Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” a fascinating journey

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Few composers offer such a study in stark contrast between their art and their person as Morton Feldman. Burly and cigar-chomping, Feldman worked in the garment district during the day and in his spare time would compose — pointillist, elliptical music that is as delicate and ethereal as Feldman was loud and gregarious.

 The SoBe Music Institute presented Feldman’s Rothko Chapel Friday night at the Fischer Clubhouse in Miami Beach, yet another enterprising event by Carson Kievman’s fledgling conservatory, which is adding a smart, offbeat dynamic to the local music scene.

 Feldman was inspired by many of his artist friends, Mark Rothko, in particular, who created huge canvases on the same massive scale as many of Feldman’s hours-long works. By comparison, Rothko Chapel, written for the eponymous Houston meditation space where fourteen of Rothko’s late works reside, is a work of atomistic compression.  

Scored for viola, keyboard, percussion, soprano and small choir, Rothko Chapel spans just 25 minutes yet inhabits the spare, evanescent landscape of Feldman’s finest works. Fragments and repeated notes appear and recede, isolated timbres and colors register, mingle briefly and proceed on their way. A sudden mezzoforte viola pizzicato or shift in the choir’s harmonics seems seismic amid the prevailing concentrated quiet.   

 Friday night’s performance offered an apt retro countercultural milieu in the converted park clubhouse that is the SoBe Institute’s home,  with most of the audience and a few well-behaved children sitting on the floor.  Changing slides of Rothko paintings were projected on the wall, which formed a slowly mutating visual counterpoint to Feldman’s music.

 Some concessions had to be made. Just a handful of singers formed the choir and for the projections to be visible, the ensemble was placed in the middle of the rectangular room, which meant the audience was mainly looking at the musicians from the side and back. But so live and present is the acoustic that the sound was superb just the same.

 Kievman is a composer by trade and not a trained conductor, yet he led a compelling, atmospheric performance, a few minor fudged entrances apart. Keeping this difficult score on track in such an intimate space was no mean feat, yet Kievman skillfully balanced Feldman’s precisely notated music.

 The SMI Chamber Ensemble were superb collaborators, including violist Scott O’Donnell, keyboardist Adam Chefitz , and particularly, percussionist Mark Schubert, whose scrupulously calibrated dynamics set and maintained the right evocative mood.

 The Feldman performance was preceded by two shorter works, cast in the same valedictory spirit. Violinist Taichi Akutsu offered a sturdy reading of Bach’s Chaconne and soprano Rebekah Diaz was an admirable, rich-voiced soloist in Desdemona’s Ave Maria from Verdi’s Otello.

The SoBe Music Institute offers regular free concerts and music lessons. Call 305-674-9220 or go online to www.sobemusic.org.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” a fascinating journey”

  1. Posted Dec 09, 2008 at 10:58 am by Sean

    ” … and a few well-behaved children sitting on the floor.”

    It’s true: I didn’t yell, squirm, fidget or punch anyone in the arm all evening. But seriously, a great account of a fine performance.

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