The Houston Symphony went to Italy with the Pines of Rome, a piece that is nothing without the timpani. Read my review at Bachtrack.
But perhaps it was lost for a reason. Read my review at Bachtrack of Houston Symphony’s ambitious revival of Mario Castelnuovo-Tenesco’s Cello Concerto, remarkable for its unearthing at least.
Last night, at the American premiere of Black over Red (My dialogue with Rothko), I think I heard the music of the spheres. Presented by the Menil Collection and Dance Salad Festival in the main foyer of the Menil, Black over Red pushes against unseen barriers and struggles with imaginary demons only artists will recognize in a combination of movement and sound that is, quite remarkably, celestial.
Choreographed by Carolyn Carlson, Black over Red is a solo dance with a spare props—small tables, one large table, painter’s gloves, and the material on the dancer herself, Paris Opera Ballet’s Marie-Agnès Gillot, who pulled fabric across her shoulders to transform into a flying creature at one point. The work, as the program noted, is designed to vibrate with Mark Rothko’s creations and the true nature of being. If there is a narrative, it is the agonizing process the artist faces when creating something profound—slamming, throwing, casting, jolting, veering from despair to exuberance.
I don’t often see chamber alliances—the intuitive nods between string quartet members, the subtle gestures of two singers in a duet—like the one Gillot and Jean-Paul Dessy shared. The music, composed and performed by Dessy, is a mixture of recorded and live sounds, some of which border so closely on improvisation it seemed Dessy was taking cues from Gillot’s fingertips. Opening with rolling arpeggios on the cello, a twentieth-century renewal of Bach’s unaccompanied suites, Dessy soon shifted the aural environment into pulsing, poetic territory. Text, from Carlson’s book Dialogue avec Rothko, dialogued with birdcalls and whistling.
It is a work that, in the moment but for many hours after, will compel you to wonder how to conceive of something so abstract yet unequivocally tangible. Earlier in the day, I had finished reading J. M. Coetzee’s novel The Schooldays of Jesus, a similarly abstract work with deceptively simple prose. In the story, a six-year-old boy decides to attend a dance academy rather than receive a traditional education. His parents are concerned when they hear he is learning arithmetic, reading, and writing through dance. But the boy, exasperated, keeps explaining his dance of two, three, and seven; how he listens to the patterns in the room and calls down the numbers from the sky through his movements—it’s the music of the spheres, he tells them, what could be simpler than that?
The music of the spheres, a theory Pythagoras devised, is the idea that the planets emit sounds as they travel particular to their course in the universe—the sun, the moon, the stars. By tying music to mathematics, science, and philosophy, Pythagoras crafted a way to mediate heightened human emotion and existence. And this, I think, is also perhaps the best way to conceive of Black over Red: something that, sliding in and out of worlds, says everything but is itself an unknown; a concert of vibrant colors and words; a way to call down the numbers from the sky.
On Thursday at the Houston Symphony, it was a mixed bag. Whether or not concerto soloists use sheet music in performance is up for debate, but it always just gives me the impression that they weren’t ready. Read my review at Bachtrack.
Who doesn’t love Bach for his fugues? In Bach’s 1738 instructional book on counterpoint, Precepts and Principles for Playing the Thorough-Bass, he writes: “It is played with both hands on a keyboard instrument in such a way that the left hand plays the written notes, while the right hand strikes consonances and dissonances, so that this results in a full-sounding Harmonie to the Honour of God and the permissible delight of the soul.”
High stakes. The Brentano String Quartet is adding to them with their Art of Fugue, presented as part of Da Camera of Houston’s season next Friday, March 3. Read my interview with first violinist Mark Steinberg at Houstonia Magazine.
Chamber music has always been my favorite genre to perform. It’s a thrill, but one that is often underestimated. Performers like Lars Vogt and Christian Tetzlaff show how deep the art form can go. Read my preview of their Da Camera Houston debut together at Houstonia Magazine.
I have a lot of memories of this work, and with an opera company at the helm, it was a refined performance. But the thing I’ll remember probably won’t be the music (Sasha Cooke, resilient hero, my hat is off to you). Read my review at Houstonia.