Axiom, Juilliard’s Contemporary Music Group, play Feldman and Kurtág at Tully Scope

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György Kurtág

György Kurtág

For Morton Feldman
Alice Tully Hall, Thursday, February 24 at 7:30 pm

Jeffrey Milarsky, conductor
The Clarion Choir
Steven Fox, artistic director
Lauren Snouffer, Soprano

György Kurtág: Hommage à R. Sch., Op. 15d for viola, clarinet, and piano

I. (merkwürdige Pirouetten des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler)
II. (E.*: der begrenzte Kreis … )
III. ( … und wieder zuckt es schmerzlich F.* um die Lippen … )
IV. (Felho valek, mar sut a nap … )
VI. Abschied (Meister Raro entdeckt Guillaume de Machaut)

Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel
Feldman: Bass Clarinet and Percussion
Kurtág: Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova, Op. 17


The second concert in Lincoln Center’s wonderful Tully Scope Festival like the opening night revolved around the music of Morton Feldman, and, although it was entitled “For Morton Feldman,” it was actually dedicated to quite a different composer, György Kurtág, who is still very much alive, celebrating his eighty-fifth birthday on February 19th — only a month younger than Feldman would have been if he had not died prematurely at the age of sixty-one in 1987. The program consists entirely of some of their best-known works, played by Axiom, the contemporary music group of the Juilliard School under the direction of Jeffrey Milarsky and the Clarion Choir under music director Steven Fox. The instrumentalists and the soprano soloist were all students or recent graduates of Juilliard, who acquitted themselves most impressively.

There was quite a lot of tuneful humming among the audience, both during the break and after the concert, more than at Emanuel Ax’s Schubert evening, where one might have expected it. There is something about those long, ever-repeated phrases of Feldman’s that sticks in people’s heads, it seems. The concert had the additional gratification of a personal triumph for a splendid young artist, Lauren Snouffer, who sang the fiendishly ornate vocal part of Kurtág’s song cycle Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova. Ms. Snouffer is in the final year of the Master’s of Music program at Juilliard. She has sung the role of Florestine in John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles and Lucia in the Rape of Lucretia, as well as Phénice and La Gloire in Lully’s Armide with Houston’s Mercury Baroque in Paris. as well as Tirsi in Handel’s cantata Clori, Tirsi, e Mileno under Nicholas McGegan. Her voice sounded both rich and brilliant in the Alice Tully acoustic and totally consistent from bottom to top — an important virtue in the contemporary repertoire she favors, with all its wide range and big jumps. She showed absolute control of the long runs and complicated melismata Kurtág introduced into these brief, but complex songs. It won’t be long before Lauren Snouffer occupies a major place in the world of contemporary music.

The evening began, however, with Kurtág’s Hommage à R. Sch. Like that other master of concentration and atmosphere, Kurtág has long been attracted to the music of Robert Schumann. Here his hommage extends to the title of the work and the individual movements, a cryptic abbreviation alluding to some of the elusive characters in Schumann’s piano works. Kurtág carries Schumann’s brevity to extreme compositional compression and emotional intensity. The first four movements last less than a minute. The much longer final movement is a double hommage to both Schumann and to Machaut, whose voice leading and expansive melodic lines inspired Kurtág to a broader treatment of his brooding thematic material. The young musicians played this demanding work impeccably, with expressive shaping of the instrumental lines, subtly nuanced color, as well as tension and lyrical expression.

Rothko Chapel has been Morton Feldman’s most familiar work for years, thanks perhaps to the 1976 recording by the popular Greg Smith Singers. Feldman circulated among the artists of the New York School throughout his mature life, and Rothko was his close friend. The art of the Abstract Expressionists, especially the work of Rothko, Pollock, Kline and Guston, was as powerful a formative influence on Feldman’s work as any purely musical model. This was of course entirely in the spirit of his musical mentor, John Cage, who created visual works and intertwined the visual with the aural in Gesamtkunstwerke. In Rothko Chapel it is natural to take the music in as a sonic parallel to Rothko’s meditative canvases. Like Rothko’s paintings, Feldman’s music is static on the surface, but full of movement below it, where colors and harmonies are constantly shifting in a transcendent ostinato. The four movements, or episodes, which Feldman compared to “an immobile procession not unlike the friezes on Greek temples.” It is not obvious how this relates to the friezes actually found on Greek temples, but perhaps he was thinking more of Rothko’s interpretation of the frieze in the arrangement of his paintings in the chapel. Feldman’s music shimmers with inner tension and energy, like Rothko’s dark canvases, painted only in black and violet washes. Feldman was present at the opening of the chapel in 1971, a year after his friend’s suicide. The de Menils commissioned the work as a result of that. Hence Feldman had the paintings and the chapel in his mind as he composed. Beyond that, his sympathy for the spiritual heart of Rothko’s work is apparent throughout.

In Bass Clarinet and Percussion, a mature work of 1981, Feldman brought together a wind instrument dear to most modernists and a large battery of percussion. Like Rothko Chapel the work remains largely within a quiet dynamic, inviting reflective immersion in the sound. The score largely calls for the highest register of the bass clarinet, largely eschewing the wide jumps and resonant bass so appreciated by Elliott Carter and others — with a few notable exceptions. The sounds of reed and percussion blend and separate like flowing streams. Like Rothko Chapel, this work calls for subtle dynamics and color, and a deep understanding of the work as a whole from formal and spiritual perspectives. The Axiom musicians addressed this handsomely, creating performances as compelling as one might hear from players who have been living with Feldman’s music for years.

The concert came to an end with the song cycle that first brought György Kurtág international attention, Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova (1976-80), when it was premiered in Paris in 1981. For the most part it is a setting of poems by Rimma Dalos, a Russian academic who settled in Hungary in 1970 and later became acquainted with Kurtág. These fifteen short poems fall into three sections, which are introduced by verses by Akhmatova, Goethe, and Blok. A fourth stanza, by Blok, functions as an epilogue to this bleak collection. The poems, presented as messages from a dead woman, one R. V. Troussova, tells the story of a relationship poisoned by the inequality of the love between the parties. The woman burns with the most intense desire for the man, as he gradually tires of her, leaving her with pain and regret. The icy, razor-sharp imagery conveys an isolation and agony, which Kurtág expressed — always with the most severe economy — with elaborate musical figures recalling Mozart’s Queen of the Night or Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. He has grafted this operatic vocabulary onto the terse, dissonant modern idiom he developed from Bartók, Webern, and Ligeti to distil a vast range of expression into this otherwise spare song cycle. On another level the cycle recalls a macabre, masochistic fusion of Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und Leben, bringing back once more the specter of Schumann.

The brave young people of Axiom played the entire program with precision and total command of the subtle interactions, harmonies, and colors these two radically different, but oddly compatible composers demanded. The juxtaposition of a group of consummate masters like ICE with an elite student group like Axiom reminded me of the splendid Carter festival at Tanglewood a few years ago. There, one had a strong feeling of the passing on of performance tradition, all in the presence of the composer himself. Kurtág is still alive, although a good deal younger than Elliott Carter, and musicians who played with Feldman are still alive, even relatively plentiful. While continuity was very much a part of this occasion, it was by no means an academic exercise — rather a rich musical experience of the highest order.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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