Ever since its inception in 2008, Contempuls has been busy disproving the notion that you canʼt do modern music in Prague. At least, not on a regular basis and for audiences that arenʼt as minimal as the music. The tenth edition of the festival, staged on successive weekends at the hip DOX Contemporary Art Center, kept the momentum going with a tasty sampling of new and recent works performed for enthusiastic crowds. Contempuls also serves as a showcase for local composers, which the Czech Republic has in abundance.

Trio Catch © Karel Šuster
Trio Catch
© Karel Šuster

The second night opened with an impressive showing by Trio Catch, a young ensemble based in Hamburg. The lineup – Boglárka Pecze on clarinet, Eva Boesch on cello and Sun-Young Nam on piano – offers an arresting combination of timbres that were put to immediate good use in Trio, a technically demanding work by Georges Aperghis. Nam played with authority and Pecze got sounds out of her instrument one does not normally hear from a clarinet. The group lent gravitas to IOI, Interludium - Originʼs Ichor, a playful textural study by Czech composer Jakub Rataj, and brought organic intensity to Isabel Mundryʼs Sounds, Archeologies. The groupʼs clean work with extended lines and tumbling phrases was masterful in the latter, a scattered piece that finished with Pecze playing bass clarinet offstage.

Poing sounds like the name of a toy rather than a veteran ensemble, but the Norwegian trio has been at it for 20 years and plays with a sophisticated blend of skill and audacity. A pair of finely rendered short pieces by Maja S. K. Ratkje set the stage for Vela, a melange of odd sounds and electronics by fellow Norwegian Martin Rane Bauck. Håkon Thelin scratched out bow lines on his double bass, Rolf-Erik Nystrøm blew wind through his saxophone and Frode Halti pounded on his accordion bellows with grace and good humor. A suite from Bent Sørensenʼs Four Seasons gave the players a chance to show they can also sing, and a sharp, colorful rendering of Sachiyo Tsurumiʼs SUSHIYA 009 showed considerable range and expertise. At one point Nystrøm opined, “Itʼs important work, getting people to listen to music theyʼve never heard,” and Poing does a superb job of making it accessible.

Poing © Karel Šuster
© Karel Šuster

The opening night promised more but delivered less, in both satisfying and unsatisfying ways. A new multimedia work by Czech composer Martin Smolka and director Jiří Adámek came with great anticipation, as their last collaboration, The Infinity of Lists, was a fresh and brilliant chamber opera. This time, Before the Law, a “musical setting” of Kafkaʼs eponymous short story, never developed any legs. Created with the German ensemble ascolta, it features the seven musicians playing a variety of instruments and noisemakers, but mostly sing-chanting text. The music is thin, the chanting quickly becomes monotonous, and the various stage antics – the musicians walk around, eat, read, and splash water – feel forced. Both Smolka and Adámek are local favorites, so the piece drew heavy applause, which certainly the musicians deserved for their heroic efforts.

Satoko Inoue © Karel Šuster
Satoko Inoue
© Karel Šuster

Japanese pianist Satoko Inoue provided an anticlimactic finish with a set of spare minimalist works, beautifully played but sleepy after the animated opening. Inoue has a deft, melodic touch that brought nicely calibrated nuance to Jo Kondoʼs Slight Rhythmics and the premiere of Czech composer Luboš Mrkvičkaʼs For Piano, Part K. A reserved, colorless treatment of another Kondo work, Interlude, fit the piece perfectly, and Inoue set new records for patience with Morton Feldmanʼs last piano composition, Palais de Mari. The long, lingering chords and endless repeating phrases fell like drips from a faucet, but in Inoueʼs hands the piece was agreeably quiet, cohesive and dignified.

Modern music concerts are always an adventure, and Contempuls has been fearless in embracing that spirit. This yearʼs edition capped an inspirational decade and served as a refreshing reminder that classical composition is still a vital and thriving art form.