Review: At Rothko Chapel, a composer is haunted by a hero

HOUSTON – The tarps that surround you in the Rothko Chapel here seem at first glance only darkness. Entering the space after nightfall on Saturday, it was dimly lit inside, I tried not to see anything in it.

But even in that still gloom, my eyes gradually adapted to the 14 monumental saturnine paintings, done by Mark Rothko in the late 1960s. Shaded rectangles began to appear, floating above them. dark. Back on Sunday afternoon, gray clouds filter through the skylight, they seem realistically colorful, layered curtains of purple, green, red, blue, brown: a prismatic black . “Dark” both describes them and doesn’t.

However, the word has since been associated with these Rothkos, thus being “quiet” and “frozen” and “free” in the music of Morton Feldman – whose “Rothko Chapel” was commissioned. around the time of the opening of space in 1971 – and Tyshawn Soreyhas “Monochromatic Light (The Afterlife),” written in honor of its 50th anniversarypremieres this weekend.

The surface of the paintings at first glance is perfectly smooth, gradually creating texture, depth, color. And immersing yourself in these seemingly small musical responses also reveals unexpected density, zigzag, color, confrontation, harmony. To say these two pieces are “spare” and “tape” is correct – and incomplete.

Sorey, who has called Feldman his hero, responded to the chapel and its paintings – as well as one of the classics of late 20th century music – bravely, with a small group of people. instruments are almost identical to those of the “Rothko Chapel. His distinction sometimes even strengthens the connection: One of the new elements he introduces – a piano, in addition to Feldman’s celesta – it seems, while adding some tones. rich color, also a nod to Feldman’s piano works such as “Palais de Mari”.

“Rothko Chapel” and “Monochromatic Light,” both spacious yet intimate, share a certain sense of ceremonial wakefulness, with the choir hovering over soft, deep beats percussion deposition. Both feature a solo violinist whose phrases – sometimes pausing, sometimes expressive – exist like a duet. Pairing is more immediate than with an interrogative key-writer; further, more refracted, later echoes the viola in a solo singer, who also sings enigmatic phrases without text and is the only other performer allowed to extend the lyricism.

Both sections open as single movements with no discernible pulse or gauge; The music only pauses occasionally for a moment’s rest, and both composers’ emphasis on the natural decay of sound meant that even those brief pauses seemed to quickly fade away. saturation.

But “Monochromatic Light,” which will be staged by Peter Sellars this fall at Park Avenue Armory, along with panels by another abstractionist, Julie Mehretu, is nearly double the 25-minute length of “Rothko Chapel” “. While Feldman is mostly unknown about his economy, the former is almost fast-paced, its structure compact and clear, by comparison. And Feldman’s sense of ritual – you always have the feeling that his ensemble is standing side by side, facing you and notification fragment – subtly different from Sorey’s, who implies more of a conversation, a circle. Sorey transformed Feldman’s solo vocals, a soprano, into a bass, and what evoked angels became something more medieval – a monk chanting in his monastery. – and more like a human.

Commissioned by the chapel and presentation organization DaCamera, “Monochromatic Light” opens with the slightest vibration of tubular bells, like the carillon heard from miles away, as performers enter space, the choir handles the aisle. The last violinist plays a quiet, glassy penetrating high note, to which the celesta adds another bell-like, candy-like element.

Piano chords linger in the air, periodically replacing the violinist’s soulful prayers. The choir sang dangling, shifting but precise voices. At one point, a perfectly glowing chord, pervading the tenors and basses of the Houston Choir, was cut off by a cluster of sombre tones in piano and celesta. The questions often went unanswered, Sorey seemed to be speaking, and sometimes the answer was no.

It’s also a word that carries the quality that baroque Davóne Tines can’t help but suggest when he pronounces it on the vowel “oh”. But “no” is never the end of this work. Especially with Tines and the extremely eloquent violinist Kim Kashkashian, the two main characters, sharing a solid but airy and captivating melody, the mood of the music is one of burning patience, with a lack of patience at its energetic core.

Saturday evening, under the spotlight, the glitter of the paintings seemed to be forced out, and the music became a similarly lively stage. On a Sunday afternoon, bathed in natural light, the linoleums are calmer in their dim light, and “Monochromatic Light” feels calmer, a more delicate touch. . Sensible percussionist Steven Schick played the shimmering opening of even more subdued bells, and there was more flicker in Kashkashian’s tune.

In addition to Feldman’s all-round ability, Sorey glimpsed other tracks. An aspirational viola motif, like a hesitant hand reaching towards the sky, evokes Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time”. At one point, I heard in the viola the opening verse of Mahler’s song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost in the world”).

In such an evocative piece, read those references, those titles, what you’re going to do. There is a lot of unresolved ambiguity. Is the violinist trying to converse with the keyboard player (Sarah Rothenberg, can’t clap anymore), or is he trying to free himself from it? The steady beats of bass drums under the choir during a pivotal passage represent progress – the choir’s march forward – or are ominous forces pursuing it?

And what is the relationship between the violator and the singer? Are they aspects of the same character? A promise and a fulfillment? Two composers have seen the same paintings but have never met?

A mother and a son? Their interweaving is most evident near the end, if still slanted, when Tines hums along, barely audible, when Kashkashian plays the tune of the sacred song “Sometimes I feel like a child motherless” over quiet chords in piano and vibrato. Music’s opening into the realm of social and historical experience and anguish resounds at the end of the “Rothko Chapel,” when Feldman gives his transgressor what he calls “the stage.” quasi-Hebraic”, recalling his Jewish heritage and that of Rothko.

For Sorey to reflect on her own calling, her own legacy, history and memory, was a gesture that was both respectful and bold. It is rare for a composer to present a new work that is so openly and pervasively haunted by its predecessor. But “Monochromatic Light” feels more like a nostalgic trip than an extension of Feldman’s path into the pain and community of our time and the distant yet resonant past.

“Monochromatic Light (The Afterlife)”

Performed this weekend at Rothko Chapel, Houston. Review: At Rothko Chapel, a composer is haunted by a hero

Fry Electronics Team

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