Magazine article Czech Music

Music Impossible: How the Berg Orchestra Persuaded Prague to Join the 21st Century

Magazine article Czech Music

Music Impossible: How the Berg Orchestra Persuaded Prague to Join the 21st Century

Article excerpt

What was the modern music scene like in Prague at the turn of the 21st century? No need to answer, it's a trick question. There was no modern music scene in Prague 15 years ago. Yes, there were schools training young composers and professors writing new pieces, mostly for each other. And occasional heroic efforts by groups like the Agon Orchestra. But in a city that considers itself one of the major music centers of Europe, there was no place to regularly hear works by composers like Messiaen, Ligeti and Xenakis, and share the experience with listeners and musicians of similar interests and taste.

If anything, the city was anti-modern music. An accomplished composer like Marek Kopelent was more likely to have his work performed abroad that in his homeland. Orchestra members literally sat on their hands rather than play contemporary pieces. At the premiere of a new opera at the National Theater in 2004, several players in the orchestra disliked the music so much, they deliberately played some wrong notes.

Into this minefield stepped an ensemble whose love for the music outweighed all other considerations. The Berg Orchestra had its roots in the Prague Academy of Performing Arts, where in the mid-1990s a group was formed to play student works and concerts organized by professor and composer Vaclav Riedlbauch. Peter Vrabel (conducting), Petr Budin (bassoon) and Igor Paleta (piano) recruited fellow students from the Academy and the Prague Conservatory, and after playing together for a few years, felt they had created something worth continuing. When Berg launched its first season as an independent chamber orchestra in January 2001, the organizers knew very well what they were facing. "The music scene could be described as post-socialist," says Vrabel, who became Berg's conductor and artistic director. "Audiences rejected anything that was a bit more avant-garde, and many musicians looked at contemporary music with total disrespect. We had to learn how to live in freedom."

All of which makes the orchestra's accomplishments even more impressive. Berg is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, having pioneered not just new repertoire, but innovations like performing in unorthodox spaces, implementing educational components to the concerts, and regularly collaborating with other performing artists. Berg has also led the way in commissioning new works from Czech composers, far outpacing any mainstream orchestra or institution in the country.

From the beginning, the motivation was a combination of practicality and idealism. "There was a strong feeling about the value of the music and a curiosity to explore it," says Eva Kesslova, who started as a violinist and became the group's managing director. "Also, we felt that performing the stuff that's always on Prague stages did not make sense. This brought something new to the music scene. We knew it was risky, but there was an eagerness to prove to the rest of the music world here that it was possible." Most of the concerts in the first few seasons were held in the Academy's Martinu Hall, and the programming was relatively conservative. Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were in the mix with familiar 20th-century voices like Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Hindemith. Martinu was a staple, Terezin composers like Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa appeared regularly, and the modern Czech voices were well-established composers like Viktor Kalabis, Peter Eben and Jan Hanus.

"We knew audiences weren't ready for an entire evening of avant-garde music, so we created concerts that had a mix of nice pieces and more difficult pieces," says Kesslova. "We always wanted people to leave the hall with a feeling of, I didn't like that particular piece, but on the whole it was a great experience."

"Experience" became the key word and central theme for the orchestra as it outgrew Martinu Hall and began staging concerts in other venues. At first, they were relatively tame--churches, museums, theaters, the latter often in conjunction with a film screening or stage production. …

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