The problem with modern music is that it’s difficult to hear done right. Like early music, it calls for a different approach and playing techniques that are not in the standard toolbox of most orchestras. Given conventional treatment, modern music tends to sound like retreads of the same old repertoire. In skilled hands it can be something entirely new, a clean break from tradition, a jolt of fresh ideas. They may not always work, but the invention is invigorating.

Dennis Russell Davies and the Brno Philharmonic
© Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý

It was that spirit, and skill set, that Dennis Russell Davies and the Brno Philharmonic brought to Prague Spring with a formidable double bill: John Adams’ Harmonielehre and Philip Glass’ Symphony no. 12. Modern music fans could hardly have asked for better. Davies is a longtime friend and collaborator of both composers, in particular Glass, with whom he worked on revising the symphony after its 2019 premiere. The result was an illuminating, transportive performance marred only by some minor technical problems.

Even with pop star Angélique Kidjo making a dazzling appearance, Davies was the focal point of the evening, lending cohesion and integrity to music that often seemed to be moving in several directions at once, threatening to fly apart. He conducted like clockwork, with precise, economical movements that were reflected in a carefully articulated, tightly controlled performance. The sound had dimension and depth, not easy to achieve in minimalist music, and great clarity. A steady pulse throughout the Adams and deft handling of rhythm and dynamics in the Glass kept both grounded and engaging.

Dennis Russell Davies, Christian Schmitt, Angélique Kidjo and the Brno Philharmonic
© Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý

Despite its title, Symphony no. 12 is not a standard symphony. It’s a song cycle based on the David Bowie album Lodger, the third in the “Berlin trilogy” that Bowie made with Brian Eno in the late 1970s. Glass drew on the music from the other two albums (Low and Heroes) for his First and Fourth symphonies. This time he wrote entirely new music but retained the lyrics, with Kidjo in mind as the vocalist. In some respects the music is typically Glass – there’s no lack of ostinato cascades of sixteenth notes. Overall, though, it’s as much neoclassical as minimalist, with generous use of color and texture and, as it flies to a finish, rhythms that rock out. Under Davies’ baton the orchestra handled the technical challenges nimbly and played with flair, with stylish contributions from organ soloist Christian Schmitt.

The choice of Kidjo as a vocalist was puzzling. Her part is totally modern – atonal, affectless, more recitative than singing. For someone with a naturally melodic, expressive voice, it’s like an exercise in anti-vocals. Nevertheless, Kidjo gave a commanding performance, smart, sharp and somehow suffused with the Weltschmerz that permeates Bowie’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Unfortunately Kidjo was miked and the orchestra was not, and the sounds did not blend well. Instead of being integrated with the orchestra, her vocals sounded piped in, a tinny electronic addition. While it did not detract from her performance, the audio problem robbed the piece of some impact.

Angélique Kidjo
© Pražské jaro | Ivan Malý

So did the jittery camera work. Most of the Prague Spring broadcasts have been models of polished presentation, but this one was handled like a sports event, with lots of quick cuts and restless panning. That quickly undercut Harmonielehre, a weighty piece that deserves more considered treatment. Davies did a brilliant job creating evocative soundscapes and establishing a flow that pulled the listener smoothly through a very complicated score. The woodwinds set a bright, insistent tone at the top, while underneath the strings swirled and showed shimmering sensitivity in the softer atmospherics.

Now 35 years old, Harmonielehre seems like a bridge between the late Romantic and modern eras, which is also how this concert felt. A Central European orchestra with deep classical roots, an American conductor with a foot in both the traditional and modern worlds, and an African singer who brings fresh flavors offered not just a fine performance, but a sense of musical aspiration, artistic openness and global community – in short, all the things we’ve missed over the past year. Flawed or not, it was gratifying to have them back.

This performance was reviewed from the Prague Spring live video stream