Death and Light Meld in Rothko And Shostakovich

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Rothko Chapel, Houston (Wiki Commons)
The Jerusalem Quartet played late Shostakovich quartets in the tranquil meditative space of Houston’s Rothko Chapel.
By Mike Greenberg

HOUSTON – An extraordinary convergence of music, art, and architectural space wrought a moment of near-perfection for the fortunate few (about 180) who could squeeze into Houston’s Rothko Chapel on March 24 to hear the Jerusalem Quartet play the last three string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich.

The Jerusalem Quartet played the last three Shostakovich Quartets. (Felix Broede)
The Jerusalem Quartet played the entire Shostakovich cycle. (F. Broede)

Violinists Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov are founding members of the ensemble, established when they were students at the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music and Dance. Violist Ori Kam joined in 2011. This concert was the capstone of their complete Shostakovich cycle for Houston’s Da Camera chamber music and jazz series.

There is a danger, given the music and the art and the circumstances of their creation, of giving too much weight to death in speaking about this concert. Shostakovich knew that he had terminal cancer when he composed his last three quartets, between 1970 and 1974. Mark Rothko was suffering from depression in the years 1965-67, when he created the 14 giant canvases for the octagonal interior of the non-denominational chapel that would bear his name. They would be his last completed works; he committed suicide in 1970.

Mark Rothko created 14 canvases for the chapel bearing his name.
Mark Rothko created 14 canvases for the chapel bearing his name.

When viewed under narrow slits of natural light, as Rothko directed, they seem, at first encounter, to be undifferentiated rectangles of black suggesting the nothingness of death. (Alas, for this evening concert the audience entered the space under too-bright artificial lighting.) As one stands and looks for a while, however, structure and color begin to appear. Most obviously, seven of the panels have borders of black-red, but all of the black fields have tonal variations that reflect distinct ways of applying paint. Pine forests seem to climb mountainsides on the panels flanking the entrance.

The outer panels of the triptych on the opposite wall have faint, evenly spaced horizontal lines that suggest waves, and the central panel, slightly lighter in shade than the other two, is a veritable tumult of smudges and lines recalling the incompletely erased traces of calculus equations on a chalkboard. Far from ciphers, these paintings reflect in every square inch the vital act of their making by human hands and material means. One might say that they have death in view, but the life in them cannot be denied.

Dmitri Shostakovich composed 15 string quartets.
Shostakovich was seriously ill when writing his late string quartets.

Much the same could be said of Shostakovich’s triptych of final string quartets. The middle one, No. 14, in F-sharp, is lighter and livelier than its fellows, and Zlotnikov gave the opening cello statement an uncommonly jaunty feeling. The single-movement No. 13, in B-flat minor, is the most agitated of the three, particularly in the biting violin pizzicati and slashing dissonant chords that close the opening adagio section, but the central section is a sort of dance in jazz style, played with nicely swinging rhythm by the Jerusalem. No. 15, in E-flat minor, comprising six adagios played without pause, is mostly dark and ruminative, but this performance admitted a good deal of light, in part through the luster and presence of Pavlovsky’s violin tone. The ensemble’s attention to the specific characteristics of its episodes, some of which came off as positively buoyant, made the whole seem rather less somber than it often does.

The performances were also notable for the players’ ability to sustain Shostakovich’s very long musical arcs, for their close attention to one another and for the warm, glossy beauty of their sound, both individually and as a team.

Contributing immensely to the success of this concert was the acoustical environment itself. The string quartet sound was the most immersive and immediate in my experience. Most concert rooms tend to airbrush the sound and soften its contours when heard beyond a few rows from the stage. Here, even at the back of the room, one heard everything – the whoosh of horsehair on strings in the attacks, the detailed texture of the sustains – as though sitting in the players’ laps.

The acoustics threw merciless light on a few slight and easily forgivable flaws, but on the whole the Jerusalem stood up handsomely to close scrutiny.

Note: For a CVNA review of the Jerusalem Quartet playing Brahms, click here.

Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Texas. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.