Prehistoric New Music – Notes on a New Piece by Kryštof Mařatka
Written by Lukáš Olejník
The first Prague Spring International Music Festival was held nearly 70 years ago, under the patronage of the second president of Czechoslovakia, Edvard Beneš. The project was initiated by Rafael Kubelík, conductor of the Prague Philharmonic, which that year was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.
The festival has since become a permanent showcase for outstanding performing artists, symphonic orchestras and chamber music ensembles from around the world. The list of musicians who appeared on the festival’s stage includes Karel Ančerl, Leonard Bernstein, David Oistrakh, Sviatoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich, Herbert von Karajan, Leopold Stokowski, Arthur Honegger among many others of equal renown.
This past year (2013) the Prague Spring Festival has shown a particular inclination to feature contemporary music, more so than it has in previous seasons. Several striking examples were the performances by the Ensemble Intercontemporain on May 19, the Stamic Quartet and the Prague Wind Quintet on May 21 and Ostravská banda (with New York City– based Prague native Petr Kotík conducting) on May 31. But the most significant example of this trend was the Czech premiere of Vábení, a composition by the Paris-based Czech composer Kryštof Mařatka.
Vábení is part of a tryptich of compositions inspired by prehistoric art and was written between 2009 and 2011. The work received its premiere on November 19, 2012, at the Tansman International Festival in Lodz, Poland, when it was performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Mařatka’s direction. It was also performed in March of this year in Toronto. Its subtitle is “Ritual of Prehistoric Fossils of Man” and it is dedicated to the late Václav Havel.
Regarding the spirit behind the composition of Vábení, Mařatka told Radio France earlier last year: “I regard prehistoric creations with a great deal of respect. What fascinates me is that we ask ourselves the same questions about existence [as did prehistoric man]. We have absolutely no right to say that we are better. Of course, we leave traces when we create. It’s one way to go beyond the idea of death.“
Compared to his festival debut, in 2003, during which he conducted the Prague Symphonic Orchestra, with soloist Michel Lethiec, in a performance of his clarinet concerto, Mařatka this time returned with a larger, almost monumental piece. Vábení is approximately 50 minutes in duration, in six movements scored for for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, three slide whistles, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contra-bassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, orchestral strings and mixed chorus.
The work’s generosity of proportions as well as its orchestration reflect its deep purpose, to create a synthesis. According to Mařatka, “Vábení is the third part of a cycle, in a form of synthesis, and recapitulates the two conceptions from the previous parts of the cycle.”
In his program notes to the piece, he describes these concepts as follows: “At the heart of the triptych resides an experience of incredible beauty [and] of authentic expressions facing existence and which are freed from the temporal significance of the concept of beauty of any given civilization. And this absolute freedom is precisely the key to Vábení. Vábení is the third part of the trilogy, freely drawing its inspiration from prehistoric art — a trilogy which became a kind of ‘Symphony from the Old World’ whose first part is Otisk, for symphony orchestra; the second, Zvěrohra, for soprano and orchestra; and the third Vábení, for choir and orchestra.”
The piece was performed on May 14 in the Rudolfinum’s Dvořák Hall in Prague by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, under the direction of Peter Oundjian, and the Choeur de Radio France. Also on the program was Ravel’s “Bolero” and the Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33, by Camille Saint-Saëns.
Mařatka was born in Prague in 1972 and studied at the Prague Conservatory with Bohuslav Řehoř and Petr Eben. He moved to France in 1994, with the help of a grant from the French Institute in Prague, and tells the Prague Post that he regards himself as “a Czech composer living in Paris.”
Asked if his nearly two decades of living abroad have changed his relationship with his homeland, he replies that it has not.
“I never felt like an immigrant because I didn’t decide to live in Paris out of political protest or some other dissatisfaction,” he explains. “I see myself instead as a migrant on the move.”
He says that he returns to the Czech capital fairly often, about every two months, to conduct various orchestras and ensembles, particularly the Talich Chamber Philharmonic and the innovative Berg Orchestra. He is married to the French violist and artistic director of the prestigious Ensemble Calliopée, Karine Lethiec.
The 68th Prague Spring Festival ran from May 12 to June 2, 2013.