How often does one see the composer of a symphonic work sitting in with the orchestra on saxophone for the première? This was by no means the most unusual moment of the Ostrava Days New and Experimental Music Festival, which wrapped with a razor-sharp performance by the hometown orchestra, the Janáček Philharmonic. In fact, it was emblematic of the festival, which biennially blends an admixture of musicians, composers, students and eager audiences in a freewheeling, egalitarian atmosphere of modern music-making.

Hana Kotková and Daan Vandewalle play Berg © Martin Popelář
Hana Kotková and Daan Vandewalle play Berg
© Martin Popelář

The composer in question was Alex Mincek, who was a student at the very first Ostrava Days festival in 2001 and returned this year as a composer and instructor. His Pendulum X: “Harmonielehre” is a seriously deep exploration of changing soundscapes that never takes itself too seriously, segueing from meditative tonal clusters to percussive bedlam with deft, mischievous turns of phrase. Unconventional sounds from every section of the orchestra run simultaneously and often in different time signatures, creating a surging, multi-layered momentum. Mincek added some key tones on saxophone that a classical player would be unlikely to hit, more akin to jazz.

His piece was a good fit with Berg’s Kammerkonzert, played with breathtaking precision by a woodwind and horn chamber ensemble from the orchestra and soloists Hana Kotková (violin) and Daan Vandewalle (piano). Conductor Roland Kluttig led a notably warm reading of the piece, taking off some of the harsh edges and, after a cleanly executed, tumultuous run to the conclusion, bringing it in for a remarkably soft, refined finish.

Ondřej Vrabec, taking time off from his duties as a French horn player with the Czech Philharmonic, took the podium for Ligeti’s Double Concerto after intermission, drawing crisp work from the orchestra to complement sharp, smart solos by flutist Daniel Havel and oboist Jan Souček. Kluttig returned for another student piece, Ben Richter’s Rivulose, a sonic exercise that featured sensitive work by pianist Keiko Shichijo. And he led a spirited finale, B. A. Zimmermann’s Nobody Knows de Trouble I See, providing brassy punch for German trumpeter Reinhold Friedrich, who showed that along with early and modern music, he is a master of hot licks.

The blithe mix of student and professional works is one of the iconic elements of Ostrava Days, which opens with a two-week institute at which an international group of young composers in the early stages of their careers get intensive training from the pros. This year’s group of 33 resident-students from 10 different countries (including Iran) spent time with contemporary music luminaries such as Petr Kotík, the founder and artistic director of the festival, Peter Ablinger, Bernhard Lang, Alvin Lucier, Phill Niblock, Rolf Riehm and Jennifer Walshe.

Janáčkova Filharmonie Ostrava © Martin Popelář
Janáčkova Filharmonie Ostrava
© Martin Popelář

Even in such august company, one name among the instructors stood out: George Lewis, an African-American composer and early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians,  an avant-garde collective founded in Chicago in 1965. Lewis turned his history of the AACM, a 690-page book titled A Power Stronger Than Itself, into an opera that had its world première at Ostrava Days this year. A searing account of the black experience in the US from slavery up through the artistic and civil rights struggles of the 1960s, Afterword had a powerful impact on a foreign audience, with the resident Ostravská banda ensemble making a complicated score sound fluid and nuanced, and American singers Joelle LaMarre, Gwendolyn Brown and Julian Terrell Otis providing soulful vocals.

Ostrava Days takes full advantage of its setting, a gritty industrial town in northern Moravia that proudly embraces its heritage, refurbishing abandoned factories and coal mines and turning them into tourist attractions. The festival opened with a concert for three orchestras at Trojhalí Karolina, a restored industrial complex the size of a soccer pitch. The remainder of the schedule offered a rich mix of orchestral concerts, chamber music performances, recitals and special events like a mini-marathon of electronic music, installations and late-night jam sessions.

Improvisation in Hlubina © Martin Popelář
Improvisation in Hlubina
© Martin Popelář

As always, the unpredictable was routine. At Hlubina Coal Mine, two vocalists sang while percussionists pounded on their backs, changing the sound of their voices. A program of student works at Janáček Conservatory included an electronically wired piano playing itself and a 14-minute trombone solo of growls, snorts and blaring sonics played with panache by William Lang.

When Ostrava Days began 14 years ago, the idea of staging a sophisticated music festival in an industrial backwater seemed dubious at best. Kotík and his hard-working team have proved not only that the idea had merit and unexpected potential, but that audiences will turn out for even the most challenging contemporary music if it’s presented with imagination and flair. And, as the festival demonstrated once again this year, have a lot of fun in the process.