Review: At Rothko Chapel, a Composer Is Haunted by a Hero

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HOUSTON — The canvases that surround you at the Rothko Chapel here can at first seem merely dark. Entering the space after nightfall on Saturday, the interior dimly lit, I struggled to see much of anything in them at all.

But even in that calm gloom, my eyes slowly acclimated to the 14 grandly saturnine paintings, made by Mark Rothko in the late 1960s. Shadowy rectangles began to emerge, floating over shadow. Returning on Sunday afternoon, cloudy gray filtering through the skylight, they seemed practically colorful, layered veils of purple, green, red, blue, brown: a prismatic black. “Dark” both described them and didn’t.

As that word has been attached to these Rothkos, though, so have been “still” and “glacial” and “spare” to the music of Morton Feldman — whose “Rothko Chapel” was commissioned around the time of the space’s 1971 opening — and Tyshawn Sorey, whose “Monochromatic Light (Afterlife),” written to honor its 50th anniversary, premiered there this weekend.

The surfaces of the paintings, impassively smooth at first glance, gradually offer up textures, depths, hues. And immersion in these patient, seemingly minimal musical responses likewise reveals unexpected densities, whorls, colors, confrontations, uneasy harmonies. Saying these two pieces are “spare” and “glacial” is accurate — and inadequate.

Sorey, who has called Feldman his hero, has responded to the chapel and its paintings — as well as to one of late-20th-century music’s classic works — bravely, with a small group of instruments virtually identical to those of “Rothko Chapel.” His differences sometimes even intensify the connection: One of the new elements he introduces — a piano, in addition to Feldman’s celesta — seems, while adding some tonal richness, also to be a nod to Feldman piano works like “Palais de Mari.”

“Rothko Chapel” and “Monochromatic Light,” both spacious yet intimate, share a certain ritualistic sobriety, with a choir textlessly hovering over soft, somber beats of percussion. Both feature a solo violist whose phrases — sometimes halting, sometimes expressive — exist in something like a duet of duets. The more immediate pairing is with a punctuating, interrogating keyboardist; more distant, more refracted, more delayed is the viola’s echo in a solo vocalist, who also sings enigmatic phrases without text and is the only other performer permitted lyrical expansion.

Both pieces unfold as single movements without clear pulse or meter; the music pauses only occasionally for momentary rests, and both composers’ emphasis on the natural decay of sound means that even those brief silences seem hazily saturated.

But “Monochromatic Light,” which will be staged by Peter Sellars this fall at the Park Avenue Armory, alongside panels by another abstractionist, Julie Mehretu, is roughly double the 25-minute length of “Rothko Chapel.” While Feldman is hardly known for his economy, the earlier piece is almost brisk, its structure compressed and clear, by comparison. And Feldman’s sense of ritual — you always get the feeling that his ensemble is standing side by side, facing you and announcing the piece — is subtly different than Sorey’s, who implies more of a conversation, a circle. Sorey has shifted Feldman’s vocal soloist, a high female voice, to a low male one, and what was an evocation of the angelic has become something more medieval — a monk chanting in his cloister — and also more human.

Commissioned by the chapel and the presenting organization DaCamera, “Monochromatic Light” opens with the faintest shiver of tubular bells, like a carillon heard from miles away, as the performers enter the space, the choir processing down the aisles. The violist eventually plays a quietly piercing, glassy high note, to which the celesta adds another bell-like, candied element.

Uncrowded piano chords linger in the air, periodic amens to the viola’s soulful prayers. The choir sings in suspended, shifting yet precise washes of voices. At one point a perfectly luminous chord, spread through the Houston Chamber Choir’s tenors and basses, was cut off by a bleak, sepulchral cluster in the piano and celesta. Questions often go unanswered, Sorey seems to be saying, and sometimes the answer is no.

That is also the charged word that the bass-baritone Davóne Tines couldn’t help but suggest when he vocalized on the vowel “oh.” But “no” is never an ending in this work. Particularly with Tines and the supremely eloquent violist Kim Kashkashian, the dual protagonists, sharing a tone solid yet airy, and seductively keening, the mood of the music was of a patience that burns, with impatience at its energizing core.

Saturday evening, under spotlights, the purples of the paintings seemed forcibly pulled out, and the music took on a similarly vivid theatricality. On Sunday afternoon, bathed in natural light, the canvases were more serene in their looming brooding, and “Monochromatic Light” felt calmer, too, a touch more fragile. The sensitive percussionist Steven Schick played the opening shimmer of bells with even profounder quiet, and there were more flickers in Kashkashian’s tone.

Beyond the omnipresence of Feldman, Sorey glimpses other music. A longing viola motif, as of a hand reaching tentatively toward the sky, evokes Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” At one point, I heard in the viola a sliver of the opening of Mahler’s song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”).

In such a suggestive work, read into those references, those titles, what you will. Unresolved ambiguities abound. Is the viola trying to enter into dialogue with the keyboardist (Sarah Rothenberg, endlessly unflappable), or trying to free herself from it? Do the steadily building beats of bass drum under the choir in one crucial passage represent progress — the choir’s march forward — or the ominous forces pursuing it?

And what is the relationship between the violist and the vocalist? Are they aspects of the same character? A promise and a fulfillment? Two composers who looked at the same paintings but never met?

A mother and a son? Their intertwining was clearest near the end, if still oblique, when Tines hummed along, barely audible, as Kashkashian played the melody of the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” over tranquil chords in the piano and vibraphone. This opening out of the music into the realm of social and historical experience and anguish echoes the end of “Rothko Chapel,” when Feldman gives his violist what he called a “quasi-Hebraic melody,” invoking his Jewish heritage, and Rothko’s.

For Sorey to interpolate his own invocation, his own heritage, history and memory, is a gesture of both respect and daring. Rarely does a composer present a new work haunted so openly and pervasively by a predecessor’s. But “Monochromatic Light” feels less like a nostalgia trip than a broadening of Feldman’s path deep into the pain and community of our time and the distant but resonant past.

“Monochromatic Light (Afterlife)”

Performed this weekend at the Rothko Chapel, Houston.


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