Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Calgon, Take Me Away

November 19, 2008


Geoff Nuttall and Dawn Upshaw
Photo: mine 2008

The contemporary music event of the Fall here in L.A. took place last night at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with the much anticipated arrival of Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente in a revival of a 2005 performance of the work with soprano Dawn Upshaw and violinist Geoff Nuttall. It was a remarkable evening filled with drama that was more than a little difficult to get your head around. Part of the reason why is the work's intensity. Kafka-Fragmente is a sprawling work ironically composed of 40 miniature pieces of music rarely going above a minute. The texts are short passages from the diaries and letters of Kafka that highlight a variety of emotional states from despair to ...not quite as sad as that. And while the musical settings may seem minimal, they are packed full of allusions and references both from Kafka as well as the composer. Unpacking all of this detail in a single performance is impossible, but the work does have a sensory draw that takes over the audience as it becomes acclimated to the piece's own internal logic.

Assisting in making the piece more accessible was director Peter Sellars in one of at least three different appearances he'll be making with the L.A. Philharmonic this season. Kurtág considered the piece a theatrical one and gives numerous directions in the score about the positioning and activities of the performers. Needless to say, this project was a natural fit for Sellars who revives his staging here on the West Coast and in New York this fall before heading off to Europe. The staging features both performers barefoot and in casual street clothes. Upshaw is engaged in a variety of domestic activities including scrubbing the floor, ironing laundry and washing dishes as she sings about topics from existential malaise to more humorous fare. She also burns her face with a clothes iron and later attempts to hang herself with an electrical cord in Part II: “The True Path”. In the pre-concert talk, Sellars discussed the way in which the staging reflects the everyday heroics of people's lives, each of Kurtág's brief movements being a memory or a memorial to something or someone else. He proceeded to tie this all in with ideas about an intellectual response to the Holocaust and the role of minimalism in art as a part of that response. And, while I'm not completely convinced of all this, I must say that the performance was at times harrowing but always fascinating as it uncovered the existential struggles in the everyday.

Upshaw handles the challenging vocal part, which involves as much guttural moaning and speech as it does actual singing. Her performance serves both as an internal dialog and a parallel process to the violin part. It’s truly an amazing performance that only confirms her status as the most important American vocal artist working today. This is one of two major performances she will make in L.A. this season and her appearances in Saariaho's La passion de Simone (also in a Peter Sellars staging) in January come very highly recommended based on my previous exposure to it in London. Nuttall has far less theatrical business to attend to, which is a blessing considering the demands of his own part which require three separate instruments tuned to different specifications. His performance may not involved as much housework, but it is equally cathartic, and the interaction between these two artists was formidable. There was also a video component to the staging, which consisted mostly of projected translations and a handful of photographs mostly of people. As envisioned in this revival, these artists clearly do see Kurtág's momentous cycle as a celebration of a normal life extraordinarily lived. Or at least I think so. It would probably take many more listenings to be sure, which if I had the chance to, I would certainly do.

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