Wednesday night's coolest classical happening was at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, which opened its 2009/10 season with "The Blue Rider In Performance" in celebration of their 21st season. From the Metropolitan Opera opening just 48 hours prior, where the the glamour and decorum of New York's oldest, endowed legacies competed with the musty, family jewels bestowed on younger second wives (already on their second facelifts) and over to the modest Miller Theatre where the coolest classical nerds, Xenakis-worshiping art students in Nike Dunks and AA flocked to hear a modern, rawkingly avant-garde program -- hell, we even had cultural arts mainstay ambassador Austin Scarlett front and center (okay, to be fair, he was also at the Metropolitan Opera Opening Night Gala, except the paparazzi no longer want his photograph despite the fact that his hair looks *almost* as good as Martha Stewart's).
It's no coincidence that Miller Theatre's opening night alluded to the iconic hipster of modern abstraction (and we'll give him expressionism FTW), Vasily Kandinsky, who's also the headliner at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum this month. The Miller Theatre's show -- a curious melange of music, dance, and visual arts -- was tied in directly with the current (self-titled) Vasily Kandinsky retrospective that opened a few days ago (September 18) and was co-produced with the august museum for their Works & Process performing arts series.
The Guggenheim, in curating the artworks of the Russian painter from the years 1909-1914, highlights Kandinsky's The Blue Rider group, a collection of visual artist and composers in and around Munich's 1910s cultural scene. The motley crew of Blue Riders boasted many of the original founders of 20th century modernism who explored new paths of creativity. It was here that Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg and Kandinsky associated closely with each other -- so much that Kandinsky's painting, Impression III (concert) was inspired directly from a Schoenberg concert in Munich attended by the painter (of which the Miller Theater pulled their set-list for the opening night concert) . Kandinsky (and friend Franz Marc) apotheosis of their crew was The Blue Rider Almanac, a published synthesis of modern painting, art and music compositions, published in 1912. The modern, avant-garde zeitgeist spanned from Russia to Germany, and captured the incipient movement, only to be squashed by the outbreak of World War I.
The Miller Theatre set out to create an event tied in with a quote of Arnold Schoenberg which expounds on how a musician is challenged to most effectively express himself in the theatrical medium, "making music with the media of the stage," -- and this they did.
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The evening's program was introduced to a packed house by the new Director, Melissa Smey, who worked alongside former Director, George Steel, for eight years, now picking up the reign to champion new initiatives for Columbia's noted theater.
The event began with Arnold Schoenberg's Erwartung (Expectation), Op. 2, composed during his initial courtship with Mathilde von Zemlinsky, two years prior to marrying her. A wash of blue light saturated the stage, visuals corresponding with Kandinsky's work, a landscape of light from a hidden projection: scatter-shot, free-floating shapes alternated with ink etching silhouettes, all perfectly coordinated with the musical works (except for that tie-die aberration). Marcus Doshi on the lights and set was in perfect synthesis with Sven Ortel's projection design.
Pianist Sarah Rothenberg (who also wrote the insanely intriguing program notes) was the creative force behind the program. On piano, she made easy work of the modern-era compositions, sparkling passages that gave way to intelligent and introspective readings. Her solos were evocative and impressionistic of each composer's line, and she exhibited a complete mastery of dynamic, precision, and shading.
Erwartung also highlighted hte singing of modern music soprano, Susan Narucki (she's sung with James Levine at Carnegie and Esa-Pekka & the LA Phil) poised with a beautiful, rich color. Awestruck that such ambiance and narrative could be told simply, with just two women on stage, not exactly the same formula of the Gelb Revolution further downtown. Schoenberg's Drei Klavierstucke (Three Piano Pieces), Op. 11 (1909) was an exploration of atonality: highly expressive, booming and bright color, with meticulous syncopations that shifted into melancholy and longing. The proceeding works contained works by Thomas de Hartmann, a now obscure composer who was BFFs with Kandinsky before he discovered Schoenberg; Arthur Lourié, a Russian composer, influenced greatly by Alexander Scriabin; Anton Webern, a former student of Schoenberg; Alban Berg and Alexander Scriabin whom Kandinsky was fascinated with.
After the intermission, Arnold Schoenberg's String Quartet in F-sharp minor, Op. 10, No. 2 (1907-08) thrilled: tonality shed, the composer waddled into his Second Period. The work was interpreted by the professional and passionate Brentano String Quartet, a touring troupe of four strings (Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin on violin; Misha Amory on viola; and Nina Lee on cello) named for Antonie Brentano (who is loosely considered to be Beethoven’s Unsterbliche Geliebte, or, "Immortal Beloved").
The work was written during an intense time in the artist's life, which narrates a separation from his wife, who ran off with their two children into the arms of artist Richard Gersti who had been hired to teach Schoenberg how to paint. Mathilde returned home,upon which Gersti destroyed most of his artwork and then committed suicide. The tumultuous work was dedicated to Mathilde.
The first movement featured four dancers, two female and two male, from Armitage Gone! Dance, choreography by Karole Armitage. As the quartet played, the dancers gracefully reenacted a lovers tryst, in gorgeous control and effortless, light steps. The quartet wove effortless tapestries of Schoenberg's work, expressive and passionate
The second movement was soaring and radiant, full of melancholy and emotion. Soprano Narucki returned for the third and fourth movements, this time dressed in a simple sundress that the female dancers had worn. The last two movements were stunning: slow and fraught with tension gave way to the the last movement, reflective and moody.
A truly unique, intimate happening that's seriously hard to come by in NYC's monster venues that churn out warhorses and stories you've a million times. Lucky for you there's one remaining performance, tonight, September 25, at 8:00 pm.