Sunday, October 4th, 2009

The Blue Rider in Performance at the Miller Theatre, Columbia University

September 23, 2009 (repeated Friday, September 25)

Sarah Rothenberg, Piano
Susan Narucki, Soprano
Brentano String Quartet: Mark Steinberg, violin; Serena Canin, violin; Misha Amory, viola; Nina Maria Lee, cello
Armitage Gone! Dance: Leonides D. Apron, Megumi Eda, William Isaac, Mei-Hua Wang

Members of the Brentano String Quartet and soprano Susan Narucki in a performance shot of the concert under review, courtesy the Miller Theatre.
Members of the Brentano String Quartet and soprano Susan Narucki in a performance shot of the concert under review, courtesy the Miller Theatre.

In 1911, Vasily Kandinsky first heard the music of Arnold Schoenberg, and after being inspired to write to him (“…today’s dissonance in painting and music is merely the consonance of tomorrow…”), Kandinsky then established Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a group of artists dedicated to spirituality and to finding connections between visual arts and music.  Taking her cue from this early 20th-century movement, pianist Sarah Rothenberg conceived The Blue Rider in Performance, combining works Kandinsky heard at the 1911 concert with a few others from the same time period.  In front of imagery from the artist’s work, projected on the stage’s back wall, the stage was transformed into a dramatic, tripartite screen—an ambitious beginning for Miller Theatre’s 21st season.  And the inaugural efforts of the theater’s new director, Melissa Smey, must have paid off since the place was sold-out: packed with patrons, Columbia University students, and eager tourists who had just seen the Guggenheim’s new Kandinsky exhibit that afternoon.

Opening with Schoenberg’s 1899 song Erwartung, Op. 2 (not to be confused with his 1909 monodrama for soprano and orchestra), ravishingly sung by Susan Narucki, Rothenberg followed this with a fine-grained reading of his Drei Klavierstucke, Op. 11, delicately shaping the composer’s ascent to atonality.  Behind her, drawings based on Kandinsky’s sketches slowly took shape, his lines and colors quietly rising and falling.  With no applause (as requested), the program continued with Thomas de Hartmann’s Three Songs on Anna Akhmatova, two short piano gems by Arthur Lourié (Spleen and Autoportrait from 1912), and Webern’s Eingang (Entrance) and Ihr tratet zu dem Herde (You drew near the hearth…).

Before the break came two Berg songs, Dem Schmerz sein Recht (Giving Pain its Due) andWarm de Lüfte (Warm are the Breezes), with Ms. Narucki articulating each phrase with the deliberation of a jeweler.  And in a subtly alluring film noir note, her face gently dipped in and out of shadow with the words, “The one dies while the other lives: that makes the world so deeply beautiful.”  Ms. Rothenberg closed with one of Scriabin’s last works: the intensely chromatic Vers la flamme (Toward the flame).  As Rothenberg leaned into the keyboard, completely immersed in Scriabin’s mystical ecstasy, onscreen behind her small blips of light gradually multiplied, growing faster in the final frenzied measures, rushing toward the audience in a blur of speeding orbs before a blackout.

A recording began the second half: Schoenberg’s Herzgewächse, Op. 20, with soprano Lucy Shelton and Ms. Rothenberg on celeste, overlapping the Brentano String Quartet slowly walking onstage.  Already seated as the song ended, they plunged into a gripping account of the composer’s Second String Quartet, which begins tonally, leading to an atonal final movement, echoing Kandinsky’s own leap into the abstract.  In the opening pages, four members of Armitage Gone! Dance added a third component—a kinetic one—to a score that the Brentano musicians ate up as if they had lived with it for decades.  Ms. Narucki seemed a magnificently sensuous outsider, glowing in the final two movements.

Especially in the first half, the projections of light, color and form seemed well-judged, as if line drawings were being created on the spot.  I overheard one art history expert who found it one of the most successful aural/visual hybrids she had seen.  (Lighting and set design were credited to Marcus Doshi, with Sven Ortel on projection design).  Graphics of the second half made me think of lightning bolts etching themselves in slow motion—not a bad metaphor in Rothenberg’s evocative homage to one of the early 20th century’s most potent couplings of artist and composer.