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The New York Sun

July 25, 2005 Monday

Shadows of Schonberg


Arnold Schonberg said about his friend Siegfried Wagner that he was "the greatest composer whose music you have never heard." If he were alive today, he might say of his own devotee Brian Ferneyhough that he was the most challenging composer of whom you have never heard.

A British academic totally steeped in the modern German tradition, Mr. Ferneyhough moved to California in 1987 and now teaches at Stanford. It was this relocation that made him think seriously about the emigration of Schonberg and Mann to Los Angeles and the strange story of philosopher Walter Benjamin, who sought to follow in their footsteps.

Benjamin's necrology assures that his life concluded as enigmatically as his writings. Lingering rather too long in Nazi Germany, he serendipitously executed his escape route only to commit suicide on the border of occupied France and less problematic Spain when the key to freedom seemed to be within his grasp but for the proper documentation. Was his decision a confession of his sense of unworthiness, a mirror of Moses unable to enter the promised land, or simply absurdist nihilism?

Mr. Ferneyhough looks as through a cracked mirror at these issues in the opera " Shadowtime," fresh from a mounting at the London Coliseum this month and currently enjoying its North American premiere on the stage of the new Rose Theater as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

The work is not really an opera at all, but rather seven disconnected scenes that follow a "ripples in the pool" structure. Only the first scene is in realistic narrative style; the others are surreal and phantasmagoric. Musically the sections are disparate as well, instrumentation varying from solo piano to chamber orchestra to electronic tape. Much of the heavy lifting in " Shadowtime" must be done by the audience itself, on opening night a mix of hirsute downtown 60-somethings and professional musicians.

Judging by the snippets of conversation overheard in the elevator and lobby, the consensus was that it was important to come out and show support for contemporary music as a holy duty of obligation. Although at least one third of the crowd walked out before the conclusion of the work, some as quickly as Saint-Saens at the premiere of "Le Sacre du Printemps," those of us who stayed were treated to exceptional music-making and kaleidoscopically varied music.

The sections that worked best were those directly inspired by Schonberg. "The Rustling of the Wings of Gabriel" was the most complex and densest instrumentally, the guitar obbligato more than a little reminiscent of Schonberg's "Serenade." The chorus in "The Doctrine of Similarity" acted very much like the voice of God from Schonberg's "Moses und Aron," whispering and shouting its way through its intonations. Less effective musically were the finale for prepared tape and singers, which seemed forced, and the solo piano lounge act that moved about the stage by being pulled by ubiquitous stagehands.

As Benjamin sojourns in the afterlife, his existence becomes fragmented, eventually consisting of only utterances and loose, floating ideas, expressed as phrases from his philosophy. The stagings of director Frederic Fisbach were as multidimensional as the music itself. Most interesting were the tableaux titled "Pools of Darkness," wherein giant cardboard cutouts of the likes of Pope Pius XII and Einstein invoked the era of the 1940s while more timeless mythological figures like the golem established a Jungian panorama of Jewish mysticism and childhood fright. Taking a cue from librettist Charles Bernstein, there was even a fantastical multiheaded animal that implicitly asked the question whether Benjamin was more Karl Marx (he did indeed flirt with communism) or Groucho.

This is an ensemble piece, and so there were no individual stars. Even the part of Benjamin is a minor one, relentlessly unraveling as the strands of his life become less important and dominant as the night progresses. Finally, in the penultimate scene, he simply walks to the back of the stage and sits down among the Bergmanesque trappings of the production, just another prop stored away until tomorrow.

Most impressive was the playing of the orchestra, the Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam, and the command and control of conductor Jurjen Hempel. Some of the lines were less than crisp in spots, but this is extremely difficult music, and this evening it was performed courageously. The singing in general was acceptable, although there was unnecessary miking for such a small venue.

That venue is New York's newest salon of culture, a Broadway-styled house in the middle of a shopping mall. This was my first visit to the Rose, and altogether I was impressed. The sight lines and the acoustics seemed fine, although the miking made a full evaluation impossible. This is an intimate place and will probably be especially effective for spoken-word productions. Musically, if the orchestra is not too overwhelming, then the future is bright here. For such a small auditorium, there is a very big pit and an extremely deep stage.

It is always debatable as to which season summer music belongs. If this is the end of last season, then " Shadowtime" ranks as one of its brightest presentations of contemporary music. If, as I personally like to believe, this is the beginning of the new season, then listening to music written after 1950 has a solid future, at least in a town willing to fill the seats.