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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Concert Review: Through a Prism, Darkly

Spectral Scriabin at the White Light Festival.
Spectral Scriabin: Eteri Andjaperidze at the piano. Lighting design by Jennifer Tipton.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2011 Lincoln Center White Light Festival.
At a classical music performance, the light is almost always white. Whether a solo pianist or a mighty orchestra blasting out a Strauss tone poem, the musicians are invariably lit to aid clarity and the perception of the tiny black dots written on the stave.

But in almost all other genres of music, players and singers perform bathed in the individual components of the spectrum. Gobos, gels, and electronic VariLites are employed to make those lights shift across the spectrum and change shape.
Colors and sound: Scriabin's wheel of colors and tones.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.
In his short life, the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin tried to bridge this gap. A synesthetic (he saw colors accompany music) Scriabin created a system assigning individual hues to sounds. For the performance of his final completed symphonic work (Prometheus: A Poem of Fire), he even commissioned a luce ("color organ") designed to bathe the listener in different shades.

Spectral Scriabin, the collaboration between pianist Eteri Andjaperidze and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton does not use a color organ. But this year, it was encored as part of Lincoln Center's White Light Festival, with three performances at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, located "off campus" in the rapidly developing neighborhood west of midtown Manhattan.

At the second performance on Friday night, Ms. Andjaperidze began the program in absolute darkness, playing Vers la flamme as the light slowly rose. She then let the sheet music fall slowly to the floor before moving on to the Four Preludes, followed by four Etudes. Dim circles of colored light materialized behind and around the pianist, creating a ghostly effect.

As the program moved into Scriabin's later, more esoteric piano pieces, the lights changed:
Two blue circles.
Three circles in red. 
Four in violet, overlapping.
A glowing disc below the piano.
Images overlapped as the complex works flowered and bloomed under Ms. Andjaperidze' fingers. Moving into the Poémes (written as the composer climbed towards the heights of the Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus) played this increasingly difficult music with smooth legato and precise tone, hovering in the mystic negative space created by the composer's preferred use of "fourth" intervals over the standard fifths.

The concert ended with a more familiar work, the challenging Sonata No. 4. In this watershed composition, Scriabin smashed through the standard tonal system, creating a brave new world of sound that may have only existed in his own head. Ms. Andjaperidze brought powerful inspiration to this work, spinning out notes that hung suspended, floating in the circles of colored light. Like the leaves of sheet music, the notes drifted slowly down to earth as they penetrated the listener's mind.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats