Morton Feldman composer portrait
Morton Feldman: Violin and Orchestra, Rothko Chapel, Coptic Light
Isobel Faust (violin), Elizabeth Poole (soprano), Penny Vickers (alto), Norbert Blume (viola), Colin Currie (percussion), Elizabeth Burley (celesta)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)
Morton Feldman, in contrast to John Adams (the subject of the BBCSO's recent wildly popular weekend) is a composer for insiders and initiates. Initially inspired by John Cage, in maturity he was something like a holy minimalist, though with less affinity to Pärt than to Sofia Gubaidulina and Galina Ustvolskaya in his powerfully emblematic gestures, and with more than a touch of LaMonte Young in his slowly evolving, hypnotic developments. Feldman (who died in 1987) steered clear of both conventional religion and drugginess, though, and had a distinctive tragic spirituality of his own.
The first work of the evening, Violin and orchestra, is in some ways close to a conventional modern concerto: the solo violin is a contrasting thread in the orchestral texture rather than a heroic voice set against it. But in a single seamless movement over an hour long, and played by Isobel Faust and the BBCSO with great intensity and control, it took you into an austerely altered state.
The works in the second part of the programme were superficially more decorative. Rothko Chapel and Coptic Light both take artefacts with religious associations as their starting points but offer slightly cerebral spatial and chromatic refinement rather than trance or uplift. Rothko Chapel was written after Rothko's suicide for the dedication of the many-faith chapel for which he produced fifteen characteristic panels. Feldman said the he aimed to produce precisely the experience of looking at the paintings in the chapel, and the music is subtly textured, saturated with single colours and shaped by simple gestures, like Rothko's paintings. The most striking of these is a brief plagal melody on the viola, accompanied by chimes, a touch Vaughan Williams-ish but all the more beautiful for its brevity. Coptic Light consists of a finer, full-orchestral canvas from which explicitly allusive fragments emerge, perhaps a chunk of Brahms or Wagner, and then fade.
Feldman's music is probably more difficult for performers than for audiences, and Rothko Chapel, a commission, might suggest a courtier. But Feldman's own lumbering person and forceful personality suggest quite the opposite, an intellectual and groundbreaker. And the title and theme of Coptic Light, inspired by the evocative fragments of Coptic textiles in the Louvre, hint that he may have been the John Adams of his generation, serious but amiable, interested equally in composition, ideas and emotions.