Artificial Intelligence runs your smartphone and appliances, is learning how to drive cars and has muscled its way into the performing arts by composing classical music – more or less. While no one is going to mistake an AI score for the real deal, an adventurous premiere by PKF – Prague Philharmonia suggested that day may not be far off.

Petr Nekoranec and Emmanuel Villaume with the PKF © Václav Hodina
Petr Nekoranec and Emmanuel Villaume with the PKF
© Václav Hodina

The piece is called From the Future World and the composer is AIVA, an acronym for Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist, an algorithm that went live in early 2016 and already has two albums and more than 70 short compositions to its credit. AIVA learned by reading large volumes of scores (to date, about 30,000 by classical composers) and now writes its own. AIVAʼs creators envision it being used mostly for film soundtracks, video games and commercials, but both the Brussels Philharmonic and Philharmonie Luxembourg have also offered samplings of its classical forays.

From the Future World is based on an unfinished sketch by Dvořák and AIVA certainly did its homework. PKF played the third movement, which in five minutes offers a short string of pleasant melodies and at least two direct quotes from the composerʼs “New World” Symphony (no. 9). In sum, though, it was like listening to Dvořák-lite – unmistakably in the same vein, but absent the emotional depth and inventive richness that characterize his work. Despite lyrical treatment by conductor Emmanuel Villaume, the piece always seemed on the verge of getting to the real Dvořák but never arriving – which was comforting. Inspiration remains a human attribute, at least for now.

To make the cyber music go down easy, the program sandwiched it between two appetizers, Stravinskyʼs Circus Polka and Debussyʼs orchestral arrangement of Satieʼs most famous piano miniature, Lent et Grave. Villaume had fun with the polka and handled the miniature like a lush reverie, building up an air of excitement and then returning the audience to a familiar, soothing space. An uptempo, brass-heavy finale of Mussorgskyʼs Pictures at an Exhibition sent everyone home happy.

The ballast was in the first half of the concert, which opened with Mozartʼs Symphony no. 37, most of which was actually written by Michael Haydn, a collaborator who received due credit in the program. This music is in the orchestraʼs DNA and it plays it as well as any ensemble in Central Europe. The tone is bright and the sound is golden, especially in the strings, which are seductive in their heartfelt blend of technique and expression. Villaumeʼs brisk baton added effervescence to a nimble, animated performance.

The centerpiece of the evening was Brittenʼs Les Illuminations, featuring the remarkable young tenor Petr Nekoranec. Gifted with a warm, mellifluous voice that makes him a natural for the Italian operatic repertoire, Nekoranec stretched himself a bit with this demanding setting of Rimbaud poems, which almost defy interpretation (how does one portray “old craters circled by colossi, and palm trees of copper roaring melodiously in flames”?). Nekoranec responded with tight control and a mostly dark, serious mien, adding only an occasional touch of vibrato. Much of the vocal part in Illuminations is in the high end, which is not Nekoranecʼs strength. But once he became fully immersed in the piece, his voice soared and Villaume, an experienced opera conductor, provided shimmering support.

Beyond the music, there was a thoughtful symbolism to the evening. Whatever its strengths and weaknesses, From the Future World represents a bridge from the proud tradition of Czech music to whatever lies ahead, not just for PKF but the entire classical world. AI will never replace Dvořák, much less Mozart or Beethoven. But these first baby steps showed it to be a toddler with potential.

****1