What will classical music sound like 100 years from now? Thereʼs no way to know, obviously – imagine Puccini or even Berg trying to project the sounds of 21st-century opera. But with electricity now soundly in the mix, PKF – Prague Philharmoniaʼs staging of new site-specific works at the functionalist Veletržní palác (Trade Fair Palace) offered a smart, scintillating guesstimate.

Baritone sax player Miro Tóth and composer Jan Trojan © Milan Mosna | Václav Hodina
Baritone sax player Miro Tóth and composer Jan Trojan
© Milan Mosna | Václav Hodina

In a city with five working symphony orchestras, PKF distinguishes itself by being young, versatile, technically sharp and, on the administrative side, maintaining a full range of musical offerings. Along with a standard season of orchestral concerts, it offers a chamber music series, educational programming, an academy for aspiring players and a high-end “Donorsʼ Series” of concerts at sumptuous Lobkowicz Palace. Then there is its boldest venture: Krása dneška (The Beauty of Today), an uncompromising contemporary music series that typically draws small but devoted audiences.

In observance of the Czech Republicʼs 100th anniversary, this seasonʼs Krása dneška series was divided into historical slices. Starting with 1918, the programs looked at contemporary music from different periods throughout the 20th century, juxtaposing Czech composers like Leoš Janáček, Pavel Haas and Miroslav Kabeláč with international names like Henry Cowell, Luigi Nono and Arvo Pärt. For the final concert, three of the countryʼs most talented young composers were asked to write their “visions” of 22nd-century music. The composers were also invited to join the performance by a chamber ensemble from the orchestra and the Clarinet Factory, a Prague-based crossover quartet that blithely blends classical, jazz and world music. 

The PKF chamber ensemble playing the psychedelic glow © Milan Mosna | Václav Hodina
The PKF chamber ensemble playing the psychedelic glow
© Milan Mosna | Václav Hodina

The setting was perfect. Long ago Veletržní palác shed its commercial origins to become part of the National Gallery Prague, which comprises six separate museums. Veletržní palác is used to show modern and contemporary art, along with oversized exhibitions like Muchaʼs “Slav Epic,” a set of 20 monumental paintings. The vast interior spaces include a misnamed “small hall” that is in effect a giant atrium, soaring seven stories with exterior walkways done in sleek, space-age style. In short, it offers the perfect atmosphere and plenty of space for both music and flights of fantasy to take wing. 

Conductor Marko Ivanović stitched together all seven pieces on the program into a continuous sonic excursion, marked by changes of players, texture and tone. The sounds ranged from slashing foundations from the strings and woodwinds to screaming electronics swooping around the room to blistering solos from a wandering baritone sax player. And the composers were more than accessories. Petr Wajsar led the performance of his two pieces from the theremin, Jan Trojan added effects throughout like feedback from a microphone, and Tomáš Reindl was an absolute wizard with the unlikely combination of computer electronics, beatbox and tabla. The latter highlights the Eastern influence in his music, but with his two pieces anchored by steady beats, he turned in what could have been a rockinʼ night at a dance club.

Clarinet Factory © Milan Mosna | Václav Hodina
Clarinet Factory
© Milan Mosna | Václav Hodina

In an inspired integration of site and sound, the Clarinet Factory dropped into the middle of the first song on a large glass elevator. Awash in neon red, the elevator descended from the top floor and deposited the quartet on their perch behind the orchestra, where they served up minimalist accompaniment, lyrical interludes and polyphonic interplay. The last two pieces on the program were their own works, done in a free jazz style that provided a rousing coda as they returned to the elevator and kept playing while it ascended to the top floor.

Adding another dimension to the evening, towering visual projections filled the walls flanking the orchestra with kaleidoscopic colors, sometimes in patterns like giant quilts, other times in brilliant psychedelia. The sheer scale made the effect mesmerizing, and with the seating supplemented by a generous supply of couches and lounge chairs, the temptation to lie back and let the waves of sound and light wash over you was irresistible. 

It takes imagination and skill to make an event like this work, not to mention a solid base of local composers. Prague is fortunate to have a surfeit of first-rate compositional talent – and in PKF, an organization willing to take risks. This one paid off handsomely.

*****