Music review: Monday Evening Concerts premieres Kurtag’s Beckett


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Under normal circumstances, Samuel Beckett’s nihilism can take your breath away. But the circumstances for the Monday Evening Concerts opening of its 72nd season at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall were not normal.

The program, titled ‘Kurtág’s Beckett,’ concluded with the U.S. premiere of the Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s “…pas á pas -- nulle part…,” which is a setting of 27 ethereally pessimistic texts by Samuel Beckett for baritone, string trio and percussion.


But before baritone Nicholas Isherwood began what proved to be a devastating and incomparably cathartic performance, he addressed the audience, quoting the first sentence of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger.” “Mother died today,” it begins. This evening, Isherwood said, his mother had died and he was dedicating the performance to her. He also pointed out two particularly relevant Beckett poems in Kurtág’s score. One of them reads, “sleep till death/healeth/come ease/this life disease.”

The title translates as “…step by step -- nowhere….” Terrible sentiments, such as “Mop life up as fast as it dribbles away,” “The trouble with tragedy is the fuss it makes/About life and death and other tuppenny aches,” are given contorted music. Like Beckett’s, Kurtág’s art is aphoristic. A few perfectly chosen notes imply long phrases. Neither the writer nor the composer says what cannot be better left unsaid, requiring his audiences to fill in what is missing and ineffable. Unlike Kurtág’s more fanciful, or at least more understated pieces, however, “pas á pas” is full of brutality. A word or a note, particularly in the percussion, breaks the silence with a sudden, startled cry. Jonathan Hepfer was the significantly disquieting percussionist.

The baritone’s job is to create a theater of the absurd where even hopeless depression is needless.
Kurtág’s vocal lines here are often disjointed, and Isherwood made a vivid drama out of everything. He wrenched pain when pain needed wrenching (which was often) but also contemplating silence and ultimately reaching a point of profound solace in a once-in-a-life-time performance obviously as much for him as it was for us.

We are easily distracted in modern existence, but Beckett and Kurtág here serve to remind us that life and death mean something to everyone at every minute. Neither life nor death is permitted to be ignored for the score’s 40, fearsome minutes.

Beckett was meant to somehow subsume the atmosphere for the two pieces in the first half of the program as well. These were Heinz Holliger’s “Trema,” a viola solo, and John Cage’s “Seven,” for an ensemble of violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, piano and percussion.

“Trema” is Italian for tremble, and nothing can make us tremble more than the nothingness of “pas á pas.” “Seven,” one of Cage’s late number pieces, contains a series of individual, unrelated, complexly indeterminate events. It is slow and spare and meditatively beautiful music, each step an eventful and dreamlike floating step toward an accepting nothingness.


But relating Beckett was a stretch, especially when it came to Cage, whose sunny disposition shared little with Beckett’s blotting out of sunshine. Plus, the serenity of “Seven” was partly spoiled by having the performers directly segue into it from Holliger’s twitchy viola solo.

Violist Stephanie Griffin’s shivering, shaking, shuddering performance of “Trema” was enthralling. While some of the tension of “Trema” inevitably carried over at first into “Seven,” violinist Movses Pogossian, Griffin, cellist Karen Ouzounian, flutist Alice Teyssier, clarinetist Brian Walsh, pianist Vicki Ray and Hepfer were never less than careful, and there was pleasure in that.

Ultimately, though, this was simply no occasion for tranquility. It was a night for the soul to be moved, pushed, even, step by intense and meaningful step.


Kurtag lifts the silence

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-- Mark Swed