Literary Notes; A director melds classic poetry and music, seeking more than the sum of the parts.

12.27.09
Miró Quartet
New York Magazine

By Justin Davidson

For a generation, classical-music programmers have seemed flummoxed by our overweeningly visual culture. Convinced that we can no longer hear without seeing, they keep trying halfhearted fixes: video screens, projections, colored lights, most of them with meager success. But a decade ago, Lincoln Center’s programming executive, Jane Moss, decided that simply spangling music with visual glitter was pointless. Instead, she launched "New Visions," a series devoted to bundling concert pieces—vocal and otherwise—with dramatic, literary, and visual arts. Moss became a highbrow shadchan, matching freewheeling directors with willing musicians to graft new theater onto old scores. Early results were earnest and unsteady (and some more recent ones have been, too), but a pair of finely wrought productions directed by Katie Mitchell suggests that the experiment has matured into a genre.

The thread binding two art forms can be as slender as a shared sensibility. Four Quartets, which set T. S. Eliot’s poems alongside a late Beethoven string quartet, was the sparest of shows, monastic in its austerity, yet it gripped everyone in the room. The reedy actor Stephen Dillane stood in street clothes on an empty stage lit by plain fluorescent tubes and recited all of Four Quartets in a magnetic near murmur, giving each word its gleam. Eliot’s verse hardly seems performable. Even when the eye can linger on the page, those elusive, abstract lines frustrate understanding. But then an image, startling and mysterious, leaps to the ear—"garlic and sapphires in the mud"; "the brief sun flames the ice"—like a tune glinting in the midst of slip-sliding harmonies. Except for a single roaring cell phone, I have never heard a more silent audience.

Afterward, the Miró Quartet performed Beethoven’s A-minor quartet, Op. 132, whose anguished spurts are said to have driven Eliot as he wrote these poems. The Miró’s members are, you might think, too young to do justice to Beethoven’s bleak vigor, yet they played with understated wisdom. The third movement is a Heiliger Dankgesang—literally "a holy song of thanks," a prayer of gratitude without joy—of deep, bone-bruising melancholy. The Miró unspooled its slow, unrelenting repetitions without a glimmer of sentimentality, alert to the mystery and magnificence of those strange notes. And the closeness of the premises, on the fourth floor of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, amplified the forcefulness. The musicians faced each other and allowed themselves a barely audible pianissimo; we seemed to be listening in on their private conversation. Beethoven’s late quartets are the utterance of a man trapped inside his head, severed from the world of sound, manners, and lightheartedness. Mitchell explored these dark psychic caverns by having us swim through Eliot’s funereal musings first; we arrived at the Beethoven already in a mournful frame of mind, and the composer kept us there. The effect was tragically compelling.

A week later, the tireless Dillane stood on another stage, at the juncture of Schubert and Samuel Beckett, where Mitchell has located One Evening. They seem like an odd pair: the sensitive romantic and the sere modernist; bards of flowered maidens and of existential gloom. But they join at Schubert’s Winterreise, 24 songs that narrate an anonymous man’s trudge through a wintry landscape and the tundra of his solitude. Beckett adored the cycle—not, surely, for Wilhelm Müller’s off-the-shelf verse but for the biting precision of Schubert’s miniature tableaux of suffering.

In One Evening, Mitchell achieved fusion by the live performance of a landscape in sound. Three performers, dressed in laborer’s blue and brown, stood at a long table laden with noisemakers. Like a team of movie sound-effects men, they stepped rhythmically on crunchy gravel, panted into microphones, crumpled creaky fabric, clicked locks, squeaked hinges, and flapped canvas in a manufactured gale. Soon, they took their specialized stations. The tenor Mark Padmore sang Schubert’s songs (in English translation) as though his lean voice had been marinating in loneliness. Dillane interwove Beckett’s terse, dark poems and haunting prose. The pianist Andrew West sat at an upright that rang more frail and distant than the usual warm-toned grand and, with a draughtsman’s skill, sketched the lurching tread and flowing grief, the hot burble of left-hand arpeggios beneath a crust of gelid harmonies; the pivots from minor-key present to memories lit by a glow of major. And all the time, the performers traded off in their ceaseless creaking and blowing, using noises to illustrate music and setting Schubert and Beckett down together in a sonic portrait of a frigid world.