You call that music? 

Granted, itʼs not what most people go to Prague Spring to hear. But modern music occupies a significant slot in a festival that skillfully traverses four centuries in three weeks, this year ranging from Monteverdi to spanking-new commissions. And for open minds and ears, a visit by Klangforum Wien offered an outstanding opportunity to push boundaries and perceptions and hear one of Europeʼs premier contemporary music ensembles. 

Along with a high level of musicianship, the players bring a passion for their art to the stage. The group comprises 24 musicians from ten different countries who think of themselves as a collective with a mission: “A force to improve the world.” That would be easy to dismiss as grandiose were it not for a considerable set of accomplishments since the ensemble was founded in 1985: some 500 premières of new works, more than 70 CDs, and 2,000-plus appearances at concert halls throughout Europe, the Americas and Japan. In performance the group is indeed a force, playing with an intensity and focus that makes every piece a riveting foray into unexplored territory.

Even the space felt unexplored in this performance, a raw basement theatre with the ambience of a warehouse. Dutch violinist and conductor Bas Wiegers took the podium and opened with Speicher I, a colorful, complex work by German composer Enno Poppe. It starts with seemingly random groans and musical squiggles that grow into a multi-layered dash through an array of sounds and styles, with chirpy melodic interludes bumping up against sudden outbursts of brass and percussion. The music is highly descriptive, like a cartoon soundtrack – which is a compliment. It is no small feat to write a score packed with so many smart, sharp turns of phrase, much less play it with the precision and verve the ensemble showed.

Prague Spring commissioned the centerpiece, an imaginative new work by Czech composer Luboš Mrkvička, who studied with David Sawer at the Royal College of Music in London. For Large Ensemble, Part D is an audacious creation that sounds like the composer cut up three or four standard symphonies into small pieces, put them in a box, shook them up and then transcribed them in whatever order they spilled out. In effect it’s a deconstruction, made even more disconcerting by an underpinning of descending scales that add a powerful sense of vertigo. Brash, unpredictable, at times bordering on humorous, it built to an irresistible momentum that took listeners on an engaging if often bewildering ride. 

Both Poppe (born 1969) and Mrkvička (born 1978) are from roughly the same generation, one that grew up with electronics as part of the contemporary soundscape. So it wasn’t surprising to hear that element in their vocabulary – though achieved in this case without any actual electronics. Some of Poppe’s string squiggles sounded very much like tape loops, while the quick cuts and random collisions in Mrkvička’s piece were like an extended exercise in classical sampling. Juxtaposed, the two works offered a vivid and entertaining demonstration of how malleable musical borders can be.

To close, the ensemble returned to a work written for it by a longtime collaborator, Austrian composer and provocateur Bernhard Lang, perhaps best-known for his opera I Hate Mozart. It would be hard to top the description the composer himself offered for Monadologie XII, which he “monadically atomised with the help of cellular automata and granulators.” It calls for a smaller ensemble fronted by trumpet, clarinet and saxophone soloists to play in fits and starts, with phrases tumbling and repeating like broken wind-up toys. Eventually the soloists take over the piece with extended tonal riffs and exchanges that owe a lot more to Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman than any classical influences. 

Another nice feature of modern music concerts is that the composers are often in attendance. Both Lang and Mrkvička were at this one, and offered an interesting contrast. After his piece Lang leaped onstage with the players, greeted them all with handshakes and hugs, and took big bows like he was a member of the ensemble. Mrkvička stepped up just long enough to thank the conductor and band and accept an armful of flowers before retreating to his seat. He had to be coaxed back onstage for a real bow, with Wiegers holding his arm so he couldn’t run off again. Modesty, it seems, works as well as flamboyance when you’re trying to change the world.