The Jewish Museum, Fifth Avenue, New York
November 15, 2018
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be that much in common between minimalist icon Philip Glass and the under-acknowledged Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006). With his emphasis on form and his populist appeal, the 81-year-old American seems poles apart from the sparse textures and frequently aggressive sound world of Shostakovich’s only female pupil. Dig deeper, though, and there are connections. Both came to artistic maturity at times of ferment – Glass in the turbulent late 60s, Ustvolskaya following the death of Stalin and the brief period of cultural thaw under Khrushchev – and both met with stiff opposition. Listening to their music, especially that written for piano, both clearly have an abiding interest in sonority. But most importantly for this concert, both are musical heroes of Jenny Lin, whose program for Bang on a Can at the Jewish Museum placed their work side by side.
Marc Chagall’s design for The Playboy of the Western World
The partnership between the New York, composer-led new music powerhouse and the Manhattan-based museum is now in its fifth year, the object of the exercise being to use music by the former to illuminate the latter’s diverse range of exhibitions. The current show is entitled ‘Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922’ and highlights the brief Utopian period of cultural ferment that took place immediately following the Russian Revolution in Chagall’s home town, and acknowledge the major contributions of Jewish artists, thinkers and theatre practitioners. On its own, this brilliantly curated exhibition of 160 works is reason enough to pay a visit, but it also draws attention to the aspirational time and place into which Ustvolskaya was born, one all-too-soon fated to be replaced with a Soviet regime not at all welcoming of a woman whose art was at loggerheads with the requisite socialist realism of the day.
But first, the Glass. Lin, since 2014 one of the collaborators chosen to play alongside the composer himself as he tours his now 21 Etudes around the world, is authoritative in this repertoire. A swift, but powerful interpreter, her touch is sure and purposeful, her balance (so crucial in these contrapuntal masterpieces) is unerringly true. Programming five of the etudes, she launched into the thoughtful chord progressions of No 1, a work that tugs at the heartstrings, casting a nostalgic glance back to Glass’s own musical roots, but also further in time with a nod to Bach and the preludes of The Well-Tempered Clavier. The flow was only slightly disturbed by the discreet arrival of the composer midway through, delayed as were many of his fellow audience members by an unseasonal snowfall across Manhattan.
The more ruminative Second Etude demonstrated Lin’s fine sense of the necessary rubato required to keep these works living and breathing, the sonorous left-hand chords ringing out potently from her Steinway in the museum’s intimate acoustic. The perky No 13 with its almost jazzy cross-rhythms and exuberant scales saw the pianist enjoying the dynamic contrasts in a work that seems bound on some hectic musical road trip. The wistful Sixteenth Etude was sensitively shaped, its climax suitably aching, before the jocular Tenth with its cheeky gestures in the crossed left hand thumbing the nose at the underlying pedantic motor rhythm rounded out the first half of the program.
The three short Ustvolskaya preludes that followed couldn’t have provided starker contrast. Bare, frosty and brief, the hesitant progress of the First seemed laden with second or even third thoughts. The more-determined Second Prelude breathes an air of defiance, despite its spartan textures, while the angry tone clusters of the Fifth raise a tentative fist to heaven before flickering and dying in a glacial postlude. Lin clearly responds to these frequently troubled works, getting deep inside the music yet never falling into the trap of over interpretation.
The composer’s uncompromising Piano Sonata No 5, written in 1986, saw Lin don a mysterious pair of black fingerless mittens for a masterful reading. A work that veers between the sardonic darkness of Prokofiev and a tortured quality way beyond Shostakovich’s bleakest of utterances, this is music that speaks of spirits beaten remorselessly into submission. Utterly anti-populist, you can see why the Soviets would have forbidden performances. Funereal, brutal and joyless, it’s not a work that is easy to love, yet you have to respect its white-hot anger and sense of defiance. “All who really love my music should refrain from theoretical analysis of it,” Ustvolskaya once said, so perhaps it’s best to leave it at that.
Jenny Lin at The Jewish Museum
Returning to the light, Lin’s finale turned out to be the New York premiere of Glass’s Passacaglia for Piano – Distant Figure, a bravura work in which the soloist sees reflections of its creators love of Russian composers. It’s a great big emotive beast of a piece in which gentle oscillations open up to a lyrical theme in the right hand decorated with increasingly dynamic coruscating runs up and down the keyboard. The central section throbs with passion, the runs becoming longer and more virtuosic in the manner of the best baroque divisions before winding down to a peaceful conclusion. It would be hard to imagine a finer interpreter than Lin, her commanding technique overcoming the work’s intrinsic and not-inconsiderable demands. A headlong reading of Glass’s Sixth Etude rounded out a rewarding and fascinating juxtaposition of two contrasting yet comparable composers.
Chagall, Lissitzky, Malevich: The Russian Avant-Garde in Vitebsk, 1918-1922 is at The Jewish Museum, Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street until January 6, 2019