For this year’s anniversary of September 11, Chicago’s second annual Beethoven Festival asked Ensemble Dal Niente to perform a special program commemorating the event. A memorial concert often runs the risk of alienating an audience, either by overtly politicizing the event at hand or being interpreted as not genuine in its tribute. The ensemble avoided that risk by providing a program of thoughtful works that allowed the audience to reflect on their own terms, choosing what the music meant to them in light of the occasion.
Evan Johnson’s die bewegung der augen (2012) provided a frigid opening to the concert as nine players engaged in a continuous struggle to speak. Minute gestures abounded from every instrument only to be abandoned prematurely. The violin and viola, for instance, fixed on single but brief whimpering tones that vanished unnoticeably. The baritone sax popped and clicked keys, rarely producing a standard tone, while the English horn uttered hollowed high pitches that deflated in defeat.
Even the instruments that were allowed more than a few pitches at a time seemed hopeless to retain their voice. Guitarist Jesse Langen mumbled chunks of a discordant phrase in short bursts, as if hearing a series of ideas discarded one after another. Halfway into the piece, Pianist Mabel Kwan delivered a solo that barely left an imprint on the ears. Sparse, quiet phrases landed delicately on the keyboard like cat paws, resulting in a sort of anti-cadenza, indifferent to the engagement of its listeners.
Amidst the intricacies of hushed gestures was the endless brushing of the bass drum. The soft but ever-sounding “shh” proved suppressive in its continuity, outliving the rest of the instruments whose playing span often lasted no more than a few seconds. More daunting were the long silences that divided the sections of the piece, effectively drowning out the ensemble by achieving a quiet beyond theirs. Even within the piece’s desolate aural ghost town, the near-imperceptibles risked termination.
After each silence, the players seemed to come back with more determination in their expression; the piano gained trills, the strings crescendos. The final section even reached a tutti of sorts, the entire ensemble squealing in a semblance of cooperation—in spite of all the fragmentation, the oppressive muting, the different simultaneous tempos—only to peter out with a squiggling bass clarinet solo that cut off abruptly. The audience was left perplexed.
The majority of the program was Salvatore Sciarrino’s Vanitas, still life in one act (1981) for mezzo voice, cello, and piano. Taking its name from the Northern European art form of the 16th and 17th centuries, Sciarrino set the music to a variety of poetic texts suggesting common ideas within the painting style, namely impermanence. Although the composition took its influence from art that conjures the passing of time and the inevitability of death, the ensemble’s performance poignantly illustrated its own human perspective; that is, the steadfast refusal to acknowledge such things.
Cellist Chris Wild’s elevating introduction—replete with delicate harmonic cross-bowings—set the audience up for nearly an hour of music that never quite touched the ground. In the first of five songs, the piano (played with Zen-like commitment by Winston Choi) laid down a series of cycling 5th-laden chords that filled the space with a tranquil, subdued atmosphere. Vocalist Amanda DeBoer Bartlett matched the mood with drawn out, slightly swelling syllables that often ended with a slight dip in pitch. One quickly lost track of the amply spaced words as the singer wandered curiously from phrase to phrase. The result was less a narrative, more a daydream. Slowly crossing the stage from her chair to the mirror (the only pieces of the “set”), Bartlett underplayed stage action in favor of contemplation.
One recurring gesture—in which the vocal line gradually widened intervallically as it wobbled up and down—was executed to an obsessive degree. Like a warped baroque opera ornament, the woozy motif found its way across the entire piece, becoming an emblem of deterioration through words of dying roses and dissolving flames. Although text painting was explicit, the harmonic language suggested moods contrary to the vanitas. Choi, for instance, cued the “great bell has toll’d” line with a wave of stacked 5ths (like the chords from the beginning, now spread apart across the keyboard) that washed over the audience, replacing expected connotations of death with wonder.
As new ideas were introduced from song to song, they all began to recur at a similar rate, obscuring the importance of any one motif. Bartlett remained in the clouds, distancing herself from the seriousness of the text by treating syllables like little melodic fantasies. She read from her libretto amorously, as if fawning over a high school crush’s yearbook entry. The singer also took advantage of the amusing interplay between the instruments; at one point, she sang a delightfully simple rising pitch, pleading with the cello. When the cello answered with a complementary falling pitch, Bartlett couldn’t help but smile.
If any part of the opera threatened to bring the dream crashing down, it was the fourth song, “The Broken Mirror (Star Dust).” In between solo musings from the vocalist, the piano frequently hammered out dense clusters that disrupted the hazy texture. Bartlett screamed at one point, as if waking up to reality for the first time. The voice and piano even halted when the cellist metronomically plucked his strings near the bridge of the instrument, emulating the ticking of a clock. It was perhaps the only moment during the concert where one became aware of time.
But previous gestures continued to resurface, now distracting us at a schizophrenic rate. The final song struck a strange resemblance to the first, not suggesting a recapitulation as much as a resetting of the music. More and more I had the feeling that we were going nowhere. Yet like all things time-based, it had to end. Wild delayed the closing as best he could with a four minute descending glissando on a single cello string. The tension was at its highest for this solo, the entire room focused on the solitary process. The only non-spectator was Bartlett; she sat behind her chair in disbelief, using its back to shield her eyes from what we now realized was the inevitable.
Andrew Tham is a composer and music blogger living in Chicago.