Counterpoint Gone Wild

Who doesn’t love Bach for his fugues? In Bach’s 1738 instructional book on counterpoint, Precepts and Principles for Playing the Thorough-Bass, he writes: “It is played with both hands on a keyboard instrument in such a way that the left hand plays the written notes, while the right hand strikes consonances and dissonances, so that this results in a full-sounding Harmonie to the Honour of God and the permissible delight of the soul.”

High stakes. The Brentano String Quartet is adding to them with their Art of Fugue, presented as part of Da Camera of Houston’s season next Friday, March 3. Read my interview with first violinist Mark Steinberg at Houstonia Magazine.

The Sound of Picasso

Synesthesia aside, it’s a fascinating thing to think about how different artistic media (and their creators) overlap. Da Camera of Houston presents a concert at the Menil Collection next Monday and Tuesday in conversation with the current Picasso exhibition and promises just such an experience. Read my preview at Houstonia Magazine.

No Spring like a Beethoven Spring

Hungarian violinist Kristóf Baráti and pianist Klára Würtz, performing Beethoven’s sonatas over two evenings, created a distinct familiarity with the music, the audience, and the art as the conclusion to Da Camera of Houston’s Menil Collection season. Following a night of Sonata No. 8, No. 2, and No. 9, the duo concluded with a concert of Sonata no. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 12, the famed “Spring” sonata in F Major, Op. 24, and finally the Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96.

I’ll never forget the first time I performed the Spring Sonata with Chad Spears, pianist extraordinaire, who taught me the importance of chamber phrasing. Read my review at Bachtrack.

Da Camera’s Colorado is no clever rattlesnake

Friedrich Nietzsche once called Richard Wagner a clever rattlesnake for his ability to manipulate feeling through sound. It wasn’t a compliment. Since Pythagoras, we’ve known that music has the ability to affect us in unpredictable and untraceable ways, for better and for worse. (Nietzsche would probably add “in sickness and in health.”)

Last night at the world premiere of The Colorado, presented by Da Camera of Houston in conjunction with Fotofest, I was reminded of music’s ability to complement, to enhance and raise the stakes of other artistic media.

The Colorado is a film that chronicles the history of the Colorado River with live and recorded music performed by percussionist and composer Glenn Kotche, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, and the enigmatic vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. New music by composers Paola Prestini, Shara Worden, William Brittelle, John Luther Adams, as well as Kotche and Zeigler, graced the film with intent.

The film, directed by Murat Eyuboglu, begins with serene images of the Colorado River—beautiful, striking images that pull an audience in, that make an audience invested in its power and wonderment. It’s a smart narrative arc, really. It gives background, shows maps, makes us understand our role (humanity at large) in relationship to our environment before revealing that we are the ultimate villain. What seems wild and untamed, a strand the film slowly unfurls, can easily be domesticated. We know the tragic turn ahead.

Watching this multi-media event means choosing, at least in part, between narratives: The performers below the screen and the film. Zeigler, fingers sliding down the neck of his cello, and Kotche, dancing from instrument to instrument, are exciting to watch—brilliant performers with chemistry. But the film has its own draw, too, in this age of global warming, where  despair and regret increasingly replace wonderment in regard to the natural world.

But there are times when the film and the music reach a harmonic zen together, where everything swirls in a new breed of Wagner’s total work of art. When the film introduces the Hoover Dam, ominous drumming starts quietly in the background. The rhythm picks up, scraping raw in new timbres and instruments: Zeigler, head down; Kotche, arms tensed. A chronological list appears on the screen of dams that followed the Hoover. Scrolling, scrolling, we know it means the beginning of the end, an act that painfully reveals humanity’s near-sightedness, a childish predilection for immediate fulfillment and a disregard for future consequences.

It’s this kind of feeling that makes The Colorado singular. Few classical performances have  a subject matter that so easily falls into a didactic train of politics. It would have taken only a slight turn to become a sermonizing parable. But there’s something to be noted in music’s capacity to leave an impression and to leave what that impression is up to us. When the stakes are high, as they are in this performance, it’s a remarkable experience.

The film ends on a hopeful note, both literally and figuratively. The pulsing beat is still there, a remnant of the Hoover Dam scene, but it is joined by voices rising in a major key, higher and almost joyful. The optimism was a surprise, but it speaks to the capacity of music to usher a story into reality.

Elias Quartet

In Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928) a character attempts to use Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 15, Opus 132 as a scientific proof of God’s existence. Characters huddle around a gramophone and imagine heaven itself in the elongated notes simultaneously “hanging” and “floating” in and out of time: “Long notes, a chord repeated, protracted, bright and pure, hanging, floating, effortlessly soaring on and on” the narrator tells us.

Hearing the Elias Quartet perform this last night (I previewed it at Houstonia), I finally understood why Huxley was obsessed enough with this work to use it as an analogy for God’s existence in his novel. A stunning performance.