Under the Mammoth about time and timelessness with Brno Contemporary Orchestra

24 November 2021, 12:00
Under the Mammoth about time and timelessness with Brno Contemporary Orchestra

On Monday 22 November, the second concert of the Brno Contemporary Orchestra’s festive tenth season, entitled Kamenné mantry (Stone Mantras), presented compositions by Fausto Romitelli, Michal Rataj, Miloslav Ištvan and the recently deceased (well known to Brno audiences) Lithuanian composer Bronius Kutavičius. In addition to the orchestra itself, there were also soprano singer Irena Troupová, marimba player Martin Opršál and reciter Pavel Zajíc, who replaced Otakar Blaha in the programme. The concert, organised in cooperation with the Moravian Museum, was conducted by the artistic director of the ensemble Pavel Šnajdr.

The opening concert of the 10th season We Are The World of the Brno Contemporary Orchestra, entitled Hrášek v lusku (Pea in a Pod), paid tribute in an imaginative way to Gregor Mendel and Pavel Křížkovský. The concert was a bit more extensive in its scope. In the Anthropos pavilion, which is dedicated to the findings of the research into the life and death of our ancestors, there were works that turned to the past, time itself and pandemic timelessness, as well as to the hopeless rage and silent contemplation or the eternal conflict between the spiritual and the material. Although the concert was originally intended to culminate in a world premiere of a composition commissioned by the orchestra from composer Gatot Danar Sulistiyanto, the pandemic crisis forced the artist to turn his attention to information technology. The work inspired by the oldest puppet in the world, which was discovered on the Francouzská street in Brno and is stored in the depository of the Moravian Museum, was unfortunately not completed in time. Despite this unexpected impoverishment, the dramaturgy defended its location in the Anthropos pavilion.

The evening opened with the composition Amok Koma by the Italian composer Fausto Romitelli. As the title suggests, the contrast between the expressive aggressiveness of the percussion and string sections and a certain resigned gentleness and staticism, enhanced mainly by the flute, clarinet and chimes with strings, is the centre of the work. Despite the relatively intimate cast, Romitelli managed to create a distinctly colourful texture that at several points teetered on the edge of over-saturation. One remarkable element was the inclusion of the wind harmonica, whose bright major chord towards the end of the slowly fading piece had an almost ethereal effect. The musicians gave a convincing performance, although there were places where the rhythmic interplay was not quite flawless. In terms of dynamics, there was nothing to complain about – the players, led by Pavel Šnajdr, roared in “amok” and whispered delicately in “coma”... which undoubtedly sounded more appealing in the performance itself. The question is how much of an experience people in different parts of the hall had with the music. Although the Anthropos pavilion is certainly an impressive piece of architecture, its acoustic capabilities were not the primary goal of the architects. However, certain sound sacrifices have to be taken into account in such concerts.

While a significant part of the compositions were thematically based on the stream of time, Michal Rataj’s Music from Nothing for solo marimba and chamber orchestra drew directly from “timelessness”, specifically pandemic time. Together with selected works from the cycle of compositions that the artist released in spring 2021 under the title Solos From Nothing and which Music from Nothing immediately follows, it reflects on a time that for many was a ghostly time of “nothing” and a search for content. Rataj’s composition is a true musical quest – the composer introduces various motifs, which he often allows to sound for only a few moments and then immediately moves on to another, often quite contrasting idea, not only in terms of mood but also in terms of style. In some places the piece had an almost improvisational character and often resembled a musical study rather than a final composition. This, of course, has its pros and cons: while a work of this type provides an irreplaceable insight into the composer’s creative process, the moody and stylistic “fuzziness” may not be comprehensible and digestible to all. The marked “oomph-oomph” after a serious short section preceded by the delightful “gurgling” of a marimba or a calm, gently flowing surface may simply be too random and disjointed for some. Personally, I find the piece an excellently chosen contrast to Romitelli’s deadly serious Amok Koma. Moreover, Rataj composed the solo marimba part very generously and the flawless Martin Opršál made the instrument resound not only with the mallets, but also with the strings or even with his own breath. Indeed, it was to the marimba that the most exuberant and optimistic parts of the work were entrusted. Opršál interpreted even the most demanding sections of the piece with a natural ease of stroke and a great sense of dynamics. However, the composer also prepared colourful places for the orchestra – among the most remarkable was the “conversation” of clarinet, horn and marimba over the soft cushion of the string section. Nevertheless, there would certainly be many more moments of similar compositional interest, which again quickly disappeared in the hectic changing texture.

The most demanding work of the evening was the oratorio Já, Jákob (I, Jacob) by composer Miloslav Ištvan. In it, the musicians, the reciter Pavel Zajíc and the soprano singer Irena Troupová, under the baton of Pavel Šnajdr, had to create a partner for the recording, which featured not only other music, but also other recitations and singing. For the oratorio I, Jacob, Ištvan used not only his own experience but also the music from the production of the same name based on the text by Vítězslav Gardavský. Ištvan’s work combines artificial and pop singing, as well as artificial and pop music; this contrast is sometimes accentuated more and sometimes less. While in some cases the two musical principles stand in direct opposition to each other, in others they work together to create a distinctive musical sound. Unfortunately, it was here that it became most apparent that the Anthropos pavilion is not primarily a music hall. After all, balancing the dynamics of a live ensemble with the different dynamic levels of a recording is challenging even in more acoustically tuned spaces. At the beginning, for example, Irena Troupová’s vocals were lost, first drowned out by the drums and then by the recording itself. Also, the reciter, Pavel Zajíc, deserved a higher volume, who at times – especially when confronted with the reciter on the recording – seemed undersized. Most of the problems caused by the technology and different volume levels were solved fairly quickly. However, the acoustic properties of the design and sound propagation in the originally non-musical space were not affected. The performance must have had a diametrically different effect in different places in the hall, and so there were certainly those who could enjoy the musical staging of the Brno Contemporary Orchestra to the full. Irena Troupová did a great job with her voice, which she gave the appropriate urgency in tense moments; the crystal clear highs were especially impressive. It should be emphasized that, although Pavel Zajíc learned about his replacement of Otakar Blaha a day before the concert, he gave an above-standard performance. Personally, I might just lean towards a slightly older voice that would suit the oratorio better. The final two pieces, La sabbia del tempo (The Sands of Time) by Fausto Romitelli and Hours of the Past by Bronius Kutavičius, returned to the theme of time and its inevitable passage.

The second concert of the round-number season, despite the forced change of songs, artfully combined the unconventional space with a successful dramaturgy. It could be argued that not every space is conducive to music, but there are cases where it is worth compromising. Stone Mantras was one of them.

Fausto Romitelli – Amok koma

Miloslav Ištvan – Já, Jákob (I, Jacob)

Fausto Romitelli – La sabbia del tempo

Michal Rataj – Music from nothing

Bronius Kutavičius – Hours of the Past

Irena Troupová – soprano

Pavel Zajíc – recitation

Martin Opršál – marimba

BCO – Pavel Šnajdr – conductor

22 November 2021, 7.30 p.m., Anthropos pavilion

Photograph: Petr Francán

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