Gilfry Shows How It Must Feel To Not Be Glenn Gould


By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – Our continuing fascination with Glenn Gould exceeds anything that occurred during his lifetime, so an opera that has the brilliant, eccentric Canadian pianist/thinker as a character – albeit an unseen, off-stage one – is going to attract some attention.

Yet in David Lang’s monodrama, the loser (as always, Lang prefers his titles in lower case due to what he calls “a hopeless affectation”), the legend of Gould was eclipsed by the performance of the man in the spotlight, baritone Rod Gilfry. It became his personal tour-de-force at the loser‘s West Coast premiere – courtesy of LA Opera Off-Grand and Bang on a Can – at the ornate former movie palace, The Theatre at Ace Hotel, deep within downtown Los Angeles.

Rod Gilfry as the Narrator obsessed with his inferiority to Glenn Gould. (Larry Ho)

First seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Sept. 2016, exactly one hour in length, the loser is an almost literal representation of Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel of the same name in Jack Dawson’s English translation. The sole character is an unnamed narrator, a former aspiring concert pianist who, along with Gould and a fellow pianist named Wertheimer, attended a Vladimir Horowitz master class at the Salzburg Mozarteum in 1953. The narrator and Wertheimer realize that Gould is a pianistic genius and that they can never hope to rise to his level of performance. That epiphany ruins both of their lives. The narrator obsesses endlessly about it in a nearly non-stop monologue of run-on paragraphs. He gives his precious Steinway piano to a nine-year-old girl and takes up philosophy as a refuge. Wertheimer takes it even harder, especially after Gould rubs it in by calling Wertheimer “the loser” to his face. Wertheimer is eventually driven to suicide not long after Gould’s own death, and the narrator is left alone, listening to one of Gould’s signature recordings of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Gould’s actual live Salzburg recording of the `Goldbergs.’

First, let’s get some things straight about the piece’s historical context. Wertheimer and the narrator are fictional characters. Horowitz did not teach a master class in Salzburg in 1953, the year in which he went into a 12-year retirement from public appearances. Gould had little use for Horowitz; he even satirized the reclusive pianist’s heavily publicized 1965 return to Carnegie Hall in his mischievous audio play, A Glenn Gould Fantasy. Strangely (or deliberately?), the libretto gets Gould’s age at his death wrong – he was 50, not 51. Yet Gould did perform the Goldberg Variations in Salzburg in 1959, and there is a recording for those who are curious.

But I’m being overly pedantic. The unnerving issues raised by the loser and Gould’s life story are more to the point. Does exposure to genius inspire one to keep striving, or does it lead to self-loathing and defeat? Does true genius drive the person who has it mad? Is all of the hard work needed to become a virtuoso worth the effort when the payoff is a lifetime of stomachaches performing in front of audiences that you think are waiting for you to fall off the tightrope? Gould becomes merely the lure that gets us to confront things about ourselves and human nature, not the focus of a docudrama.

Inside the ornate Theatre at Ace Hotel, with the narrator’s stairway in view. (Larry Ho)

Lang, who directed this production himself, went about his vision using the simplest of unorthodox means. The entire audience in the Theatre at Ace Hotel was seated in the balcony, its steeply raked stairs without handrails challenging the balance of less-nimble climbers. A long stairway rose from the dark, vacant orchestra level, culminating in a confining platform that faced the balcony. From this vantage point, Gilfry sang directly and intimately right at us, hardly moving or gesturing.

Jennifer Tipton’s lighting changed little throughout the hour, at one point turning green to evoke the countryside of one scene, but mostly focusing the spotlight upon Gilfry. The four-piece ensemble (viola, cello, double bass, and mallet percussion) and conductor Lesley Leighton were invisible; only pianist Conrad Tao could be seen – occasionally – in dramatically-illuminated dimness.

The score itself is minimal in the extreme even for a notoriously economical composer like Lang – relentless measures of plunking by the strings separated by pauses, a mournful viola solo with marimba, exercises for the cello, fragmented phrases for the piano, everything rolling along calmly. The vocal line is all unmemorable recitative, letting the words drive everything.

Conrad Tao at the piano, the only other visible performer. (Larry Ho)

If the above sounds like we were in for a dull evening at the theater, Gilfry immediately dispelled that notion. Dressed in a tux, he was a commanding, charismatic presence, his baritone at 59 never sounding so strong and resonant, fearlessly delivering what had to be an arduous marathon role (fortuitously, Gilfry has said that he once ran a real marathon and learned something about pacing). Everything about the narrator’s overanalyzing, self-pity, self-absorption, rueful wit, and obsession with his old friend Wertheimer was conveyed through Gilfry’s voice alone. His diction was superbly clear at close range; we didn’t miss a word (a complete libretto was thoughtfully included in the program for our perusal later).

In the end, the only significant physical motion that Gilfry made was to turn around at the close of his monologue to face Tao, who continued to play fragmentary bits in the Lang manner alone, downstairs, in a drawn-out coda. The music seemed to be the opposite of the impossibly swift, clearly etched, contrapuntal virtuosity we associate with Gould’s  recordings of the Goldberg Variations that it is supposed to evoke. Yet that part of the score had the most lasting effect; it lingered in the mind for a long time after the lights went down.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.