Gritty, diverse and just a bit dangerous: so might one describe the programming tactics at Ostrava Days, a biennial festival of new and experimental music. The same has been said of its location. Before the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Ostrava was a coal mining and steelmaking city with an infrastructure catering chiefly to industry. But in 1994 the last mine was closed and since then everything has changed. Although it may be the Czech Republic’s third-largest city, Ostrava no longer symbolises what it once did and instead there are still attempts to reinvent it by means of cultural projects.
Ostrava Days is one such attempt. Founded a decade ago by Petr Kotík, a New-York based composer of Czech origin, the nine-day festival focuses primarily on orchestral works from the past half century. It sprang from Kotík’s desire “to programme works of extensive duration – nothing under one hour long”, as he put it. The reality is often less severe, but it is not for the faint-hearted. One night a disused mine provided the setting for an installation and programme of experimental music headed by Stockhausen’s Harlekin; another we heard five back-to-back performances, finishing at 1am with Morton Feldman’s two-hour long Trio. The reward was the chance to hear music seldom scheduled elsewhere: works by emerging composers, rarely heard pieces by established figures, and a raft of weird, wonderful and occasionally painful sounds.
Two concerts put this all into play. On Monday the city’s Ostravská Banda kicked off with Kotík’s Kontrabandt, an electronic piece for musicians and magnetic tape. It was commissioned in 1966 by the Electronic Music Studio of West German Radio, yet it is entirely appropriate for Ostrava: all shrieks, whistles and industrial pounding, it swung between experimentation and assault. Maybe, Perhaps, Possibly by the young Czech composer Peter Ferencik was a more rustic affair. One moment it sounded like a chorus of crickets, the next it buzzed like a wasps nest – and in the hands of conductor Barbara Kler it all came off with aplomb. The real curiosities were saved for the end. The Hamburg Concerto is one of Ligeti’s last three works and combines unearthly sonic clashes with irreverent wit. Under Johannes Kalitzke, the orchestra preserved the work’s jocularity while Ondrej Vrabec wrestled manfully with the fiendish solo horn part. What followed was even more mind-boggling: a simultaneous performance of three works by John Cage. Aria for soprano voice, Fontana Mix and Concert for Piano and Orchestra leave fundamental choices to the performers and were composed to be played separately or in combination. A relaxed sense of pacing from soprano Salome Kammer and pianist Joseph Kubera ensured the piece’s success, the effect marred only by Kammer’s tendency towards overstatement.
Friday night’s concert featured the Jack, one of New York’s rapidly rising quartets, and a programme starting with one of Xenakis’s late works, Ergma. Characterised by grid-like, static blocks of sound, the piece demands visceral attack and clinical precision: the Jack delivered both. Two world premieres followed without much event. Máté Gergely Balogh’s C-o-n-s-u-m-m-a-t-u-m e-s-t ponders the sixth movement of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ while Péter Tornyai‘s Doubleleaf describes an asymmetrical water tower. Both evaporate quickly, but the Jack took care not to spill a single drop. More memorable was Before the Universe Was Born, a piece by Romanian composer Horatiu Radulescu. Demonstrating Radulescu’s esoteric, spectral techniques, it swirls, shimmers and eludes form or restriction. The Jack let it glow with a pure radiance before returning it to the shadows.