Brno Contemporary Orchestra: a brilliant ensemble and the limits of modern art

21 March 2018, 17:00
Brno Contemporary Orchestra: a brilliant ensemble and the limits of modern art

The musical ensemble Brno Contemporary Orchestra, which deals with contemporary musical work followed up on the last concert From Czechoslovakia by looking at it from another angle. The For Czechoslovakia concert’s programme included works by foreign composers, written either specifically for the anniversary or with topics related to Czechoslovakia. Quo vadis? by Alois Piňos, who died exactly ten years ago on 19 September, was the first song to be played.

The artwork, beginning with the clashing of cymbals and violent strikes on the piano, takes those great questions from Sienkiewicz’s grand prose – Where are we heading? What is the direction of a person’s life, of society as a whole and how does it change over time? One cannot deny Piňos’ creation’s variety and colourfulness of musical communication. Whilst the introductory rhythm of the song gives us a chance to feel the composer’s ferocity and drama, we get a lyrical, almost caring passage a few seconds later. As the calm waters get deeper, so the tone of the music gets more humorous and cynical. Uncompromising beats keep the audience focused on the importance of the work. The music aptly combines modern composing forms with objectivity. In its most extreme form it resembles a medieval hoquetus – otherwise comprehensible melodic lines are torn apart and shared among the individual instruments. What is formed is intentionally organised havoc. However, the composer does not collapse into some form of complete negativism and the work, with all its dissonance and atypical musical elements, simply offers the question Quo vadis? The composer doesn’t attempt to answer, he only bows in humility before it.

The simply named composition Brno by Roland Dahinden offered a similar yet in some areas totally different take on modern music. You won’t find many works that attempt to copy the sound of spoken Czech. Another unusual element was the use of the recorded sound of instruments which then rebounded back at the audience as an echo. Brno was full of rattling, screeching, scratching, humming, squeaking, ringing and all the other sounds and noises that the instruments are able to make. Glissandos, strumming near the bridge, breathing into the solo bass clarinet, all found their rightful place here. The gentle carillon and the velvet bass clarinet contrasted excellently with the sharp strings. One could almost frolic over the amazing colourful spectrum that the result gave us… if only it weren’t so uninteresting. Dahinden’s music placed all of its cards on the table at the beginning, and that just could take it through the entire game. Why did the composer even bother to divide the work into individual segments, when each of them was based on the same musical methods and the same conception of timbre? To a certain degree this is a problem of contemporary music as a whole. Though to say that modern works lack anything fully new would be kicking a wasps’ nest, since all the staunch advocates of atonal melody, serial composition technique, dissonant counterpoint or graphical scores would rush to its defence. I, however, do not aim to underestimate the importance and magic of new music, rather the contrary! The composers have only swapped one cliché for another – the would-be tremolos with the dramatic dynamic have become the equivalent of sequential procedures. The wave of modern music has lost what made it really contemporary, and that was the element of surprise. Of course, even today you will find composers who can balance old and new compositional tongues and yet still reach beyond these divisions. Sadly, the breezy modern is no longer a wave, and only a few individuals are left.

Concordanza by Sofia Gubajdulina offered a somewhat more moderate musical tongue. Even the groups of instruments were a bit more unified than the aforementioned pieces. The composer gave the work some proverbial “spice” with the use of sibilants and other sounds that the players made. Also, the more homogenous score helped to better highlight the dynamics. But many overused musical expressions could be found here too. The composition was created in 1971, thus it is not completely fair to criticise the perceived schematic (from our present-day point of view). However, the publication of it made the risks of modern music even more pronounced. 

All’s well that ends well. Plastový hrad (Plastic Castle) by Elliott Sharp, written specifically for the BCO, showed us why modern music not only makes sense, but why it is also necessary to actively propagate it. Already the use of the harp and harpsichord was rather atypical, yet the main point was the composer’s play with the musical flow. The combination of colourful lyrical blotches, sharp dramatic rhythms, glissandos, pizzicatos, sudden meditative consonance of long tones and the sound of the screaming, jazzy bass clarinet, all of these were used by the composer in a new way in each of the parts. The work with dynamics was also brilliantly executed, for which not only the composer, but also the players should be praised. Sudden contrasts of the harpsichord’s and clarinet’s gentle consonance against the raging orchestra made the work truly come alive.

It was not just the performers and the dynamic alone, but rather the musical logic of action and reaction.

The orchestra under Pavel Šnajdr gave an outstanding performance. Contemporary music can be hard for players, but the Brno Contemporary Orchestra showed us that modern is nothing new for them. The solo bass clarinet player Lukáš Daňhel gave the tones of the bass clarinet a personal touch and managed to perform even the greatest technical specialities of the composition. Barring truly minor mistakes – for example the overly loud violin in the dramatic and otherwise sudden finale of Dahinden’s Brno – the musicians performed brilliantly.

It is sad that in this case Besední dům was far from full. Of course, modern music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the contrast of the empty hall with the effort of the musicians just made me feel a bit sad. Two of the works were newly composed specifically for the orchestra, and the remaining two still belong to the breezy music of the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. But where was the audience?

Alois Piňos: Quo Vadis? Music for solo trombone and chamber ensemble (2001), Roland Dahinden: Brno. Klangraumprozess for bass clarinet with 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, percussion and electronics (2018) – Commissioned by the BCO, Sofia Gubajodulina: Concordanza. For chamber orchestra (1971), Elliott Sharp: Plastový hrad (2018) – commissioned by the BCO. 20 March 2018, Besední dům.

BCO/ photo Jan Prokopius

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