Wednesday, March 14, 2011: Music Can/Should Provoke…


The Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK) tackles the emotion-packed Vocal Symphony by Vladimír Sommer

When Music Can (Should) Provoke

Few concerts have been as provocative as the Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK) rendition of Vladimír Sommer’s 1958 Vocal Symphony for Mezzosoprano, Narrator, Choir and Orchestra performed Mar 8 at the Municipal House. In fact, in her Opus Osm article Mar 1 about the piece, Hana Škrdlová explains Sommer’s mostly politically-commissioned works are classified as “some of the most weighty” written by Czechs after 1945.

The concert began with Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain as a dramatic prelude to the evening.

Then Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in C Minor, Opus 37, performed by Martin Kasík, served nicely as a respite from the vigor of the previous piece.

And then all hell broke loose, musically speaking.

Whereas the previous two pieces left the visual imagery up to the listener, the Vocal Symphony leaves no doubt as to its tortured devices. Critics describe this piece’s dominant feature as “extreme emotions.” Indeed. The orchestra saws through the cacophony of Sommer’s score, with the deep, womanly voice of mezzo-soprano Dagmar Pecková adding flavorful darkness.

Then the Narrator, for this performance, director/actor Jan Kačer, starts his story in an inescapably loud and manly voice, creating the visual landscape to underscore the music. His words are punctuated and emphasized to the extreme by outbursts of song from the Prague Philharmonic Choir — meant to represent the taunting of a drunken crowd.

The Narrator tells a powerful tale of a boy witnessing a horrible act of cruelty against a helpless enslaved animal. Even stripped of its Communist-era context, it remains foreboding and effectively grim.

Opus Osm SommerAlthough the imagery is dated, as we do not use horses and wagons anymore, the message transcends the scenery. Whipped from all sides, the creature’s pathetic attempts to pull an overloaded wagon clearly beyond its capabilities, and the cruelty of the onlookers is disgustingly engaging and forces deeper reflection.

Without a state apparatus telling us who the mare and its drunken assailants represent, the audience is left to wonder which end of the whip is theirs in the metaphor, which makes it no less horrifying.

The music is a disturbing, in-your-face portrayal of the darker elements of human nature. There is nothing to do but shudder as the anguished drama pummels forth as music, song, and speech overwhelm the senses on several levels. After the Narrator completes his depressing narrative, the deep voice sings, repeating again and again the question: Why did they beat the mare to death?

Yes, a horse is beaten to death figuratively for the purposes of introspection and evaluation. At the concert the piece did not go on long enough to have been beating a dead horse itself. But it had its desired effect: at the end, the audience shuffled out quietly in a somber mood. — oo

– Frank Trollman and Hana Škrdlová Trollman

Photo Credits: Top: Frank Trollman; bottom: BigFoto

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