Brno is a city full of contrasts. A short walk through its centre reveals curious contrasts: the Rozkvět passage next to the House of the Lords of Lipá or the Omega department store inserted into the historic centre are clear examples. The Brno Philharmonic also bases its musical production on the contrast of old with new. More than once I have praised the fresh programmes of the concerts, which go for contrasting musical works and present combinations of compositions which are rarely heard alongside each other. In the case of the concert entitled Romantic Fairy Tales of 24 January however the programme was down to earth. There were no sudden dissonances or odd instrumental combinations and the musical language did not depart from the moderately conventional. However we do not have only the contrasts of old and new, known and unknown, but unfortunately also between quality and its absence and not last between interesting and dull.
The evening’s programme began with the overture to the opera Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber. If we ignore the slightly out of step entrance of the brass instruments and the fact that the overture itself is not the most interesting part of the opera, the performance was satisfactory. The inclusion of Der Freischütz is understandable given the theme, but the wishy-washy or even dull overture did not set a romantic fairy-tale atmosphere. Certainly there are many who have a warmer stance towards Weber’s work than I. From the perspective of the performance itself there is not much to criticise other than what I already mentioned. Perhaps only the dynamic graduation could be greater and more serious. The criticism is not for a poor performance but for the programme. But I will admit that this is a highly subjective topic.
The Clarinet Concerto No. 3 in B major by the composer Antonio Casimir Cartellieri followed Weber’s overture. The works and the person of the composer suffered almost complete oblivion and thus was literally pulled from the shelves of the dusty archives of the Prague Conservatory and the Czech Museum of Music. The revision and critical transcription, which Emil Drápela (solo clarinettist with the Brno Philharmonic) carried out, is undoubtedly commendable. It is not the first work which Drápela prepared for the orchestra this way. Despite the unquestionable melodic freshness, playfulness and virtuosity, however, this typical musical work of the period did not escape shallowness. The orchestra is reduced to a mere supporting element that most of the time does not protrude into the foreground of the music. When it does it is always a pair of skimpy bars filled with basic harmonic functions and serves only to indicate the start or end of another phrase from the solo clarinet. Unfortunately this approach does not fundamentally change in any of the four movements of the concerto. The cellos mostly play at least semitones, and the violins and violas similarly pulse with a quaver staccato, and so it goes on and on until the piece finishes. One pleasant change was a short passage with pizzicato. And above it all floats the solo clarinet. There can be no doubt of the quality of Mr Drápela as an interpreter – he has regularly been given demanding parts and he has made quite a few recordings. This time his performance was also commendable. Only before the repeat of the introductory theme in the flood of fast runs and figuration was a false note heard. If it were not for the purely symbolic accompaniment of the orchestra, it could have been completely lost in the music. I can be told that concertos tended to be like that, however hardly any composer of the 19th century so completely abandoned the effort to create an at least partially inventive accompaniment, as unfortunately happened in this case.
It might seem that the programme was already beyond saving, that despite the hard work of the conductor Robert Kružík and the well prepared musical material, the whole concert would only be an average enrichment of a Wednesday evening. And lo and behold! The work The Birthday of the Infanta by the composer Franz Schreker represented a much-wanted happy ending to the fairy tale. And a coveted contrast to the previous not-so-interesting first half of the evening. The ballet-pantomime to themes from the tale by Oscar Wilde was a work that the audience might have been waiting for. The orchestra launched into the work with verve and the conductor Robert Kružík seemed to be more in his element. The piece itself was conceived energetically, with sharp dynamic contrasts. Otherwise the work was full of sudden changes of rhythm, mood and intonation. As the culmination of the evening this part included a ballet performance by the ProART Company. Their artistic head Martin Dvořák also played the part of the character Death/Mirror and took on the direction and the choreography. The figure of the Infanta was played by Kristýna Křemenáková, Rose/Love was danced by Irene Bauer and the Dwarf by Lukáš Lepold. Pupils of the Brno Dance Conservatory – Amálie Malinová, Bianca Tesařová, Ondřej Knápek and Jaroslav Vitula also took part in the performance. It was impressive to see how in the relatively small space of Besední dům the stage can hold an orchestra and a considerable number of dancers. This number also deserves praise for this. However the high point was however the choreography itself. A subtle, symbolic gesture saying everything that managed with minimal resources to take its rightful place alongside the music. The lofty and graceful movements of the dancers in contrast to the bestial swirl of the dwarf were exceeded only by the figure of Death/Mirror, who at the end of the work drove the disillusioned dwarf to despair and with some cynicism imitated his every move. Diametrically opposed types of dance characterised each figure separately and gave the production its vibrancy.
After the not overly convincing establishment of the initial atmosphere and the subsequent relaxing time for the orchestra the evening concluded in style and the last performance rightly received the most applause. Today (25 January) and tomorrow there will be repeats and I certainly recommend a visit if only because of The Birthday of the Infanta. The Brno Philharmonic managed to show that their romantic fairy tales have a happy end.
CARL MARIA von WEBER Der Freischütz, overture, ANTONIO CARTELLIERI Clarinet Concerto No. 3 in B major (modern premiere), FRANZ SCHREKER The Birthday of the Infanta, a dance-pantomime to the tale by Oscar Wilde
clarinet Emil Drápela, ProART Company, artistic head, direction, choreography Martin Dvořák, costumes Jindra Rychlá, props Jana Jano
performers: Irene Bauer (Rose/Love), Martin Dvořák (Death/Mirror), Kristýna Křemenáková (Infanta), Lukáš Lepold (Dwarf), pupils of the Brno Dance Conservatory, alternating: Alžběta Janíčková, Amálie Malinová, Bianca Tesařová, Ondřej Knápek and Jaroslav Vitola. Brno Philharmonic, Conductor Robert Kružík