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Kurtág, Feldman: Jeffrey Milarsky (conductor), Lauren Snouffer (soprano), Axiom, The Clarion Choir, Steven Fox (artistic director), Alice Tully Hall, New York, 24.2.2011 (BH)


Kurtág: Hommage à R. Sch. (1990)

Feldman: Rothko Chapel (1971)

Feldman: Bass Clarinet and Percussion (1981)

Kurtág: Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova (1976-80)


In the second concert of the new Tully Scope festival, conductor Jeffrey Milarsky devised an eye-opening program, framing two serenely beautiful works by Morton Feldman with two by György Kurtág, who is sometimes calm on the surface but can explode with violence in an instant. His Hommage à R. Sch., for a trio of clarinet, viola and piano, alludes to Robert Schumann’s invented “alter egos”—Floristan, Eusebius and Meister Raro—combined with references to Johannes Kreisler and Guillaume de Machaut. From this heady crowd, Kurtág creates a concentrated, Webern-like aura, that evaporates in scarcely a dozen minutes—his own slightly surreal evocation of Schumann’s complexity. Christopher Pell (clarinet), Jocelin Pan (viola) and Conor Hanick (piano) were the excellent players.


Kurtág’s more extreme side showed itself at program’s end, when Lauren Snouffer gave a riveting reading of Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova, the composer’s dark, piercing song cycle with unnerving texts by the Russian poet Rimma Dalos. Extremes abound: the soloist can go from a guttural rumble to a shriek in an instant, and the instrumentation includes the wiry sound of the cimbalom (resembling a dulcimer) along with dramatic percussion effects like a box of broken glass, slammed to the floor. The fifteen tiny songs—some as short as a few seconds—make an astonishing impact live, and Ms. Snouffer was as fearless as soloists come, with Mr. Milarsky drawing a taut performance and a galaxy of colors from the musicians.


In between came two Feldman works, separated by ten years. The later one, Bass Clarinet and Percussion, offers a unique muted sound world, surprisingly compelling. With very quiet assurance, clarinetist Hubert Tanguay-Labrosse and percussionists Andrew Stenvall and Michael Truesdell seemed to enter Feldman’s placid world with unusual focus. Just when one might think “nothing is happening” in Feldman’s world, the minutest details can carry a greater weight.


From 1971, Feldman’s Rothko Chapel was written a year after artist Mark Rothko’s suicide, yet far from being melancholic, it seems more like a blissful prayer—a graceful coda to the troubled artist’s life. Feldman was inspired by the chapel built in Houston to house the artist’s last paintings, and wrote this moving epitaph for chorus, with the help of viola, celesta, percussion and two soloists. The Clarion Choir (expertly coached by Steven Fox) breathed quiet life into Feldman’s gently pulsing phrases, with Milarsky providing the ultimate guiding hand: tight direction that paradoxically seems to allow the artists more freedom in their interpretation. Judging from the ecstatic ovation from the audience, I imagine most were as moved as I was.


Bruce Hodges



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