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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Concert Review: Alone in the Dark

The experience of Goldberg at the Armory.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Marina Abramović re-invents the concert experience with Goldberg
at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo by James Ewing © 2015 Park  Avenue Armory.
Off came my wristwatch, a trusty concert-going companion of many years. My iPhone was turned off and put in my bag next to my iPad, also off. Bag and grey Marillion fleece jacket were put in locker No. 42 and I locked it and took the key. I stood in line with other concertgoers, some there for the music: Bach's Goldberg Variations, others for the auteur of our evening: performance and conceptual artist Marina Abramović . The bringing together of these forces is called Goldberg, and is Ms. Abramović's latest stage work.

I showed my ticket to the usher and was led through the huge wooden doors. I was given a pair of noise-canceling headphones and a card with a set of instructions. I was led to a beach chair, part of a large circular arrangement, wood-framed, canvas sling chairs arranged in the dark gloom of the Wade Thompson Drill Hall. In their center was a long runway as if for a fashion show. On it sat a platform, with a Steinway concert grand and a bench.

We sat and toyed with our headphones. There idle chit-chat and engagement with people on either side of me, fellow writers ensconced in the awkward and anachronistic resort furniture. Eventually, relaxation set in, and silence. The silence was broken by the loud blast of a gong, and, following the written instructions, we put on our noise-cancelling headphones. At the bench, the pianist for the evening, Igor Levit, was seated at his instrument.

There we were, sitting in the dark, with the hum of the air conditioning and the sirens and clatter of the city blocked by the foam and rubber ear protectors, the kind used by construction workers and insomniacs. The muffs blocked almost everything as we sat, illuminated by brutal Robert Wilson-esque doorways of bright white light, unearthly portals to the beyond of our little music-loving spaceship. The piano moved slowly, imperceptibly down the runway, little by little with Mr. Levit warming up his fingers or going over a difficult passage in silence.

The piano stopped its journey ten feet in front of me. A second gong shattered the silence, the signal for us to take off our earphones and listen to the genius of Bach. The bright white lights were replaced by a single horizontal beam running the circumference of the hall. And Mr. Levit, illuminated by a long LED mounted above his keyboard started to play the Aria  the opening phrases slow, majestic and mellifluous in the manufactured silence. And his piano began to rotate very slowly: it woul complete one revolution in its place before he was finished.

He played the Aria with a light touch and a little gentle legato, letting the phrases hang in the darkened room. Then the variations began, at times stately and courtly, at others dazzling displays of contrapuntal technique and the musical possibilities discovered by Bach. In the counterpoint, you could hear themes over and under and within themes, busy fragments of figured bass that would break apart and coalesce into the next musical idea. The canons began with the third variation, opportunities for Mr. Levit to show his prestidigital skill as the themes tumbled over one another.

In creating this piece, Ms. Abramović  simultaneously changed one's perception of the listening and concertgoing experience, making what is often a communal experience into one of isolation. The stark white light, the dim, almost black room and the high arch overhead offered no distraction for the eyes or mind. Only the music remained, building to stuinning force as the variations continued their relentless march through Bach's imagination. The more complex the counterpoint, the greater the effect on the mind until one found oneself dreading the end: the final Aria da capo that closes the set. Like the gong earlier, it would signal the listener that the work is ending and that it was time to return to Earth.

When the end came, it was almost a regret. Mr. Levet played the penultimate quodlibet with gusto, sacrificing perfection in the name of passion, a welcome choice that made these works beat and pulse with real and bloody vitality. The final aria was like Death itself, a welcome guest bringing the listener out of this jungle of counterpoint and showing the way back to a transformed and utterly new reality. Goldberg was an amazing experience. Would that it were possible for New Yorkers to repeat it every week.

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