Monday, October 22, 2007

Rothko and Tavener

Last night's concert, in the context of the Gaida new music festival, my violist friend Arunas Statkus played, together with the Kaunas State Choir under Petras Bingelis, Morton Feldman's 'Rothko Chapel' and John Tavener's 'The Myrrh Bearer'.

I didn't have a programme, so I did not really know which piece was which, though I should have known. The first piece was 'Rothko Chapel' - this refers to a hospital chapel somewhere in Texas where Rothko has provided the wall paintings, at possibly the most depressed period in his life. The picture on the right will therefore be one of his more lively ones. See the view of a bit of the chapel below. Very plain, rather funereal, and frankly, not very uplifting. It certainly is a quiet room!

Ditto the piece. It would fit perfectly into this chapel with its quiet monotones, the occasional viola note, the muted percussion, the humming choir apparently singing no words. It's a long piece, too, of about 20+ minutes, with much of a muchness musically. But that's what Feldman's music is like (he's a minimalist); for him it is probably quite a short piece. His second string quartet lasts over 6 hours (are the performers not allowed bodily needs?). In this performance the conductor was conducting like crazy (half-beats?) and everyone hung on in. It might be better for background music in said chapel, while you are contemplating, rather than in a concert situation.

This was followed by John Tavener's 'Myrrh Bearer' - a completely different piece, also for viola, some percussion and choir. Tavener is of course well-known for his piece at Princess Diana's funeral. He's a contemporary composer (unlike his almost namesake John TaveRner of the 17th century), and he's a Greek Orthodox in the faith department. Which is relevant since he writes much religious music. This piece is very interesting since it is built partly on the classical liturgical structure of a mass, but also the violist has words to interpret. Not by singing them, thankfully, but in his playing since the viola part represents Mary Magdalene - there are all sorts of words including English nursery rhymes. The choir represents 'us'. The music is a mixture of slightly Eastern sounds, though also a very western 'Kyrie Eleison' bursts through at regular intervals.

The piece makes wonderful use of the viola's range of sound, from very lowest to extremely high, nosebleed territory. The high parts go on for so long that one fears for the player's hands. Arunas created wonderful sounds from his very small viola (let no-one say you need a huge viola to get a good sound); from absolutely totally chocolatey, velvety, lush low tones to very piercing high notes - and even there the warmth of the viola sound shone through convincingly. Not a note out of place, and the interpretation was wonderful, lively and exciting. A great display of what a viola can do if you allow it!