Saturday, April 22, 2017

Musica Nova presents the Israeli premiere of Morton Feldman's "Piano and String Quartet" at Hateiva (Jaffa)

Morton Feldman (photo: Jan Williams)
An auspicious event of the 2016-2017 Israeli concert season was the Israeli premiere of Morton Feldman’s “Piano and String Quartet”, performed by Musica Nova on April 19th 2017 at “Hateiva” in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv. Performing the work were Assaf Shatil (piano), violinists Yael Barolsky and Liora Altschuler, Amit Landau (viola) and Dan Weinstein (‘cello). Hateiva’s intimate basement hall, the home of contemporary music in Israel, was quick to fill to capacity with people from the world of music and other modern music aficionados curious to experience this work. 

With the strongest influence on his formative years in New York being the music and encouragement of John Cage, Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was one of a group of New York experimental composers that included Christian Wolff, John Cage and Earle Brown; he was also surrounded by literary figures and such painters as Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Philip Guston.  “Piano and String Quartet”, composed by Feldman in 1985 two years before his death, consists of one movement lasting some 80 minutes. Typical of the composer’s late chamber works, it is by no means the longest (the lengthiest being his Second String Quartet, which takes five hours to perform!) A work of unvaried tempo and of a dynamic range not venturing above a delicate piano sound, the pianist (as implied in the work’s title) mostly plays material of a separate agenda to that of the string quartet: a fragile arpeggio figure, whose content and direction undergo transformations, but which is never abandoned for long. The string players mostly answer the piano with short homophonic utterances wrought of high, pastel sounds, their otherworldly textures pigmented with the whispered bowing of harmonics. An acoustic effect, conspicuous at the Jaffa performance, was that of the piano’s sustaining pedal gathering and blending lingering string sonorities with its own. One could mention the work’s ‘cello solos of haunting, single pizzicato notes, the occasional hesitating piano solo, the rising or falling minor second (interval) motif that emerges and dominates, eventually extending to larger intervals, the string quartet’s subsequent ascending arpeggios and the work’s fragile wistful clusters. Feldman’s focus, however, is not on development - rather on the sonority of any given moment. In Morton Feldman, Essays, ed. W. Zimmermann (Cologne, 1985), the composer writes: "The most interesting aspect for me, composing exclusively with patterns, is that there is not one organizational procedure more advantageous than another, perhaps because no one pattern ever takes precedence over the others.” Towards the end of the work, I personally began to discover a sense of the tonic (anchor of a scale) weaving its way into the translucent soundscape, establishing itself my mind… Feldman, however, writes: “…there is a suggestion that what we hear is functional and directional, but we soon realize that this is an illusion.” (Ibid). With each listener experiencing the work with Feldman’s parameters in mind but, nevertheless, through the prism of his own mind, this was a work to be heard and seen live.

Following two weeks of rehearsals, the five Musica Nova players (not a permanent ensemble) re-created the work’s timeless atmosphere with playing that was precise, strategically timed, superbly coordinated, controlled and focused, as they presented its fragments and filigree, lush, haunting and sensual sounds, inviting the listener to examine each timbre and combination as it arose out of a background of icy silence. Leaving aside the pressures of time dominating contemporary life (and us), they highlighted the priorities of Feldman’s late music. Their playing was dedicated, single-minded and constantly engaging. Pianist/composer Assaf Shatil spoke of the project as a “journey” for both players and audience. With the Musica Nova artists each choosing (and sometimes creating) their own event, this undertaking was Shatil’s personal choice, his wish to perform the work he referred to as having “no manipulations…only time”.


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