Finding the music in Beckett, the drama in Schubert: Let the L.A. Phil's experiment begin

The first was a composer, the second a playwright. One was Austrian, the other an itinerant Paris-dwelling Irishman. And their lives never quite overlapped: The first died a year after Beethoven passed, the second around the time Ice Cube left N.W.A and Madonna divorced Sean Penn. One became famous for sweet, hummable melodies and darkly resonant chamber music, the other for plays defined by their haunting silences.

So Franz Schubert and Samuel Beckett don’t immediately appear to have all that much in common. But “Night and Dreams,” a recital Tuesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, seeks to frame them as brothers under the skin — two artists whose work has all kinds of stylistic and emotional affinities.

Julia Bullock, the soprano who will be leading the recital, points out that “the things Schubert and Beckett circle around — mortality, love, depression, the pendulum swinging back and forth between the light and dark of existence” — are almost identical. “They seem to go together well.”

Both figures — the sad, tragic Schubert, who died at 31 in 1828, probably of syphilis, and the gnomic, severe Beckett, an exemplar of the theater of the absurd, whose heyday ran from the late 1940s through the early ’60s — tend to be treated as dead serious figures. But their work, Bullock says, has more than its share of ironic humor.

“Night and Dreams,” put on by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will alternate Schubert lieder (including the song, “Der Tod und das Mädchen,” the seed of his string quartet known as “Death and the Maiden”) with short plays by Beckett (including “Come and Go” and “Act Without Words II”), most of which remain obscure even to theatergoers.

The connection would not have puzzled the author of “Waiting for Godot,” first performed in Paris in 1953. “Beckett loved Schubert,” says Yuval Sharon, 37, the mad genius who dreamed up the recital. “Schubert was his favorite composer.”

The Tuesday recital will also offer Angelenos the opportunity to see Bullock, a much-hailed New York-based singer who has begun to draw significant acclaim. Times critic Mark Swed has praised her performances at the Ojai Music Festival last June (“hauntingly effective”), at the Hollywood Bowl singing “West Side Story” in July (“a spiritual dimension”) and at Disney Hall for “El Niño” in January (“potent ferocity”). “This is a musician who delights in making her own rules — and when, in time, she learns how to break them, her artistry will be complete,” the New Yorker judged last year.

Bullock, 30, grew up in St. Louis. “I didn’t grow up singing classic music or around much classical music,” she says. “So many of my favorite female vocalists are from psychedelic ’60s and ’70s music. And a lot of blues.”

But she moved from her early loves — Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday and Judy Collins — to the classical repertoire near the end of high school. She discovered the French melody music of Ravel, Poulenc and Debussy, and she retains a love for Edith Piaf. When she was 17, her stepfather gave her a batch of classical and opera CDs that included highlights of the core repertoire as well as some of the edgier pieces directed by Peter Sellars.

While studying for a master’s at Bard College in New York, she worked with Dawn Upshaw. Hearing mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died in 2006 and whom Bullock praises for a cosmic kind of “honesty,” was a sort of religious experience for her.

Bullock is clearly not only an accomplished singer but a very close listener: She talks about her excitement in tuning her voice to the other singers and actors behind “Night and Dreams” and tuning her body to the warmth and intimacy of Disney Hall. She tells the story of meeting her mother not long ago in a hotel, where her mom unwrapped a present — a coffee mug. The crunch of the packing material was so harsh, the singer said, she had to flee the room. “It was like a dog listening to a whistle,” she says.

When she, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, actor Barry McGovern and their fellow performers take to the Disney stage Tuesday, the openness and abstraction of Beckett’s work may be what suits it to such a range of interpretations. Composers including Luciano Berio and Philip Glass have addressed his plays; poets (Derek Mahon), artists (Bruce Nauman) and novelists (Paul Auster) have borne his influence. The “Wire” actor Wendell Pierce revived “Godot” for a performance in his native New Orleans as a way to heal the city after its devastating flood.

The most obvious connection between the composer of “Winterreise” and the playwright behind “Endgame” is a kind of depression and dread. Beckett is sometimes called the playwright of existentialism — an artist who tried to answer some of the questions posed by French thinkers of his day like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre — while Schubert’s melancholy, Sharon says, is a kind of precursor to the existentialists.

It may take an unorthodox figure like Sharon to connect titans from different worlds. The recital, he hopes, will make the incongruences fade.

“By the end it will be obvious,” Sharon says. “They will see the connections as such an inevitability. They won’t be able to hear Schubert without thinking of Beckett.”

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‘Night and Dreams: A Schubert & Beckett Recital’

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Tickets: $45-$108 (subject to change)

Information: (323) 850-2000, laphil.com

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