On Rothko and the Portland Retrospective (Part 9): Third Angle Ensemble brings the music of Mark Rothko’s friend Morton Feldman to Portland (continued)

Posted: March 11, 2012 in Experiences, On Beauty
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I need to take a minute to thank my friend, the composer Nicholas Chase, for explaining to me how Third Angle got SQ2 down to 4 hours. While I could see the computer display of the score from my seat, and I thought it was a great idea, I could not actually always read the score. That’s the downside of bad eyes. Nick could; and he told me that two basic performance elements affected the duration of the piece. One, they did not perform all the repeats; two they counted beats almost robotically for at least 2 hours and in doing so limited the possibility of the durational extension that comes from asynchronous counting.

I tend to agree with what Nick told me about the repeat issue when, in his email to me, he said: “Feldman added repeats to create proportion within a piece, they weren’t mindlessly added to generate scale. It’s a common mistake of groups unfamiliar with Feldman’s *methods* (even if they’re familiar with his music) to believe that the repeats are superficial and not an integral part of the whole work….” In other words, skipping repeats isn’t really true to Feldman’s intent. I agree with that but I stand behind my contention that, while not the most “true-to-Morty” SQ2 performance, it was a very strong performance of a very difficult work. Personally, I hope that Third Angle will ask for feedback from some of the Feldman experts in their audience and will take what they have learned and parlay it into a world-class performance. I think they have the capacity to do that and I hope this is not their last attempt.

Now, as for the second Feldman performance, I have almost nothing bad to say. What I do want to mention is that I don’t think that a 5 minute excerpt of a 4 – 6 hour piece is effective. I would rather have heard one of Feldman’s early short pieces than an excerpt of SQ2. We used to have these crazed intellectual discussions, when Phil Glass started writing short pieces like those on “Glasssworks”, about whether minimalism could work in short duration pieces. For 35 years my answer has been “no” and I think that contention applies to Morty’s long pieces too. The POINT of SQ2 is it’s SCALE. In 5 minutes, you can’t get that point. With that minor opinion stated, I will say that the “Rothko Chapel” concert was a stunning event. If the biggest complaint I have is that I got to hear 5 minutes of SQ2, you should be PROUD. THAT is how I hope that the Third Angle Ensemble, The Resonance Ensemble, and The Portland Art Museum all feel. It was a GREAT night.

I told you that the “Rothko Chapel” performance was unique and I promised to tell you why. Here it is:

Third Angle subtitled their concert “a conversation in words and music”. Their use of “words” was fabulous. Instead of simply performing 8 pieces of music, the concert couched all 8 works in the context of the 1966 – 67 Cage/Feldman “Radio Happenings” from WBAI New York. In between each piece of music they played excerpts of the radio broadcasts of Cage and Feldman in conversation. Then the music reflected some aspect of what was said.  For example, prior to performing Webern’s “Sechs Bagatellen” was an excerpt of Cage and Feldman discussing how they both first experienced that piece (so overwhelmed that they did not want to hear the remainder of the concert). That piece began the program and what followed were Cage’s “Six Melodies for Violin and Keyboard” and “Imaginary Landscape #4” (that wacky piece for 12 radios); “Violist Piece #1” and part 1 of “Burdocks” by Christian Wolff; and three examples of Morty’s music – one five-minute excerpt from SQ2,” Projection 4″ for violin and vibes, and the glorious “Rothko Chapel”. All of the performances were well executed and, I have to say, “Rothko Chapel” was a fine performance that was true to Feldman’s aesthetic. The vocalists were wonderful. They all came from a group called the “Resonance Ensemble”, a new ensemble lead by Dr. Katherine FitzGibbon. This is a complete non sequitur but I kept listening to one of the sopranos with the déjà vu feeling that I was listening to Cathy Berberian. I’m telling you that because I love Berberian’s voice and I don’t lightly compare it to others. So, whichever of the 6 of you it was, you are a lovely vocalist and I think you should sing some Berio! 🙂

There was a visual aspect to the show as well. The room was laid out in such a way as to feel like a space similar to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Not dark and sacred but still comfortably and reverently enclosed. Bruce Guenther, the museum’s chief curator (who I have praised in the past) did the lighting design. Curtains surrounding the space displayed a variety of lighting with colors derived from many of those used in Rothko’s paintings before he turned to his final period of dark panels. The lighting was pleasing and the environment very conducive to experiencing the concert in a Rothko-laden context. Nice work Mr. Guenther!

Let me finish by simply saying that Third Angle (along with PAM and Resonance) deserve a very heartfelt congratulations. True, I came to hear Feldman and I don’t like Cage. But it was an exceptional program. Besides, I’ve been in Portland for nearly 23 years and I can’t remember a single performance of Christian Wolff. So, it’s clear that Third Angle is dedicated to bringing critical new music to Portland and that they are essentially the only ones who so effectively will take the risk.

Superb work and a wonderful augmentation of the Rothko show. John and Morty are no doubt smiling!

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