Pure Pärt v Stultifyingly Sanctimonious Sellars under Capacious Kapoor – 7 Feb

Antonin Artaud’s For an End to the Judgement of God and June Jordan’s Kissing God Goodbye

John Malpede as Antonin Artaud and General Stufflebeern
Pascale Armand as June Jordan

Music by Osvaldo Golijov

Directed by Peter Sellars

LamenTate [World première]

London Sinfonietta
Musicians from the Royal Academy of Music
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Alexander Briger

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 7 February, 2003
Venue: Tate & Egg Live, Tate Modern, Turbine Hall, London

Very much a game of two (vastly unequal) parts, this evening of performances was part of the Tate & Egg Live events running through the year at the Tate Modern on London’s re-energised South Bank. In response to Anish Kapoor’s extraordinary sculpture Marsyas which fills the top half of the mighty Turbine Room, both rapt Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and vertical-haired avant-garde director Peter Sellars were invited to be inspired by Kapoor’s three massive red orifices interconnected as if by a plant-like umbilical chord. Inspired by the classical tale of Marsyas being skinned alive and stretched having offended the gods, the sculpture instilled in Pärt a desire to write his longest instrumental work, a lament rather cumbersomely entitled LamenTate.

First however, the packed audience was faced with Peter Sellars’s response to Kapoor’s Marsyas. At first I mused that it was unfortunate that although London has seen a number of Sellars’s works (perhaps most notably the belated staging of John Adams’s Nixon in China at ENO in 2000), the city had not commissioned from him a new work. How unfortunate to beget this monstrosity!However, it turns out in close reading of the programme that the work was actually first seen in Vienna in June last year, commissioned by the Wiener Festwochen. In some senses this is even worse, as surely someone from Tate & Egg could have seen how abysmal it was and demanded of Sellars something original and – hopefully (although never guaranteed) – better.

Sellars in his paragraph in the programme sounds as if his piece was inspired from a political approach to Kapoor’s work. I was intrigued and impressed by his view of it as “a Guernica for the 21st century: three gigantic mouths screaming from the flayed skin in a great howl of pain.” But unfortunately the great punk iconoclast lazily tried to shoehorn this excruciatingly long indictment of American warmongering into a new situation, which cheated not only his commissioners but also the public, who – after an hour – were leaving the performance area in droves. Sellars’s idea was to stage Artaud’s post-war diatribe (and letters pertaining to it) in Sellars’s own scatological translation in the form of an American presidential address, complete with President’s crest on the lectern and American flag. All credit to actor John Malpede who had to stay straight-faced in this 100-minute farrago while reciting Sellars’s version of Artaud.Regrettably I do not know the original, but so agonisingly undramatic was the conception that I lost the will to attempt an understanding of the words within about 20 minutes.Audience-watching proved much more instructive; the slumped body language or the couples laughing quietly between themselves were amusing to me as much as they must have been heart-breaking to the actor.

Also within seconds I had decided to instigate a new award – the “Simon McBurney Award for Appalling Microphone Technique” (SMAAMT). Anyone who has seen the almost equally embarrassing (but from some quarters inexplicably acclaimed) Complicité production of Mnemonic and thus has had to sit through McBurney’s faux fumbling at the microphone at the very start, will know immediately the sort of silly posturing and spluttering into the microphone that Sellars asks Malpede to indulge in. Enough said!

90 minutes in, when suicide seemed a viable option, Malpede had to stand by for a final shaft of light relief, when (posing as a questioner) actress Pascale Armand took the stage to recite June Jordan’s witty and poignant assault on the male-dominance of world religion Kissing God Goodbye.In its concise attack on the idiotic and contrary nature of both organised religion and our patriarchal society it was definitely worth hearing. Shame we had to put up with Sellars’s Artaud onanism for an hour-and-a-half before hand.

Whether all of this put us in the right frame of mind for Arvo Pärt’s LamenTate I don’t know. There was a certain drifting of the audience away during the performance – but given that it started at 10.30pm (in a programme, without interval, that started at 8.30pm) and finished about 11.10pm that was perhaps not surprising. From the claustrophobic confines under the middle yelling mouth for Sellars’s scabrous soliloquy, the audience was ushered down onto the main floor of the Turbine Hall. Along with a collective sighs of relief and the feeling we could all breathe again, we were provided either with folding seats or cushions to sit in front of the orchestra, laid out by the eastern open mouth of Kapoor’s monument.

Written for full orchestra, with obbligato piano part, there is no doubt that LamenTate was the real masterpiece of the evening (even over Kapoor’s Marsyas itself: his smaller-scale works are – for me – more involving and thought-provoking; this statue is just too large to properly comprehend). Aside from the constant deep hum of air circulation (whether air-conditioning or some essential part of keeping Marsyas the sculpture up I know not), which added a distinctly unwanted background to Pärt’s often delicate score, and the cavernous acoustic of almost cathedral-like proportions, there was enough in this first hearing to detect vintage Pärt. Moreover, there were intriguing insights as to perhaps a new path for the composer, in that there are some connections within between his earlier avant-garde style (the three symphonies for example) and the widely acclaimed more recent spiritual and tintinabular style, often misleadingly collated with minimalism.

Deep rumbles on two sets of timpani usher in slow trombone chords – an important four-note motif, that is repeated a number of times in various configurations, each separated by a bar of silence. Trumpets take over the motif and play their complete cycle. When the orchestra and piano soloist come in with more propulsive material (the piano almost emulating the octave leaps from the opening of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto), the trombones and trumpets leave the main orchestra and re-site themselves behind and high above the audience. Their reappearance of is in a series of solos, again running the full gamut of slow variants of the four-note motif. Later, back in the orchestra, the flutes and then various instruments take over the slow four-note trajectory, most hauntingly for marimba and timpani duo.

More than ever the connection with Bruckner came through.With a similar use of fashioning a massive orchestral structure from a number of building blocks, including those in his tintinabular style, with distinct string timbres and rippling accompaniment, there is nothing ’sonata form’ about LamenTate. Rather, there is a slow unfolding of ideas that gently infiltrate the mind and calm the listener. Episodes can rise to great volume (more like Bruckner than anything Pärt has written before). There are three climactic cries, perhaps equating to Kapoor’s three orifices – and then, Cantus-like, there is a dying coda with slow descending strings (here not as overlapping as in Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten) to final – awe-inspiring – silence. Pärt’s stated aim is a form of religious lament, in contrast to Kapoor’s mythological one and Sellars’s (regrettably backfiring) political one.

The piano part is rarely virtuosic (and it may in future performances be assimilated into the orchestra), but Hélène Grimaud was a persuasive and committed soloist, as were the joint players of the Royal Academy and the London Sinfonietta. Alexander Briger obviously has the blessing of Pärt, and managed the piece’s architecture convincingly. I long to make the work’s re-acquaintance again, in a silent acoustic, or on a suitable recording. I also hope that Pärt will turn to full orchestra for more works in the future – perhaps this project has produced the key to unlock some further orchestral works.

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