with Lukáš Olejník
The Czech new music ensemble Konvergence made a stop in Cambridge’s Inman Square on Sunday night as part of its U.S. debut tour, piling into the Lilypad’s bohemian storefront space with Czech, German, and American pieces that mostly derived from the sparser and gentler wing of the avant-garde. The concerted works seemed to connect and build on one another for an experience greater than the sum of its parts.
The comparatively well-known opener, The Viola in my Life 3 by Morton Feldman (1970), struggled to hold interest with its slowly pulsing piano chords and sustained viola tones. Because the piece limits itself to very few notes, every utterance arrives in the guise of aphoristic profundity. But slowly suspicion builds that there is really nothing under the musical surface and by the end the lack of any substrate or contrast confirms that the piece is as bare in its expression as it is in its soundscape. Violist Ondřej Štochl and pianist Eva Hutyrová performed ably, but didn’t quite achieve the hypnotic effect that might have added an extra dimension. Nonetheless, the piece established the aesthetic of the evening and provided a neutral beginning from which the other works emerged.
Hubert Ho, a Boston composer who teaches at Northeastern University, previously completed a Fulbright fellowship in Prague, and brought Konvergence to the Lilypad in the first place. His Injection Refraction No. 3, scored for solo piano, seemed to pick up where the Feldman left off, but benefited from a quicker tempo and greater rhythmic variety. Hutyrová used the piano’s middle pedal to silently raise the dampers on certain strings which then vibrated sympathetically with punchy syncopated chords. Like the Feldman, this is basically a one-idea piece, but it gained depth from its use of foreground and background, and it had a clear development from start to finish. Its slightly more varied dynamic range also gave the pianist a chance to execute a variety of attacks on the keys, as opposed to Feldman’s piece in which dynamics and articulations were uniform and flat.
Following the two American offerings, Konvergence presented the first Czech work of the evening: Mountains, Meadows, Cows by Michaela Plachká, who was in attendance. Scored for clarinet, viola, classical guitar, and piano, it had the feel of a collage with lots of competing elements and colorful instrumental techniques, including a bowed guitar, yielding an overall was rather dreamy affect—not quite fantasy or nightmare—but disjointed and illogical, like much of what goes on in our sleep. The composer’s program notes explain that she was inspired by alpine countryside and that something of the “fresh feelings of being alive … is hidden in this composition. There is something to this, but it would take a second hearing to unravel.
Things took a less pleasant turn with the next work, Dal niente for solo clarinet (1970) by Helmut Lachenmann, an established German composer. The problem with Lachenmann is that his music tends to be kind of funny, yet you get the sense that the composer probably doesn’t laugh very much. In this case, the piece begins with the clarinet mumbling indistinctly below a whisper. Pretty soon loud notes start to crack out from time to time interspersed with more mumbling and occasional passages of white noise and gasping sounds. Altogether the piece sounds like a shortwave radio stuck between stations. Clarinetist Jiři Mránz (capped with a fedora that was otherwise inexplicably perched on a mannequin head) delivered the most technically impressive performance of the evening, but that didn’t suffice to produce enjoyment or edifyication.
After intermission, we heard Tomáš Pálka’s Simple Silence for clarinet, viola, and piano. Of all the ensemble works, this proved to be the most conventional in terms of the arrangement and interactions of the instruments. Harmonically and gesturally the piece was indebted to Olivier Messiaen but it also pleasantly echoed the earlier offerings from Feldman, Ho, and Plachká.
Next Tomas Hanzlicek played the Boston composer Chao Jan Chang’s solos guitar piece, The Flying Eastman, a lovely but discursive work in two movements: the first called “Messenger, Traveling through Time and Space” and the second aptly titled “Song of the Wanderer.” Written in a grounded tonal language, it provided a nice contrast to the other works without breaking the generally meditative aesthetic of the program. Unfortunately this was also the only weak performance of the evening; Tuláček sounded unsteady.
The night’s final work was Notturno Fragile by Ondřej Štochl, also Konvergence’s violist. All four performers took up antiphonal stations around the Lilypad’s space — piano to front, guitar to back, clarinet to the far left, and viola to the right. This turned out to be the piece most firmly rooted in the European spectral school as it drew focus to the nuances of the tones themselves.
Konvergence doesn’t claim to be representative of contemporary Czech music in general (the quiet spaciousness of its repertoire is unusual), but it has a strong identity for moderately avant-garde tastes and an interest in unusual but approachable sounds. The individual players bring a shared, coherent vision to their projects without making too much fuss over themselves; that in itself made for a satisfying evening.