Cutting-Edge Fare Captures Light At Ringling Museum

Founded by a circus impresario, the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art has a performing arts program that
includes the Ringling International Arts Festival of new music, theater and dance. (Photo by Anton Grassl)
By John Fleming

SARASOTA, Fla. – The music of John Luther Adams seems made for one of light artist James Turrell’s Skyspaces, museum installations that feature an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky. It’s a setting designed to invite contemplation by patrons. One of Adams’ orchestra pieces, The Light Within, was inspired by the composer’s experience of spending an afternoon in one of these spaces, and other works by him have the dreamy, immersive qualities that suit such a magical environment.

Samantha Bennett and George Nickson are the artistic directors
of Sarasota’s ensemblenewSRQ. (Matthew Holler)

Joseph’s Coat is the Turrell Skyspace at Sarasota’s John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, and it was the site for a performance of Adams’ Four Thousand Holes for piano, percussion, and “electronic aura.” The program was one of two by the enterprising contemporary music collective ensemblenewSRQ at the palatial pink museum. The second program showcased music of an equally adventurous but very different sort of composer from an earlier generation, Luciano Berio, played in a traditional gallery of the museum.

EnsemblenewSRQ was appearing as part of the ninth annual Ringling International Arts Festival, an eclectic affair of cutting-edge music, dance, and theater. The two hour-long performances I heard were on Oct. 20, the day before the festival concluded its four-day run. The Ringling has presented its share of new music through the years in either the festival or the museum’s New Stages series. Past performers have included Brooklyn Rider, Eighth Blackbird, cellist Matt HaimovitzPhyllis Chen on toy piano, the string quartet ETHEL, and the Vijay Iyer Trio. But this was the first time the festival featured a homegrown group – ensemblenewSRQ is made up mostly of members of the Sarasota Orchestra – and co-artistic directors George Nickson, a percussionist, and violinist Samantha Bennett had long dreamed of performing Adams’ music in Joseph’s Coat, which opened in 2011.

Inspired by light: John Luther Adams. (Pete Woodhead)

How do you review the sky? That was a question I pondered after Four Thousand Holes (the title is from a lyric in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”), because the way to listen to music in the Skyspace is with your head craned back, gazing upward at the sky through the 24-foot-square opening in the high ceiling. Joseph’s Coat, similar to other Turrell installations, is outfitted with a complex system of LED lighting programmed to change the colors inside the installation, and that can sometimes create an almost overwhelming sensory experience, but for Four Thousand Holes, performed on a sunny late afternoon, natural light filled the space, whose walls are covered with creeping fig vine, its pillars with jasmine.

The expert performers were Nickson on vibraphone and glockenspiel and Conor Hanick on piano, their intricate, intense duet worked out amid Adams’ electronics, a densely textured sonic landscape anchored by major and minor triads playing from speakers in each corner of the space. Four Thousand Holes drones and vibrates, swells and fades away and then repeats the cycle, suggesting a vast sound machine. Over about 35 minutes, the effect was mesmerizing, but what gave the performance an unforgettable sense of occasion was how it framed the experience of being in the Skyspace, with wind rustling the greenery while wispy clouds drifted by overhead, and the trail of an airplane miles above the earth appeared, all seemingly in weird synch with the music. Near the end of the piece there came a delightful shock when a hawk flew across the aperture, as if cued in the score.

The Joseph’s Coat program opened with Salvatore Sciarrino’s Codex Purpureus, an incredibly soft and subtle string trio – violinist Bennett, violist Steven Laraia, cellist Natalie Helm – accompanied by the faint hum of traffic noise from nearby U.S. Highway 41.

Luciano Berio composed 14 ‘Sequenzas.’ (Wikipedia)

The Berio program, heard earlier that afternoon, was in the Huntington Gallery, which is stuffed with romantic paintings and sculpture. The performance made a good case for the Italian composer whose heyday was the 1960s, when the Beatles credited him and Stockhausen for influencing some ideas that went into albums like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Performed at the Ringling were several of the Sequenza series for solo instruments. They ranged from the ridiculous (in a good way) to the sublime to something else entirely.

Brad Williams was responsible for the ridiculous, with a superb rendition of the comic Sequenza V for trombone while walking around the gallery in a clown costume, from curly red wig to floppy shoes. His getup was an homage both to Berio’s inspiration for the piece, a great Swiss clown named Grock, as well as to circus impresario John Ringling, who built the museum and bequeathed it to the state of Florida upon his death in 1936. For many years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus wintered in Sarasota, and the museum’s 66-acre property includes the Ringling mansion and the Circus Museum.

The sublime was Bennett’s immaculate, passionate performance of the Bachian Sequenza VIII in a reading so assured that the 12-minute work felt like an essential masterwork for solo violin. Less persuasive was Sequenza IV for piano, played by Hamick in relentlessly emphatic fashion, and not helped by the boomy acoustics of the gallery. A graceful touch was supplied by Bharat Chandra, who played Berio’s wistful miniature for clarinet, Lied.

Thea Lobo gave a theatrical performance of ‘Sequenza III.’

Something else entirely was Berio’s amazing – and amazingly difficult – Sequenza III for female voice, written in 1965 for the composer’s wife, the legendary avant-garde soprano Cathy Berberian. At the Ringling, the piece was performed by mezzo-soprano Thea Lobo, who left a seat in the audience to make her abrupt entrance while muttering, sounding like a madwoman coming in off the street.

Over the next eight minutes or so, Lobo traversed the gamut of extended vocal technique, crisscrossing the borderline between singing and speaking, emitting sounds or words from the elliptical text by Markus Kutter in 15 different ways listed in the score as “mouth clicks,” “cough,” “salvoes of laughter,” “dental tremolo (or jaw quivering),” “snapping fingers gently,” “tongue trill against the upper lip,” and so forth. And then there are the markings in the score asking the vocalist to suggest emotions like “tense,” “urgent,” “distant and dreamy,” “bewildered,” “ecstatic,” and dozens more.

Lobo was up to the task of being completely accessible to the audience while also being unintelligible much of the time. Every once in a while she would burst into a fragment of song, filling the gallery with a rich operatic sound, and it seemed as if she had an orchestra behind her. It was a thrillingly theatrical performance.

Berio composed 14 Sequenzas, and ensemblenewSRQ is launching a multiyear project to perform them all, with Bennett’s Sequenza VIII and Lobo’s Sequenza III to be repeated in concerts on Jan. 29 and March 26, respectively, with others to be programmed in seasons to come. The group’s next concert is a centennial tribute to Lou Harrison on Dec. 11, featuring pianist Sarah Cahill.

John Fleming is president of the Music Critics Association of North America. He writes for Musical America, Opera, and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.

The aperture  in the ceiling of James Turrell’s Skyspace ‘Joseph’s Coat.’ Here LED lighting fills the space. There was
natural lighting during the performance of ‘Four Thousand Holes.’ (Giovanni Lunardi)