Review: At Rothko Chapel, a Composer Is Haunted by a Hero

Evaluate: At Rothko Chapel, a Composer Is Haunted by a Hero

HOUSTON — The canvases that encompass you on the Rothko Chapel right here can at first appear merely darkish. Getting into the house after dusk on Saturday, the inside dimly lit, I struggled to see a lot of something in them in any respect.

However even in that calm gloom, my eyes slowly acclimated to the 14 grandly saturnine work, made by Mark Rothko within the late Sixties. Shadowy rectangles started to emerge, floating over shadow. Returning on Sunday afternoon, cloudy grey filtering by way of the skylight, they appeared virtually colourful, layered veils of purple, inexperienced, crimson, blue, brown: a prismatic black. “Darkish” each described them and didn’t.

As that phrase has been hooked up to those Rothkos, although, so have been “nonetheless” and “glacial” and “spare” to the music of Morton Feldman — whose “Rothko Chapel” was commissioned across the time of the house’s 1971 opening — and Tyshawn Sorey, whose “Monochromatic Mild (Afterlife),” written to honor its 50th anniversary, premiered there this weekend.

The surfaces of the work, impassively clean at first look, steadily supply up textures, depths, hues. And immersion in these affected person, seemingly minimal musical responses likewise reveals surprising densities, whorls, colours, confrontations, uneasy harmonies. Saying these two items are “spare” and “glacial” is correct — and insufficient.

Sorey, who has known as Feldman his hero, has responded to the chapel and its work — in addition to to one among late-Twentieth-century music’s traditional works — bravely, with a small group of devices just about an identical to these of “Rothko Chapel.” His variations typically even intensify the connection: One of many new components he introduces — a piano, along with Feldman’s celesta — appears, whereas including some tonal richness, additionally to be a nod to Feldman piano works like “Palais de Mari.”

“Rothko Chapel” and “Monochromatic Mild,” each spacious but intimate, share a sure ritualistic sobriety, with a choir textlessly hovering over smooth, somber beats of percussion. Each characteristic a solo violist whose phrases — typically halting, typically expressive — exist in one thing like a duet of duets. The extra instant pairing is with a punctuating, interrogating keyboardist; extra distant, extra refracted, extra delayed is the viola’s echo in a solo vocalist, who additionally sings enigmatic phrases with out textual content and is the one different performer permitted lyrical growth.

Each items unfold as single actions with out clear pulse or meter; the music pauses solely often for momentary rests, and each composers’ emphasis on the pure decay of sound signifies that even these temporary silences appear hazily saturated.

However “Monochromatic Mild,” which shall be staged by Peter Sellars this fall on the Park Avenue Armory, alongside panels by one other abstractionist, Julie Mehretu, is roughly double the 25-minute size of “Rothko Chapel.” Whereas Feldman is hardly identified for his economic system, the sooner piece is sort of brisk, its construction compressed and clear, by comparability. And Feldman’s sense of formality — you all the time get the sensation that his ensemble is standing aspect by aspect, going through you and saying the piece — is subtly completely different than Sorey’s, who implies extra of a dialog, a circle. Sorey has shifted Feldman’s vocal soloist, a excessive feminine voice, to a low male one, and what was an evocation of the angelic has grow to be one thing extra medieval — a monk chanting in his cloister — and likewise extra human.

Commissioned by the chapel and the presenting group DaCamera, “Monochromatic Mild” opens with the faintest shiver of tubular bells, like a carillon heard from miles away, because the performers enter the house, the choir processing down the aisles. The violist finally performs a quietly piercing, glassy excessive notice, to which the celesta provides one other bell-like, candied ingredient.

Uncrowded piano chords linger within the air, periodic amens to the viola’s soulful prayers. The choir sings in suspended, shifting but exact washes of voices. At one level a wonderfully luminous chord, unfold by way of the Houston Chamber Choir’s tenors and basses, was lower off by a bleak, sepulchral cluster within the piano and celesta. Questions usually go unanswered, Sorey appears to be saying, and typically the reply is not any.

That can be the charged phrase that the bass-baritone Davóne Tines couldn’t assist however recommend when he vocalized on the vowel “oh.” However “no” isn’t an ending on this work. Notably with Tines and the supremely eloquent violist Kim Kashkashian, the twin protagonists, sharing a tone stable but ethereal, and seductively keening, the temper of the music was of a endurance that burns, with impatience at its energizing core.

Saturday night, below spotlights, the purples of the work appeared forcibly pulled out, and the music took on a equally vivid theatricality. On Sunday afternoon, bathed in pure mild, the canvases had been extra serene of their looming brooding, and “Monochromatic Mild” felt calmer, too, a contact extra fragile. The delicate percussionist Steven Schick performed the opening shimmer of bells with even profounder quiet, and there have been extra sparkles in Kashkashian’s tone.

Past the omnipresence of Feldman, Sorey glimpses different music. A longing viola motif, as of a hand reaching tentatively towards the sky, evokes Messiaen’s “Quartet for the Finish of Time.” At one level, I heard within the viola a sliver of the opening of Mahler’s music “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I’m misplaced to the world”).

In such a suggestive work, learn into these references, these titles, what you’ll. Unresolved ambiguities abound. Is the viola attempting to enter into dialogue with the keyboardist (Sarah Rothenberg, endlessly unflappable), or attempting to free herself from it? Do the steadily constructing beats of bass drum below the choir in a single essential passage symbolize progress — the choir’s march ahead — or the ominous forces pursuing it?

And what’s the relationship between the violist and the vocalist? Are they elements of the identical character? A promise and a success? Two composers who seemed on the similar work however by no means met?

A mom and a son? Their intertwining was clearest close to the tip, if nonetheless indirect, when Tines hummed alongside, barely audible, as Kashkashian performed the melody of the religious “Generally I Really feel Like a Motherless Baby” over tranquil chords within the piano and vibraphone. This opening out of the music into the realm of social and historic expertise and anguish echoes the tip of “Rothko Chapel,” when Feldman provides his violist what he known as a “quasi-Hebraic melody,” invoking his Jewish heritage, and Rothko’s.

For Sorey to interpolate his personal invocation, his personal heritage, historical past and reminiscence, is a gesture of each respect and daring. Hardly ever does a composer current a brand new work haunted so brazenly and pervasively by a predecessor’s. However “Monochromatic Mild” feels much less like a nostalgia journey than a broadening of Feldman’s path deep into the ache and neighborhood of our time and the distant however resonant previous.

“Monochromatic Mild (Afterlife)”

Carried out this weekend on the Rothko Chapel, Houston.

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