Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Oldrich Korte's Magic Lantern Music

In the heart of Prague sits a shimmering brass cube, and the cube is heart of Laterna Magika, arguably the most internationally important experimental theatrical organization in the word.  Founded in the wake of World War II, Laterna Magika's plays are entirely nonverbal, relying on pure incident and symbolism to tell their stories, and as such they've been able to tour worldwide without having to change their productions for language barriers and are a staple of the tourist scene in Prague.  Among its founding artists was Oldrich Korte, a man who survived being tossed in a concentration camp and whose career only rose from there.  That life arc - holocaust survivor co-founds the most famous experimental theater in the world - is so amazing that I want it etched onto my tombstone Royal Tenenbaums style along with my daring submarine rescues.  Heck, gaining any kind of wide reputation as a post-WWII Czech composer was hard enough if you still lived in the Homeland - Czechoslovakia was behind the Iron Curtain and as such the arts was regulated by a Stalin-influenced state.  I've actually seen works by a large number of postwar Czech composers and let me tell you, the environment is a very far cry from the Avant-Garde.  

While I can't say that Korte's music is Avant-Garde per se, it is quite distinctive, as Korte was a non-conformist through and through and his music reflects both a wise wordliness and a love of congenial clarity.  His music is fairly accessible for the time but is finely crafted and crosses genres only in the way that a mind unconcerned with musical fashions could produce.

His first major work is the Sinfonietta for large orchestra which, while inspired by the Neo-Classicism of the previous decades (such as Martinu's symphonies, especially so considering Korte also uses the piano to punch-up symphonic textures) is displays a naturally individual harmonic imagination and great formal prowess.  Rather than locking himself into one mode Korte uses different harmonic techniques to fit mood and flow, crunching through dissonances at the start and tossing in fanfaring quartal stacks and jazzy asides when it's the most gripping.  There's plenty of drama and excitement to be had and the instrumentalists are having a ball, and the more times I listen to the piece the more I wished I could hear someone like the Seattle Symphony *COUGH*WINK*NUDGE*HINT-O'-CLOCK*COUGH perform it live.  Unusually for a Sinfonietta Korte's Sinfonietta is neither particularly short, easy or written for reduced orchestration as the name implies.  In that same spirit, here's a sonata with only two movements:

The Sonata for Piano is Korte's real breakout piece and remains his most popular, getting a bunch of recordings across the 60+ years of its existence.  The moods and tricks range from happy outdoor jaunting to Bach-throwback arpeggio pileups and gravely hallowed chorales, each new idea more surprising than the last but combining to a satisfying whole as they're weaved together and re-keyed.  It's also nice that Korte can use the extreme parts of the keyboard with real grace, as the register plummets to the basement at the start of the second movement:

The monolithic, sad opening leads ominously into a closing "quasi fugato" section, and quasi is right as while there is a subject that gets repeated quite a bit there's little imitative counterpoint to be found and most certainly none of the traditional fugue structure - the section is more akin to a jig than anything else, what with its 6/8 meter and dancing pulse.  That applause left in at the end is quite appropriate, as the Sonata is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser without being condescending, a feat that you'd think would be more common but usually takes a lot of sifting to see.

If there ever was a concert forebear to Korte's work with Laterna Magika The Story of the Flutes would be it.  A "symphonic drama", Flutes is a piece of pure musical storytelling with two flute soloists starring against a symphonic backdrop.  Double concertos are uncommon for a good reason, and concertante solo parts of purposefully difficult to learn and getting two people to devote months to learning a concerto and get them in the same room at the same time is pretty tricky.  Unlike most concertos, the solo parts of Story of the Flutes aren't show-off pieces but rather lyric characters, playing off each other in conversation rather than shouting matches.  The story has light and darkness as any good story does but lacks everything else in terms of traditional narrative, laying gesture and arc bare.  It's also an interesting forebear to the works of Lutoslawski that I can't stop mentioning, especially his Cello Concerto, wherein a nervous, twitching soloist is on the run from the orchestra's cataclysmic witch hunt.  It's a grand idea with a wonderful payoff and I'm a bit peeved that nobody seems to have tried it since.  Except Korte, that is.

Written some 20 years after his breakout pieces, Philosophical Dialogues for violin and piano has a similar aim to The Story of the Flutes but on a much smaller scale and with more emphasis on miniaturism.  It's important to note that Korte's language didn't get much more dissonant or Avant-Garde even into the 70's, a decade mostly in a bet with itself to see how many Just Folk it could alienate (even in Eastern Bloc countries at that point).

The dialogues are broadly conceived and built to please, and once again help the cause of drama without language, this time explicitly stating that the music is the language.  As I was writing this I realized that another Czechoslovakian composer, Juraj Filas, had come to my attention in a similar form.  When I finally chose which college to go to for my undergraduate studies (University of Puget Sound) I attended a trumpet recital by Judson Scott, it's trumpet professor, and he performed Filas's A Very Short Love Story.  The Story was just as congenial as anything Korte wrote, though a bit less memorable, and was exactly within the "wordless musical drama" genre that I hadn't defined until now.  Full circle or just article-writing convenience?  With music this likable, who cares?

Korte's music is above all very, very likable, and even more likable because of its fine craftsmanship, variety and memorability.  I've always admired composers who found non-insulting solutions to composing under Stalinist artistic programs and Korte passes that test with ease and a wry smile.  It's nice that as we come into summer I can get the chance to spotlight a crowd-pleaser like Korte, even if the weather in the greater Seattle area right now is overcast and very wet.  As a cheap segue to the end, here's my consideration of my desire for sunny weather tempered with an overcast reality as illustrated by the last Dialogue, "Between Happiness and Truth".


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