Berg Orchestra experiments with form and setting of contemporary music

Berg Orchestra, photo: archive of Berg Orchestra

For many lovers of classical music, the Czech Republic is the land of Dvořák and Smetana. Fans of more modern music may know Leoš Janáček or Bohuslav Martinů. It may seem, though, that for the past fifty or so years, creation of and even interest in orchestral music has all but died out in this country.

Berg Orchestra,  photo: archive of Berg Orchestra
The Prague-based Berg Orchestra is trying to change this by offering the public a unique approach to contemporary music, experimenting with form and setting, supporting young composers and developing musical tastes of the youngest possible audience members.

Conductor Peter Vrábel founded Berg in 1995, but it took some time for the idea of trying something new to develop into a full-fledged and respected musical ensemble:

“We first came together with professor [Václav] Riedlbauch and with my friend Petr Budina, and our first goal was not really to found an orchestra. We wanted to get involved in new projects, play new music that was around then. We first just went from one concert to the next, and only later did the orchestra that exists now come into being.”

Today, it is a recognized Prague orchestra that approaches every season with new energy and curiosity. The Berg Orchestra team experiments not only with the music - most of which is new - but also with the context it appears in. Besides performances in traditional concert halls, Berg plays in museums or on theater stages, in churches and synagogues, accompanying sometimes screenings of silent films, sometimes dance performances or exhibits.

The main goals for the artistic and organizational staff are to advance contemporary musical composition in the Czech Republic, and also to attract a wider audience for this type of music. The orchestra’s director Eva Kesslová says choosing the spaces for the performances is an important part of their work:

‘M is for…’,  photo: Pavel Hejný
“We choose the spaces according to the program, but also sometimes we choose the space and then try to figure out what would the best program for it. This is one of our assets. We try to present interesting spaces so that people feel the need to come. Within a single season, every concert is held at a different space.”

Orchestra Berg goes the extra mile to make both the music and space come alive for their audience. Eva added:

“We also offer accompanying events. For example, if we have a concert in a non-traditional space, we offer an architectural guided tour or workshops with the composers. For example, if there is an untraditional instrument. So we try to make the evening an outstanding event.”

Many of the performances are premiers of Czech and foreign contemporary music. Peter Vrábel Instead of simply commissioning a composition, often first thinks of a project or a setting that the piece would appear in. This was the case, for example, with the project ‘M is for…’, where the orchestra worked closely with the popular contemporary dance troupe 420PEOPLE. Here is how it came about, says Peter Vrábel:

“We like working with dancers and other groups of actors or visual artists. I came up with the idea for this show after seeing a performance by 420PEOPLE. So we worked on the idea for a project with Nataša Novotná and Václav Kuneš. I then began thinking which composer would be good for this. Choosing Jan Trojan was completely instinctual. And I think the combination worked perfectly.”

Peter Vrábel,  photo: Karel Šuster
The performance involves not only the combination of the music and dance, but also the musicians themselves. Mr Vrabel continued:

“One of the things that I wanted was for the musicians to be more involved in the dance, or the movements. So Jan actually composed the music from the beginning in such a way that the musicians would be able to move from one place to another and would not get lost in the score. Of course they knew that their movements aren’t dance, but Nataša, the choregrapher, worked with them to find the types of movements that would look natural.”

In addition to featuring new works by young Czech composers throughout the year, a few years ago the orchestra decided to give their work additional promotion. Six years ago they began a competition called NUBERG that presents seven or eight premiers that the orchestra played during the preceding season. The public is then given a chance to listen to all of the pieces online and in a public space and vote on their favorite one. Though Eva Kesslová says the competition itself is not necessary the main point:

“We understand this not simply as a competition as such, but also as a promotion of new music. I feel that it is very important in the Czech Republic where contemporary music is not that popular, because people don’t know it very well.”

The winners of the 2012 NUBERG competition were announced last week. Petr Wajsar won both the public award and the main jury prize for his piece ‘8 Sentences on Fans’. Eva Kesslová says that NUBERG is also an opportunity for the Berg Orchestra to work more closely with school children.

Eva Kesslová,  photo: archive of Eva Kesslová
“We contact their teachers and offer them special kind of ‘cookbooks’ that help them work with those particular pieces in their classrooms. We offer them ideas on what to do with the children – there are games, there are interesting facts about the new works. We give them voting ballots for the children and encourage them to react to all the works and the competition.”

This year, one group of students even send in a video with their own music piece, created as a response to one of the competing compositions. NUBERG even introduced a special Youth Prize this year, for the piece that was most popular among the children voters. Jan Dušek’s music accompanying a silent film Ost und West became its first recipient. Works of this year’s two winners will be performed at the season opening on 13 March at the Lichtenstein Palace in Prague.

Of course, listening to the works performed by the Berg Orchestra and talking to its enthusiastic members it’s easy to be completely engulfed by the world of contemporary music. But the reality is that this type of art still seems exotic and almost inapproachable to many people. Eva Kesslová thinks that the approach to contemporary music is changing in this country, though the progress may be slow.

“I would say, it’s getting better. When we first started presenting new music to Czech audiences, we were rather exotic. Today there are more groups, mostly chamber groups. Contemporary music is still scarce on Czech stages, but I have big hopes for the future. Out concerts are always full and people react in a wonderful way. So I think it is mainly the fear that they won’t understand the music that hinders many people from listening to contemporary music.”

Berg Orchestra,  photo: archive of Berg Orchestra
If you are of those people, you can give it a try with the Berg Orchestra this year, for example at a concert for an original new instrument raketon at the DOX contemporary art gallery April, or at a dance and musical performance entitled labyrinths that will take a the faculty of architecture in September. There are also many other performances in between, the main thing is to give it a chance.

You can find more information about Berg Orchestra at

The episode featured today was first broadcast on February 26, 2013.