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

HOUSTON — The canvases that surround you at the Rothko Chapel here may at first glance appear simply gloomy. Entering the space after d...


HOUSTON — The canvases that surround you at the Rothko Chapel here may at first glance appear simply gloomy. Entering the space after dark on Saturday, the interior dimly lit, I struggled to see anything in them.

But even in this quiet gloom, my eyes slowly acclimated to the 14 majestically Saturnian paintings, made by Mark Rothko in the late 1960s. Dark rectangles began to emerge, floating above the shadows. Returning Sunday afternoon, a cloudy gray filtering through the skylight, they seemed practically colourful, layered veils of purple, green, red, blue, brown: a prismatic black. “Dark” describes them and does not describe them.

As this word has been attached to these Rothkos, however, it has been “still” and “frosty” and “spared” to the music of Morton Feldman – whose “Rothko Chapel” was commissioned at the time of the opening space in 1971 – and Tyshawn Soreyincluding “Monochromatic Light (Beyond)”, written to honor his 50th birthdaypremiered there this weekend.

The surfaces of the paintings, impassively smooth at first glance, gradually offer textures, depths, tints. And the immersion in these patient and apparently minimal musical responses also reveals unexpected densities, volutes, colors, confrontations, difficult harmonies. To say that these two pieces are “spared” and “freezing” is accurate – and inappropriate.

Sorey, who called Feldman his hero, responded to the chapel and its paintings – as well as one of the classic works of late 20th century music – bravely, with a small group of instruments practically identical to those of “Rothko Chapel”. ” Its differences sometimes even intensify the connection: one of the new elements it introduces – a piano, in addition to Feldman’s celesta – seems, while adding a certain tonal richness, to also be a nod to the works for Feldman’s piano as “Husband’s Palace”.

Both spacious and intimate, “Rothko Chapel” and “Monochromatic Light” share a certain ritual understatement, with a textless chorus hovering over soft, dark percussive rhythms. Both feature a solo violist whose phrases – sometimes hesitant, sometimes expressive – exist in something like a duet of duets. The most immediate pairing is with a punctuating, questioning keyboard player; more distant, more refracted, more delayed is the echo of the alto in a solo singer, who also sings enigmatic phrases without text and is the only other performer allowed for lyrical expansion.

Both pieces unfold as single movements with no clear pulse or meter; the music only occasionally stops for momentary pauses, and both composers’ emphasis on the natural decay of sound means that even these brief silences seem vaguely saturated.

But “Monochromatic Light,” which will be directed by Peter Sellars this fall at the Park Avenue Armory alongside panels by fellow abstractionist Julie Mehretu, is roughly twice the 25-minute runtime of “Rothko Chapel. “. While Feldman is hardly known for economy, the previous piece is almost fast, its structure compressed and clear, by comparison. And the meaning of Feldman’s ritual – you always have the impression that his ensemble is standing side by side, facing you and announcing the piece – is subtly different from Sorey’s, which involves more of a conversation, a circle. Sorey shifted Feldman’s vocal soloist from a high female voice to a low male voice, and what was an evocation of angelica became something more medieval — a monk chanting in his cloister — and also more human.

Commissioned by the chapel and presenting organization DaCamera, “Monochromatic Light” opens with the faintest quiver of tubular bells, like a chime heard miles away, as performers enter the space, the choir moving through the aisles. The violist ends up playing a piercing, glassy high note, to which the celesta adds another candied bell-like element.

Uncluttered piano chords linger in the air, periodic amens to the viola’s soulful prayers. The choir sings in suspended voices, moving but precise. At one point, a perfectly bright chord, beaming through the tenors and basses of the Houston Chamber Choir, was cut by a dark, sepulchral band in the piano and celesta. The questions often go unanswered, Sorey seems to say, and sometimes the answer is no.

It’s also the loaded word that bass-baritone Davóne Tines couldn’t help but suggest when he vocalized over the vowel “oh”. But “no” is never an end in this work. Particularly with Tines and the supremely eloquent violist Kim Kashkashian, the two protagonists, sharing a solid yet airy, seductive tone, the mood of the music was one of burning patience, with impatience at its energizing core.

On Saturday night, under the floodlights, the purples of the paintings seemed to be forcibly torn away, and the music took on an equally vivid theatricality. By Sunday afternoon, bathed in natural light, the canvases were more serene in their imminent brooding, and “Monochromatic Light” felt calmer too, a little more fragile. Sensitive percussionist Steven Schick played the opening shimmer of the bells with an even deeper silence, and there was more shimmer in Kashkashian’s tone.

Beyond the omnipresence of Feldman, Sorey glimpses other music. A nostalgic viola motif, like a hand stretching timidly towards the sky, evokes Messiaen’s “Quartet for the end of time”. At one point I heard a fragment of the opening of Mahler’s song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”) on the viola.

In such a suggestive work, read these references, these titles, what you want. Unresolved ambiguities abound. Is the viola trying to enter into dialogue with the keyboardist (Sarah Rothenberg, endlessly imperturbable), or is he trying to free himself from it? Do the bass drum beats that accumulate below the choir in a crucial passage represent progress – the choir’s march forward – or the disturbing forces pursuing it?

And what is the relationship between the violist and the singer? Are they aspects of the same character? A promise and a fulfillment? Two composers who looked at the same paintings but never met?

A mother and a son? Their intertwining was clearest towards the end, though still oblique, when Tines hummed, barely audible, as Kashkashian played the witty melody “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” over quiet piano chords. and vibraphone. This opening of the music into the realm of social and historical experience and angst echoes the end of “Rothko Chapel,” when Feldman gives his violist what he calls a “quasi-Hebrew melody,” invoking his and Rothko’s Jewish heritage.

For Sorey, interpolating his own invocation, his own heritage, his history and his memory, is a gesture of both respect and audacity. Seldom has a composer presented a new work haunted so openly and omnipresent by that of a predecessor. But “Monochromatic Light” feels less like a nostalgic trip than a widening of Feldman’s path deep into the pain and community of our time and the distant but resonant past.

“Monochromatic Light (Beyond)”

Played this weekend at the Rothko Chapel, Houston.

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