Live Review: Axiom Honors Morton Feldman at Tully Scope Festival in NY (2/24)

I once made the mistake of listening to a recording of Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet. Working through the impressive 25 Years box set of the Kronos Quartet, iTunes told me the piece would be one hour, 19 minutes, and 38 seconds. I dug my heels in and hit play, ready to be blown away. Instead, I was treated to almost 80 minutes of musical Chinese water torture. Feldman repeated the same flashes of sound and color over and over again, without any change in pitch, dynamics, rhythm, or timbre; it just kept going. Quite frankly, it turned me off anything dubbed “minimalist” for a while.

With that memory still lingering, and without those 80 minutes of my life that I would have liked to have back, I went to give Morton Feldman another try Thursday night at Lincoln Center’s Tully Scope Festival, a collection of stylistically diverse concerts celebrating Julliard’s newly renovated Alice Tully Hall. Optimism was high, since conductor Jeffrey Milarsky is a true master when it comes to difficult 20th– and 21st-century music, and the Axiom ensemble is a talented and fresh group of current Julliard students and recent grads. Plus, thankfully, the Piano and String Quartet was not on the program.

Feldman’s Rothko Chapel did what Piano and String Quartet never could: it absolutely blew me away. From the four ovations it received, I think the rest of the audience felt similarly. Scored for percussion, viola, celeste, and choir, Rothko Chapel is the crowning achievement of Feldman’s output. It features rich expressive melodies, dramatic crescendos, stylistically distinct sections, and explorations of color and texture unheard of in Feldman’s mature works. Written as an elegy to the composer’s good friend and inspiration, the painter Mark Rothko, Rothko Chapel became a religious experience in the hands of Milarsky, Axiom, and the ethereal voices of the Clarion Choir.

Sustained sounds of choir, viola, and percussion reverberated and commingled in the acoustically brilliant Alice Tully Hall. Like Rothko’s paintings, the music is made up of juxtaposed blocks of color with soft edges that bleed into one another. The choir intones a major chord with added dissonant notes on a text-free hum, the viola leaps slowly upward through a melody, and the percussion plays a series of rolls on woodblock, timpani, and vibraphone. Consisting of hushed glimmers of sound with no palpable rhythm, the various strands seem to grow out of and intertwine with each other, communicating as disembodied parts of the same organism. There are occasional forte bursts of intensity in the swelling chords of the choir, and a magical section where painstakingly quiet chime chords penetrate a continually sustained vocal hum, becoming part of the decaying sound of the choir. Soprano soloist Martha Cluver’s tone seemed to have a godlike purity as she sang a slowly descending, textless melody.

The piece’s most dramatic section comes at the end, when Feldman provides a surprising regular pulse in the form of a four-note repeating pattern in the vibraphone, over which violist Yoshihiko Nakano played a cantabile pentatonic melody; it is a rare moment of expressivity for this composer. The piece’s unimaginably gentle sonorities were handled with tremendous care by Axiom, but it was the Clarion Choir’s accuracy and blend that transformed this performance into a transcendent experience.

Following the intermission, Axiom presented a piece that toes Feldman’s aesthetic party line, the painfully steely Bass Clarinet and Percussion. This piece is abstract to the extreme, with no rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic orientation. Two percussionists and the clarinetist offer slight, slow, drastically quiet sounds that neither repeat nor vary greatly. There is, to be sure, a certain meditative quality to Feldman’s music, one that achieved spiritual apotheosis in Rothko Chapel, yet remained static and lifeless in Bass Clarinet and Percussion.

To balance Feldman’s spartan austerity, Milarsky bookended the program with pieces by the Hugarian composer György Kurtág, a composer born in the same year as Feldman but with an entirely different artistic viewpoint. Kurtág’s music is as expressionistic and dramatic as Feldman’s is introspective and reserved. The opening work, Hommage à R. Sch., was a suite of motivically-rich vignettes, one full of Debussy-esque harmonies, and another with an intense, honking clarinet timbre. The long final movement was played with tranquil intensity by these Axiom chamber players, with pianist Conor Hanick repeating a rhythmic motive as clarinetist Christopher Pell produced long, soft, woody tones, and violist Jocelin Pan offered quiet harmonics alongside evocative melodies.

Alice Tully Hall – Photo Courtesy of David Lamb/BizBash

The final piece of the night, Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova, inhabited a soundworld of tightly organized chaos. Written for a large orchestral ensemble and soprano soloist, the Messages are 21 short songs teeming with dissonance and complex, driving rhythms, echoing Schoenberg’s iconic song cycle Pierrot Lunaire, a crowning achievement of 20th-century German expressionism. Like Schoenberg’s earlier work, Kurtág’s Messages are full of surreal, trippy emotionality, delivered exquisitely by soloist Lauren Snouffer, who sang, declaimed, and laughed her way through the Russian text. Her fluttering vocal duet with the clarinet in “Heat”, gave way to a passionate recitative that matched the eroticism of the lyrics. The fourth song, “Chastushka”, featured a virtuosic solo by Nick Tolle on the cimbalom – a Hungarian dulcimer rarely used in art music – accompanied by a dissonant siren of long string tones. “Great Misery” was a rhapsodic duet between Snouffer and Tolle, while “Autumn Flowers Fading…” sounded like the music was crying itself to death, with eerie descending scales on harp, celeste, and piano joined by Snouffer’s cynical Sprechstimme vocal.

Perhaps it’s unfair to praise an artist based on his most idiosyncratic and anomalous composition. Most of Feldman’s music will likely remain inaccessible for me as a listener. Yet Rothko Chapel proved that there is a soulful humanity behind the abstract exterior of Morton Feldman. In that sense, the evening’s title, “For Morton Feldman”, is especially appropriate, since the performance did much for his benefit, demonstrating this composer’s greatness and elevating his stature in this reviewer’s eyes and ears.

Thumbnail courtesy of The Berkshire Review.


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