By David Shengold
NEW YORK — The annual announcement of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival always evokes mixed emotions. Many interesting evenings, works, and artists are billed; however, every year it strikes me that a high proportion of the participants were professionally not only active but also well known when I graduated high school nearly four decades ago. Just how long can one ride that conceptual wave?
So it was apt that the 2016 Festival began with a world première by David Lang. At 59, the California-born composer isn’t exactly the new kid on the block; he first came to note in 1987 as a co-founder of the remarkable new music collective Bang on a Can, and he remains its co-artistic director. But his more recent, wider fame derives from the theater piece the little match girl passion, which won him the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and a 2010 Grammy. (Lang’s e. e. cummings-style “no caps” titles date back a bit before that.)
His new work at BAM — the monodrama the loser — may not rival the Hans Christian Andersen-based match girl in accumulating productions and concert readings, at least in part because of the brilliant visual conception (staged by Lang himself) that lies at the heart of the piece. The spatial conditions will be hard to reproduce. The audience sits in the Opera House’s balcony; the narrator (Rod Gilfry) stands on a platform high above the parterre section, addressing us directly. The stage comes into play only in the fullness of time. Jennifer Tipton’s keen lighting is really the key component of Jim Findlay’s set.
the loser is based on Der Untergeher (1983), the ninth of Thomas Bernhard’s thirteen novels. Like much of his work, it deals with issues of abandonment, suicide, and pessimistic social analysis. The unnamed narrator’s attitudes and chosen details emerge perforce as a critique of the status-consciousness of Austrian society — not least in its cultural production and consumption. (Though of course — as with many other self-critical Austrian works — the Swiss come in for even greater disapprobation.)
Bernhard also dealt often in bravura formal experiments. This particular novel, nearly 200 pages, comprises one paragraph: the language deliberately repeats key phrases and varies verb tenses unpredictably to indicate a kind of random fluidity between the act of recollection and its source matter. Composer Lang himself fashioned the libretto from Jack Dawson’s 1991 translation, of necessity shortening and simplifying the complex narrative.
It’s remarkable — and also very clever — how long the entrance of the sound of a piano is delayed in this hour-long opera devoted to, at least on the surface, discussing pianists and pianos. The narrator sings of himself; of his suicidal colleague, friend, and — not impossibly — object of emotional cathexis, Wertheimer; of Glenn Gould; and of Vladimir Horowitz, in whose (fictional) 1953 Salzburg workshop the three encountered one another. Gould’s superiority stopped the two other potential virtuosi in their tracks. Another pianist invoked is the talentless six-year old provincial schoolmaster’s daughter to whom the narrator gave his Steinway, rejoicing (if that’s a word suitable to the Bernhard universe) in the knowledge of its quick destruction.
But the narration chiefly is accompanied — usually lightly — by low strings. Lang often turns to the cello and double bass (here Clarice Jensen and Lisa Dowling, both eloquent) for emotionally underlining melodic content in the sections that lean towards cantilena. The playing under conductor Karina Canellakis was uniformly excellent, with Isabel Hagen, viola, and Owen Weaver, percussion, the other fine participants. Lang’s coloristic skill in instrumentation provides musical interest in a score in which, about half way through, the vocal line begins to grow rather repetitive: true to Bernhard, perhaps, but it risks audience fuzz-out. Only in the late recollective scenes of visiting Wertheimer’s former home and encountering his poorly tuned instrument does the piano enter the opera’s sound world.
Far below the narrator (and the audience) on a platform on the actual stage sat the first-rate young pianist Conrad Tao (dressed, like the narrator, in a tuxedo). In a deliberately recessed acoustic, he seemed to be providing a window into a lifetime of rehearsing, obsessively repeating little waves of chords that could have been microcells of Debussy or Glass. The protagonist eventually turns to look at him directing our gaze (as he has been doing, verbally, throughout) and after a few minutes of pianism the lights fade.
Wertheimer — his very name evoking questions of wert (worth) and heim (home), as well as German literature’s most famous suicide (c.f. Goethe and Massenet) — pursued his piano career even in the face of his awareness of his inadequacy vis-à-vis Gould. It is only when the two Austrians, decades after their joint studies, visit Gould in Canada at the narrator’s instigation that Gould’s terming him on sight “the loser” triggers his path to self-destruction. The narrator’s guilt clearly shapes his hesitant, compulsive narration, punctuated by frequent spoken-on-pitch variants of “I thought.” As director, Lang also had Gilfry — his highly dramatically skilled protagonist — repeat affirming smiles after some of his direst assessments of events: an excellent use of defamiliarization.
Weeks after turning in a splendidly cynical and stylish Don Alfonso in Mostly Mozart’s Così fan tutte, baritone Gilfry offered a startlingly detailed and on-point performance in a quite different idiom. True, he is by now highly experienced at creating and embodying contemporary operatic roles, be they by Aucoin, Dalbavie, or Maw. Also, much of what Lang asks the narrator to do in the loser amounts to secco recitativo, of which Gilfry, as a longtime participant in the Mozart/da Ponte world, can boast mastery. Phrasing was assured both emotionally — words came across cleanly and invested — and in terms of meaningfully deployed dynamics. Once or twice in the course of his long assignment, Gilfry experienced breaking notes in the upper passaggio. But overall, his vocal health and suppleness were as noteworthy as the artistic concentration that enabled him to learn and deliver Lang’s taxing, mysterious, but ultimately worthwhile score.
Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, Playbill and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, ROH Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.