and its political masters in the Soviet Union. From as early as March 1948 inconvenient people were being pushed out of cultural life to be replaced by reliable artists loyal to communist ideology. As a result, all-powerful political organs could be gradually built up to dominate social, cultural and artistic life. Not only were Unions established for the individual branches of the arts, but the cultural institutions and bodies were politically run by reliable cadres. The whole world of the arts was gradually compelled to adopt the idea of "socialist realism" and anyone who did not agree with it was banned from appearing publicly. Vulgarised Smetanian Romanticism became the basis for approved musical models, and in music the "contemporary" was talked about only in the context of "party consciousness", "people's art", "engagement" and "comprehensibility". Obviously this was a hostile environment for contemporary music, let alone its performers. Most of the inter-war ensembles ceased to exist. New ensembles were mainly workers' choirs, orchestras for people's and variety music, and ensembles designed to generate average and very often sub-average traditionalist music in the spirit of socialist realist principles. Some string quartets (the Novak, Ostrava, Janacek) and the Czech Nonet, which had an unbroken tradition of promoting contemporary music since its founding in 1924, were among the few exceptions.

A relaxation in totalitarian social control with important effects in the arts including music did not come until the later 1950s, following the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR and Kruschev's revelation of Stalin's crimes. Among artists and likeminded composers we can initially see spontaneous projects, rather in the spirit of practical jokes, such as the formation of the "Smidri Brass Band" for events put on by the Smidrove art group, and then composers' private experiments with tape and aleatoric music. And eventually, already at the beginning of the 1960s, the emergence of the first ensembles designed to present absolutely contemporary new work.

One of the first impulses was the formation of the Chamber Harmony under the direction of conductor Libor Pesek, which from 1960 included not only 20th-century classics but also the premieres of pieces by Czech composers with contemporary views, above all Jan Klusak, in its concerts at the Theatre on the Balustrade. Thanks to its second violin, Dusan Pandula the Novak Quartet too became ever more orientated to new music. In 1959 in Brno the bass clarinettist Josef Horak was the prime mover behind the founding of Musica Nova ensemble at Brno University, which presented works of the "Darmstadt" school in its repertoire, while later, in 1963, the Studio of Composers ensemble was founded under the direction of conductor Radim Hanousek. In Bratislava the violinist and composer Ladislav Kupkovic co-founded the ensemble Hudba dneska [Music of Today] (1963). After Josef Horak's moved to Prague he helped to form the ensemble Sonatori di Praga (1963) and the world famous Due Boemi di Praga (1963).

For the development of a more experimentally orientated branch of contemporary music the Prague-based Musica Viva Pragensis ensemble (see also CMQ 1/08) was to play a fundamental role. It was founded by the flautist and composer Petr Kotik, who together with the composers Vladimir Sramek and Jan Rychlik managed to get the support of some professors at the Prague Conservatory for the new ensemble. Its first concert took place on the 20th of June 1961, but it was from 1962 that its most important activities were to date. The original core of the ensemble consisted of Petr Kotik, the bassoonist and composer Rudolf Komorous, the pianist Arnost Wilde, the violinist Bohuslav Purgr and the clarinettist Milan Kostohryz. Other names associated with this pioneering ensemble include the composer Zbynek Vostrak, from 1963 its artistic director and conductor, and then the composer Marek Kopelent, who took over leadership of the ensemble after Petr Kotik left in 1965. Kotik broke with the ensemble after a split provoked by the performance of his Music for Three at the Warsaw Autumn Festival and critical reaction in 1964, and in 1967 he founded his own ensemble QUAX with Jiri Stivin, Jan Hyncica and Vaclav Zahradnik. This was a short-lived ensemble that ended when Kotik emigrated after the occupation of Czechosovakia by Warsaw Pact troops in 1968. Most of the other ensembles shared the same fate, for not only Kotik but also Rudolf Komorous, Dusan Pandula, Ladislav Kupkovic, Peter Kolman and many others chose emigration as the only way out of an unacceptable situation.

With the rise of Gustav Husak to the position of general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party at the beginning of the 1970s, the clampdown of the 1950s essentially started again. But some of the ensembles were this time determined not to be silenced so easily, and survived as just about tolerated on the basis of their reputation from the 1960s right up to the Velvet Revolution of 1989. For the whole period of "normalisation" as the twenty years before the fall of communist was called, the existence of an alternative, underground culture was a characteristic of Czechoslovak society. In music this culture was expressed mainly in experimental rock, which in a sense took over the role that would in normal circumstances have been played by contemporary classical music-it became a space for experiment and an area of relative freedom for creative musicians with a wide range of different aesthetic orientations. In the 1980s there was once again a gradual thaw, the result of the changing situation in Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union itself. This meant that new trends could once again begin to spread into the former Czechoslovakia and a number of bands emerged from illegality and took on a semi-official status. The mid-1980s also saw the formation of new ensembles that have continued to play a unique role in the Czech contemporary music scene right up to the present day. In 1983 composers Miroslav Pudlak and Martin Smolka together with the composer Petr Kofron formed the Agon Ensemble. From the start it focused on production of contemporary music, above all music connected with the "New Music" movement of the 1960s. It has played an important part in promoting Czech music, with a repertoire that includes pieces by composers actually involved with Agon, such as M. Kopelent, J. Klusak, J. Adamik, P. Graham, and M. Simacek, but also forgotten pieces by Z. Vostrak, R. Komorous, or Josef Berg. Since the start of the 1990s the ensemble has presented important works of the world avant-garde in its concerts and concert series (from early twelve-tone, to microtonal music, to pieces by John Cage or Iannis Xenakis), the work of composers orientated to rock or jazz, and also experimental projects (Graphic scores and concepts). American minimalism also has an important position in the ensemble's repertoire. Recently Agon has almost entirely shifted its focus to collaboration with rock groups (e.g. The Plastic People of the Universe).

In 1985 two students of composition at the Janacek Academy of Performing Arts in Brno--Zdenek Plachy and Ivo Medek--formed the ensemble Art Inkognito, which mainly presented the works of Brno composers (Daniel Forro, Zdenek Plachy, Ivo Medek, Peter Graham), but also some international contemporary music. Originally an eleven-member orchestra comprising guitar, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, two percussionist and vocals, it became ever smaller. At its last concert in 1990 the programme consisted primarily of pieces for percussion, one composition for solo piano and one for the instruments together. This was one of the reasons why the percussion section of Art Inkognito then broke away from the ensemble, with Dan Dlouhy, and Adam Kubicek, together with Josef Blaha and Martin Oprsal founding the DAMA-DAMA Central European Percussion Ensemble. This ensemble specialises in the works of 20th-century world composers, and also Brno composers including some of the performers themselves. The original Art Inkognito ensemble was dissolved and reformed as the ensemble Ars Incognita, which remains successful to this day. In 2000 the Ensemble Marijan for improvised music was formed, again with the involvement of the composer Ivo Medek, in cooperation with Jan Kavan and Marketa Dvorakova.
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Title Annotation:theme
Author:Dobrovska, Wanda
Publication:Czech Music
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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