Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

What is the Word

December 06, 2011

Nicholas Isherwood with Movses Pogossian, Stephanie Griffin, Karen Ouzounian, and Jonathan Hepfer Photo: mine
The longstanding outpost for late 20th century and newer music in Los Angeles, Monday Evening Concerts, returned for its latest season on Monday at its most recent home, the Zipper Concert Hall, on Monday. It was a quietly intense evening filled with music inspired by the work of Samuel Beckett either in spirit or word. Beckett’s work, and particularly that of his later career, is undeniably musical in its sparse yet forceful language. This economy, and its related abstraction, make it ideal for composers who were interested in similar types of musical structures and language. Monday’s program went about this in two ways. The first half included pieces more related in terms of structure and style than actual content. Heinz Holiger, who will enjoy a major retrospective of his musical output at next year’s Salzburg Festival, has set a number of Beckett’s plays, but Monday’s concert began with his viola solo, Trema. The work rapidly shifts back and forth between two different sets of material mimicking a sort of restrained frenzy that certainly had parallels to the kind of psychology found throughout Beckett’s world. Holliger’s piece led immediately into a later work from John Cage, Seven. Here the viola is joined by six other players including piano and percussion. For most of them, only a handful of notes or chords are indicated over a period of twenty minutes with only general guidelines suggested for the precise entry or length of any of them. The resulting music can be highly variable, or even largely silent depending on the decisions the players make. On Monday, the excellent ensemble of MEC regulars performed a version that fit into the Beckett theme easily with its halting almost isolated islands of sound and subtle shifting percussion.

The second half of the show took on Beckett in a more direct way with Kurtág’s …pas á pas – nulle part…, a setting of the author’s poetry. Like much of Kurtág’s output, …pas á pas.. is a collection of miniatures – twenty-nine to be exact each clocking in at less than a minute or two. Beckett’s terse, dark, and sometimes morbidly humorous poetry almost precisely paralleled the notes of the three string players, percussionist, and baritone. Often the voice and instrumental parts traveled in tight unison. This is dramatic, and very literary material with Kurtág’s typical elaborate titling of each miniature in a manner almost more elaborate than the poetry itself, with different segments being dedicated to everyone from Holliger and Boulez, to Helmut Lachenmann and Erik Satie. One could spend a day just sorting out the elusive connections between Kurtág’s words and Beckett’s. But the dedication that may have most pointedly shaped the performance was that of baritone Nicholas Isherwood who announced from the stage that his mother had died earlier that very day and that his performance was given in tribute to her. Performing in the wake of such an immensely painful and nearly universal event was admirable and I would certainly offer my prayers and condolences to Isherwood and his family. But it also made for a ferocious and exacting performance, perhaps even the performance of a lifetime for an artist. Beckett’s mordant tone, and his ironic sense of living in the face of our certain mortality may never have sounded so poignant as it was then. Isherwood highlighted two of Beckett's short texts before the performance that caught the spirit of the moment best for him. And it certainly made a great and unique start for the MEC season.

sleep till death
come ease
this life disease


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