Petr Kotík sat in the conductor’s room at Philharmonic Hall midweek during the Ostrava Days festival looking relaxed and happy. “It’s been going very well,” he said. “All the concerts have been successful.”
This is not how Kotík appeared just minutes earlier, after finishing rehearsing Iannis Xenakis’s Dox-Orkh with the Janáček Philharmonic. “They’re finishing 1/16th off here,” he anxiously told conductor Roland Kluttig as they looked at the score. “I’m terrified.”
And how about the composer who threatened to cancel his piece if the festival didn’t come up with the right timpanis? Or the one whose piece was nearly canceled when Ostravská banda rebelled at his overbearing directions? And what about the $50,000 that Kotík and Executive Director Renata Spisarová still have to find to pay for the whole thing?
“We may go to jail,” Kotík acknowledged. “But better to go to jail than make cuts that would cripple the festival.”
Wednesday night’s concert with the Janáček Philharmonic made a good case for the quality of the programming and the importance of the festival. Showing none of the anxiety of the morning, Kotík led a masterful performance of the Xenakis piece, supported by brilliant solo work from violinist Conrad Harris. The program also included the Czech premiere of Martin Smolka’s Blue Bells or Bell Blues, a thrilling work that opens with a melodic romp in frothy ocean waves, takes a deep microtonal dive, then resurfaces for a vivid invocation of the pounding surf.
One of the delights of Ostrava Days is the way it mixes works by well-known composers with those of the 35 student composers attending the festival. Without a program, it is often hard to tell them apart. The Wednesday concert opened with the world premiere of Rude Awakening by 27-year old Daniel Ting-cheung Lo, a detailed re-creation of a spring thunderstorm that showed a very sophisticated understanding and use of the spatial dimensions of an orchestra. When it was finished, the composer, a tall, geeky-looking kid in tennis shoes, came up from a back row to take a bow and was all class, giving credit for the enthusiastic applause to the orchestra.
Another thing that distinguishes Ostrava Days is the caliber of the performances. The Janáček Philharmonic is trained to play modern music, and is very good at it. As the orchestra showed in the Wednesday concert, it can create hypnotic textures, dramatic sweeping chords and fiery atonal sparks with equal finesse. Even more impressive is the festival’s resident ensemble, Ostravská banda, a hand-picked group of international players with virtuoso modern music skills. Conrad Harris is a member of the group, as is his wife, violinist Pauline Kim Harris.
Pauline gave a fierce, flashy performance of John Zorn’s Passagen on Tuesday night, as part of a long program that showcased individual members of the ensemble. Violist Nikolaus Schlierf drew some amazing tones out of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VI, cellist Juho Laitinen plugged in his instrument and laptop for an electric version of Maija Hynninen’s Borrowed Tunes, and bassist John Eckhardt served up a mesmerizing version of Xenakis’s Theraps.
The Tuesday program also included brief, riveting appearances by two expert soloists, violinist Hana Kotková and bassoonist Stefanie Liedtke. Student composer Idin Samimi Mofakham contributed Mirage, a textural work for water and string trio that featured percussionist Chris Nappi doing a very serious job of splashing his hands in a small tank of water.
And then there was Japp Blonk, the Dutch “sound poet” who can make more weird noises than one would think humanly possible. Spewing a combination of nonsense syllables, guttural grunting and snoring, psychotic raving, snatches of songs and chants, and high-pitched riffs on Donald Duck and the Gollum, Blonk puts the lie to the notion that there is no entertainment or humor in modern music. His outrageous Cheek-a-Synth featured borderline-obscene sounds that no one should be allowed to make in public, much less into a microphone.
If the music and players at Ostrava Days are a refreshing departure from the norm, so is the atmosphere. The biennial gathering of musicians, composers and students features some very high-level talent but is deliberately informal, with no status or hierarchy and the groups mixing easily. When they’re not playing, the musicians are often in the audience, listening to each other’s performances. And anyone attending a concert can approach the players and composers, who are usually eager to talk about their work.
For the longer and lighter concerts, mats are laid out on the floor of Philharmonic Hall, allowing listeners to enjoy the music prone and perhaps drift off to pleasant dreams. This group did not include the students, who took over one section of the balcony this year and hooted and cheered loudly for their favorite performers and each other’s work.
Slowly but surely, the festival’s international reputation is growing. This year’s opening concert by Philip Glass, which filled the 1,300-seat Gong auditorium, was the most obvious sign of its increasing prestige. But the media coverage of other events was significant. Over the full two weeks, the festival attracted bloggers and writers from half a dozen Czech publications, two German music writers, three Americans and the Iranian service of Radio Free Europe (Mofakham is from Tehran).
The widespread coverage was particularly pleasing to Kotík, who followed up Glass’s marathon five-hour performance of Music in Twelve Parts with a six-hour performance of his own Many Many Women. “One of the blogs was actually rating the concerts,” Kotík noted as he prepared to dash off to another rehearsal. “Glass got a 90. But I got a 95.”