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[[ April 24, 2002, New York City ]]
The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble
Flutist and composer Petr Kotik came to New York from Prague three decades ago, conservatory-trained and with a strong interest in the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, and John Cage. Now, as founder and conductor of the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, he is a man with a contemporary music mission. New music, he insists, "is a different animal."
The Orchestra's first major performance was at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1992, where Kotik conducted the first full performance of John Cage's 'Atlas Eclipticalis' with pianist David Tudor performing publicly for the first time in 20 years. "Everyone thought I'm a complete a nut," Kotik remembers. Nevertheless, the performance was a great success, and the experience, he says, completely changed his attitude about music. "I had to admit all my life up to that point, I had never been interested in an orchestra or in conducting. I thought that the whole idea of the orchestra was dead." But, he continues, "Conducting that piece for two hours did something to me."
Among the composers whose works the orchestra has performed under Kotik's baton over the years are Alvin Lucier, Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, and Pauline Oliveros.
"In order to do conventional music all your life, you have to be deficient in some way," says Kotik. But then he offers this provocative statement: "Music by Cage, my own music, or Feldman -- they're really no different than Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, or Wagner ... the score, even though it gives you choices, is no less exact than a score by Mozart."
He underscores his opinion by reminding me of his strong background in traditional Western music. "I had to prove that I can do Mozart and Bach better than anybody else in order to be left alone," he recalls of his days as a conservatory student in Czechoslovakia. "Otherwise, I would be branded as some jerk who does this nonsense because he cannot do the rest of it."
Today, at age 60, having studied, performed, and immersed himself in traditional and new music, he chooses to embrace both. He leads the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble with a balanced hand, as will be exhibited at the upcoming New York City concert at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall on April 24. The program is clearly dominated by two new large scale works: the world premiere of Kotik's hour-long 'Music in Two Movements' (which has been four years in the making; he calls it "Mahlerian"); and the U.S. premiere of Japanese composer Somei Satoh's largest work to date: 'Kyokoku' (The Valley), for baritone and orchestra, performed by and dedicated to preeminent new music vocalist Thomas Buckner.
The ensemble also dips into the early 20th century with Josef Suk's 1914 'Meditation on the Choral St. Venceslav', and back further still to the overture from Jean-Philippe Rameau's 1748 opera 'Naïs', which celebrated the end of the war of the Austrian succession. (Incidentally, Voltaire wrote the libretto and insisted his fee be given to the composer. "Rameau's fortune is so inferior to his talents," wrote Voltaire, "that it is fair the fee be entirely his.")
So what does S.E.M. stand for? "Nothing," Kotik says, launching into a commentary about the meaninglessness of names -- something on the order of the "what's in a name?" soliloquy from 'Romeo and Juliet'. But, if you must know, it simply comes from the middle of the word "ensemble".