Making a living as a modern music ensemble is tough in Prague, a city with a deep music culture firmly rooted in the past. The exception is the Berg Orchestra, a smart, creative chamber group led by Slovak conductor Peter Vrábel now in its 15th season. Given a prominent slot in this year's Prague Spring festival, the orchestra rose to the occasion with a razor-sharp performance of Heiner Goebbels’ Songs of Wars I Have Seen.
The text is taken from Gertrude Stein’s “Wars I Have Seen,” a memoir of the author’s experiences living in occupied France during World War II. Goebbels was attracted to the material because of Stein’s view of the cyclical nature of war and the gap she elucidates between public and private life during wartime, tending to mundane daily chores while bombs rain down on Italy. Setting sections of that to music resulted in what Goebbels describes as “something in between a concert, theater and reading a book.”
The unusual blend of early and modern instruments is required for a wildly eclectic score. Stein refers to the prominent role of wars in Shakespeare’s plays, so Goebbels includes music that 17th-century composer Matthew Locke wrote for The Tempest. He creates compelling textures and atmospherics with electronic sound effects ranging from crackling static and hums to low drones that might be distant airplanes. The instrumental passages can turn in an instant from neoclassical to progressive jazz. And because Goebbels prefers non-actors reading his texts, the women divided their time between speaking and playing their instruments, which included singing bowls in a spiritual close.
The ensemble also did a fine job of articulating and maintaining the tension in the piece. The text deals mostly with mundane matters – food, the neighbors, a chicken run over by a careless truck driver – all of which take on a larger-than-life intensity in the wartime setting. This effect is heightened by the score, which sets the recitations against backdrops of plaintive instrumental solos or electric continuo. And drops in occasional incongruities like a jazz riff on the theorbo. It requires a high degree of musicality, and a versatility that not many specialty ensembles have. The Berg players pulled it all off with aplomb.
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