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Him and His Shadow

New York
Rose Theater
07/21/2005 -  07/22/05
Brian Ferneyhough: Shadowtime
Ekkehard Abele (Benjamin)
Nicolas Hodges (piano)
Mats Scheidegger (guitar)
Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart
Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam
Jurjen Hempel (conductor)

There have been a lot of changes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan recently, the most intrusive of which is the building of a suburban style shopping mall at Columbus Circle, just halfway between Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. Sacrificing character for convenience, this invasion of the soccer moms has at least one saving grace: the new Rose Theater. Built for "Jazz at Lincoln Center", this smallish venue is ideal for chamber music and mid-level sized opera. As such, it hosted the North American premiere of Shadowtime by Brian Ferneyhough, reviewed in these pages recently by H.E. Elsom from London.
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 whereas 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, this opening night a
mix of hirsute downtown sixtysomethings and professional musicians. Judging by the snippets of conversation
overheard in elevator and lobby, the consensus was that it was important to come out and show support
for contemporary music. 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 the best were those directly inspired by Schoenberg. "The Rustling of the Wings
of Gabriel" was the most complex and densest instrumentally, the guitar obbligato more than a little
reminiscent of Schoenberg's Serenade. The chorus in "The Doctrine of Similarity" acted very much like
the voice of God from Schoenberg'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.
What I found fascinating was the fragmentation of the personality of Benjamin as he lingered in the realm of the afterlife. From actual human to faceless drone to broken phrases of his own arcane philosophy, he doesn't so much belong to the ages as he is absorbed by them, ending his existence by simply walking to the back of the stage in the penultimate scene and taking his place among the props ready to be packed for tomorrow's production. Ferneyhough's music mimics this type of degeneration, eventually morphing into the chaos of the electronic.
It seemed that very few of the patrons cared deeply for this troubled work - even early reviews from critics with a decided bent towards the contemporary were less than kind - but I, for one, was suitably impressed. Not that I wish to run out and buy a handful of Ferneyhough CD's, but I would certainly defend him as a powerful voice in matters cosmological.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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