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Three Feldman Concert Reviews

by Chris Villars

String Quartet 2 in Utrecht, Netherlands (November 4, 2001)

For Christian Wolff in Aachen, Germany (July 4, 2003)

Neither in Lisbon, Portugal (April 15-17, 2004)

Note: These reviews were all originally posted on the Morton Feldman discussion list, Why Patterns?

String Quartet 2 in Utrecht, Netherlands (November 4, 2001)

Feldman's Second Quartet was performed by members of the Ives Ensemble in Utrecht, Netherlands on Sunday November 4th, 2004. The performance took place in the large hall of the Kikker Theater, Utrecht. The hall is entered from the balcony level from which you descend to the floor of the hall. The performance was given in the round, the players occupying a small raised podium in the centre and the audience sitting in two or three rows of very comfortable, armchair-like seats specially brought in for the occasion.

There was an audience of 60-70 people, predominantly male, most of whom sat in the armchairs. About 10 people sat in the balcony seats looking down on the performers. The performers themselves (Josje ter Haar and Janneke van Prooijen, violins, Ruben Sanderse, viola and Job ter Haar, cello) each sat in one corner of the square podium, facing inwards. I guess this helped co-ordination and concentration of the ensemble.

The performance started around 13:50 and lasted a bit over 5 hours, therefore being slightly longer than the recorded version. Nearly everyone stayed for the whole performance, a few went out for a while but returned later. Most remained where they were throughout. The concentration of both the performers and the audience was very remarkable. It was as if the concentration of the players drew in the audience. There was very little coughing or restless shifting about, most people were very attentive throughout.

Was it really five hours? The comfort of the seating plus the general attentiveness meant that I was hardly aware of time passing. Once or twice I caught myself thinking, "This could go on forever!" It was never boring. This was my first time listening to the piece live. It didn't seem emotionally as immediately engaging as, say, "For Philip Guston" or "For Bunita Marcus" - perhaps it is a more complicated piece whose meaning takes longer to become apparent.

The piece seemed to divide into two quite distinct halves: The first half was more varied, punctuated by a Webern-like melodic phrase and predominantly ecstatic or ethereal in feel. The second half was dominated by a very long section in which plucked phrases on the cello intersperse with long slow bowed passages for the ensemble. For me this had the feel of a kind of leave-taking, though not sad, a feeling more of inevitability than sadness. This long section (was it over an hour?) culminates in some very remarkable full chords. There is then some material more like the first half before the piece ends.

At the end of the performance the audience gave a long standing ovation bringing the performers back several times to the podium. The performers embraced one another emotionally and applauded the audience in turn! A great venue and a great performance I thought. Great too that we now have the same ensemble's recorded version to enjoy and study at leisure.

For Christian Wolff in Aachen, Germany (July 4, 2003)

The auditorium at Klangebrücke in the Altes Kurhaus in Aachen (apparently more regularly used as a jazz venue) consists of a stage fronting 6 or 7 rows of cinema-style seats. The interior is painted black. On this occasion white screens on the left and right of the stage were lit by red and blue lights respectively. The performers, centre-stage, were under normal white lighting. The flute player sat on a raised podium to the right and slightly behind the piano. This arrangement ensured a direct line of vision between him and the pianist which facilitated co-ordination throughout the piece.

The concert began with two short pieces: "A Very Short Trumpet Piece" played by Harald Küpper, followed by "Only" sung by Suzanne Thorp. Both performances of these lovely Feldman miniatures were excellent. My only quibble would be that "Only" was sung using the uncorrected score as published, rather than making the small but, in my opinion, significant correction, the case for which I believe is now proven beyond doubt. After the mere few minutes duration of each of these pieces came the 3 hours 45 minutes of "For Christian Wolff" performed by Olaf Futyma, flute, and Markus Berzborn, piano.

Feldman once described his 2nd String Quartet as "disgustingly beautiful". Paraphrasing this, I think "For Philip Guston" could be described as "disgustingly sad". In Nietzsche's terminology, both these works could be called "Dionysian" in their emotional indulgence. By contrast, "For Christian Wolff" is "Apollonian", i.e. a much more austere work, restraining its emotional expression. As is well-known, Christian Wolff is a Professor of Classical Studies and I think the "Classical" restraint is one aspect of the homage to Wolff involved in this piece. Wolff's own pieces often seem to me to embody a similar restraint.

One way that Feldman orients the listener during his very long pieces is by having an easily recognisable motif that recurs periodically like a milestone along the way. The four note motif at the start of "For Philip Guston" is an example. I hadn't realised until this performance that a three note motif plays a similar role in "For Christian Wolff", recurring at intervals to mark out the way.

Attending this performance reinforced for me again the importance of hearing these works live. I think the extreme duration really has to be experienced in one sitting with all the effects of varying concentration and the orientation/disorientation in time that occurs over such large time spans. I think the experience of durations of this scale was one of the things Feldman was addressing in these pieces. In a live performance there are additional factors that assist concentration: One is the visible concentration of the players themselves. This was very evident in the performance in Aachen. The concentration and co-ordination (assisted by the staging arrangement previously described) of Olaf and Markus was seemingly unwavering from the start and I found this drew me into the piece, assisting my own concentration and enjoyment. Their evident dedication and commitment to the piece certainly increased the enjoyment for me. That they had clearly done so much preparation and were so intent on producing an accurate and coherent interpretation was marvellous to experience.

Another aspect of the piece that is immediately evident in live performance is the relationship of the page structure of the notated score to the piece as heard. It is clear that Feldman considered a notated page as a structural unit. In live performance you see the performers turn the page and therefore frequently observe that the music changes at page turns and that sections frequently have lengths that are multiples of whole pages. The last page is a dramatic illustration of this: It begins with a simple restatement, twice repeated, of the three note "Christian Wolff" motif, as if to announce the impending conclusion of the piece. The rest of the last page consists of twice repeated phrases (with characteristic slight variations) separated by short pauses. This created a sense of coming to an end rather similar, though with different emotional effect, to the ending of "For Philip Guston".

It occurred to me listening to this piece that the manuscript pages in Feldman's long late works function in a similar way to the boxes in the much earlier graph pieces. Of course, the musical language is completely different in the two cases, but the boxes and the manuscript pages both seem to function as the time units across, or through which, Feldman spreads his music. Both, in their different ways, influence the structure of what is heard.

Like many of Feldman's long pieces the structure of "For Christian Wolff" as a whole appears asymmetrical: The first half seems to be a fairly regular progression of sections varied in Feldman's characteristic fashion, with periodic returns of material previously heard to orient you as described above. Some of these sections have a lyrical "song-like" character. The second half seems to be dominated by a long section (was it an hour long?) during which the flute (generally still accompanied by the piano) plays only single notes, rather than phrases or patterns, and this develops a more melancholy mood.

The disappointingly small audience (around 20 in number) gave the players an enthusiastic reception at the end, bringing them back to the stage several times. I guess the more abstract, emotionally restrained character of this piece accounts for its relatively low popularity compared with Feldman's other long late pieces. This performance showed that listening to it can be an intense and beautiful experience. It would be great for it to be played more often, and it is hard to imagine it being played better than in the performance Olaf and Markus gave it on this occasion.

Neither in Lisbon, Portugal (April 15-17, 2004)

Last week the Portuguese premiere (followed by two subsequent performances) of Feldman's opera, Neither, took place in Lisbon's opera house, the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos. There were near capacity audiences each night in the ornate gilt and plush interior, Lisbon's equivalent I guess of Covent Garden or La Scala. I found the three performances excellent in every way: Petra Hoffmann sung the soprano part beautifully, the Portuguese Symphony Orchestra conducted by Emilio Pomàrico produced superbly controlled, mesmerising performances and the production by David de Almeida (installation design), Pasquale Mari (lighting) and António Escudeiro (video) caught the spirit of the piece without distracting from the music.

I cannot claim to fully understand Beckett's somewhat metaphysical text, which was written especially for Feldman as a libretto for the opera, but it does seem to me to be a beautiful yet despairing poem. I find this contradiction in nearly all Beckett's works. He wrote works of great beauty, whose message is an apparently despairing vision of the human condition. This combination of beauty and despair is perfectly conveyed in Feldman's music. There are times when the beauty of the soprano solo or of the orchestral writing is simply overwhelming. Then the despairing striving reasserts itself until another beautiful stasis emerges. This alternation is strongly suggestive of the to and fro movement described in the text.

To begin with, the stage is simply a black screen. Following an orchestral introduction, the soprano enters dressed in white and stands at a music stand near the left of the stage. She sings from here without moving throughout the piece, brightly lit by a light from above. The action of the production consisted in the movements and varying appearances of a large, sarcophagus-like box, which appears successively in three positions: First, at stage level, with a rough stone appearance, which we see under different degrees and angles of lighting. Later this box moves up to the midway position where it assumes a purely geometric form, filled, in varying ways, with pure white light. Perhaps there is a suggestion in these two contrasting positions/appearances of the two states - outer/inner, unself/self - described in Beckett's text. Finally, the box moves up to the top of the stage and there has a sequence of still and moving images projected onto it. These images depict natural rock formations and fauna, earth, air, fire, water, and eventually lead into a sequence showing the forging of a sword-like metal chisel which is then used to carve a stone statue. Here, the suggestion was perhaps that the third position represents the third state (neither) in the text - neither inner nor outer, self nor unself. Throughout the production , words and phrases from the text were projected onto the stage screen, helping to orient the spectator in the text and underlining particular ideas.

This short description does not do justice to the production, whose subtle unfolding, through lighting and imagery, effectively underlined and complemented the music, without distracting from it.

In the early evening before each opera performance (and on the evening before the first performance) four short concerts of works by Feldman and others were given. The first featured a superb performance of For Samuel Beckett, played by OrchestrUtopica conducted by Cesário Costa. In the second concert, Ursula Oppens played Piano and Palais de Mari. These were framed, as it were, by strongly contrasting pieces by Conlon Nancarrow (Two Canons for Ursula and Tango). The contrast between the two Feldman pieces was also very strong - Piano being in Feldman's despairing Beckett mood - the fortissimo chords about half-way through sounding like a desperate attempt to shatter the music itself! - and Palais de Mari much lighter and serenely beautiful. The third concert coupled The Viola in My Life pieces 1, 2 and 3 with John Adams' Chamber Symphony, performed by Christophe Desjardins (viola) and the Remix Ensemble conducted by Jürjen Hempel. Again, Adams' great, enthusiastically joyous and humorous symphony could scarcely have contrasted more with the Feldman. I thought this contrasted programming worked well, helping to throw the Feldman into relief. Inevitably, after the Adams, I was left wondering - is there any Feldman piece with humour in it?

The last concert, performed by the chorus of the Teatro São Carlos, plus soloists, conducted by João Paulo Santos, started with Bach's motet, Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden, and was followed by Feldman's Rothko Chapel. After that came the final performance of Neither. What a long way we travelled that evening, from Bach's God-praising, joyous motet to the thoroughly earthly, God-less despair of the Beckett/Feldman. Beauty was the common thread - as if, in a God-less absurd world, Beckett/Feldman believed that beauty - in particular the beauty of artistic creations - could in itself provide some kind of justification (the meaning perhaps of the chisel and carving sequence in the stage production?).

In short, beautiful music, beautifully sung, played and produced - a great Feldman festival! I think Neither is one of Feldman's great masterpieces. There are further productions scheduled later this year in Copenhagen (June) and Stuttgart (October), and rumours of a New York production soon.

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