Music review: Tim Fain’s ‘Portals’ at the Broad Stage


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The prodigal has returned with “Portals.”

Tim Fain, a 35-year-old violinist from Santa Monica who is now a rising star in New York, brought his new multimedia solo show to the Broad Stage in his hometown Sunday afternoon. “I had Tim in my class,” a woman seated behind me said to her companion.

There was reason to be proud. Fain has the honeyed tone, spectacular technique and engrossing musicality of an old-school virtuoso tied to a contemporary sensibility. His career is based, in part, on new music and new ways of thinking about classical music. He has, for instance, become close to Philip Glass, who has just written a half-hour solo Partita for him, and it was the rivetingly played centerpiece of “Portals.”


Fain has found his way into the dance world as well, collaborating with a number of choreographers and companies. He has waded into film with an appearance in “Black Swan” and dubbing the violin for Richard Gere in “Bee Season.”

All of these interests and connections come together in “Portals.” An interactive film directed by Kate Hackett intriguingly attempts to reinvent the violin recital for a what-you-see-is-what-you-get iPad era. The only problem is that Fain remains far more compelling in the flesh than as a trivialized figment of virtual reality.

The soloist’s partner in “Portals” is a large screen, against which Fain interacts in various ways. On pieces requiring a pianist, the accompanist — Nicholas Britell — is an on-screen pianist. The perspective changes regularly and unpredictably in clever ways, directing attention back and forth between the live performer on stage and Fain and Britell on film.

The full title is “Portals: A Multi-Media Exploration of Longing and Connection in the Digital Age.” Some of the longing comes from Leonard Cohen, whose poetry and lyrics are read by the public radio personality Fred Childs. Some of the connections are made by choreographer Benjamin Millepied and dancers Craig Black, Julia Eichten and Haylee Nichele.

It’s a concept the way music videos are concepts, but not the way inventive video art — say, Bill Viola’s transcendent “Tristan Project” contributions — can be. Hackett’s imagery, while occasionally striking, is often conventional and contains so much Apple product placement that the production begins to look like a commercial for a company that gets plenty of free publicity as it is.

Childs reads Cohen’s characterful lines like the genial radio host he is, grit-free. Cohen is not that man. And Fain, as violinist, amplified (expertly) and attached to the prerecorded business behind him, becomes like bird on an interpretive wire.


The main point of “Portals” is the premiere of Glass’ Partita, which Fain commissioned. Its seven movements, including a big chaconne broken into two parts, clearly recall Bach. Glass has been writing a substantial amount of solo violin music lately (a violin sonata, a second violin concerto and a particularly strong double concerto for violin and cello, which Fain premiered with cellist Wendy Sutter last year in Holland).

So Bachian and harmonically exploratory is the Partita that it has sections that hardly sound like Glass. But the composer has been attached to the violin since the beginning of his carrier, and the Partita is a moody, richly textured and powerful capstone.

As for Millepied’s dance on screen: Boy wriggles out of bed, girl frolics in the fields of a stately estate, they meet and touch, etc. The final chaconne, with its crashing waves of brilliant string sound and furious bowing, benefited from a blank screen.

Before the Glass, there was Lev Zhurbin’s homey “Sicilienne” and Nico Muhly’s “Honest Music,” during which the composer was shown slicing lemons in his New York apartment and operating his computer for the electronic component to a piece made by cutting up attractive, curt phrases. Aaron Kernis’ beatific “Air” followed.

After the Partita, Fain mugged his way on screen and off in William’s Bolcom’s playful “Graceful Ghost Rag” and played Kevin Puts’ “Arches” like a house on fire, in no need of visuals to bring the house down.

A portal can be many things: a gate, a blood vessel through the liver, a video game, a type of website. Fain wanted them all. But he ended up proving that there is still no virtual substitute for, let alone Apple gadget to replace, an exceptional living-and-breathing live performer on a stage. We fetishize the plastic iPhone; we mourn Steve Jobs. RELATED:


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-- Mark Swed