Levit’s elevated Bach overcomes room and ceremony at Park Avenue Armory

Tue Dec 08, 2015 at 12:11 pm
Igor Levit performed music of Bach in "Goldberg" Monday night at the Park Avenue Armory.

Igor Levit performed music of Bach in “Goldberg” Monday night at the Park Avenue Armory.

Walter Pater claimed “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music,” and decades of exposure to the amorphous genre of performance art constantly reinforces that insight.

The institutionalization of performance art has set Pater’s idea into greater relief—notably in the 2010 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “The Artist is Present”, spotlighting the career of Marina Abramović and her subsequent elevation to cultural stardom. Performance art preserved as static museum piece is further from, and seems to yearn more for, music than ever before.

And now Abramović has made a performance at the Park Avenue Armory that is not music, but is around music. “Goldberg,” which opened Monday night, is a collaboration between pianist Igor Levit and Abramović. She does not perform and is not seen, her contribution to the work (commissioned by the Armory), is credited on the cover of the program book as “method for listening to music.”

What she has devised is simpler and far less pretentious than that phrase implies. Her “method for listening” has its rewards, but ultimately it’s not a benefit to the core of “Goldberg,” which is Levit playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. And Bach’s music—masterpiece is too weak a word to describe it—and Levit’s astonishing musicianship set a chasm between art that is performative and the performance of music.

Levit is a virtuoso with the ability to articulate any passage, no matter how fast or convoluted, with seeming ease. He is also self-effacing, his technique subsumed to clear and substantive expression.

He plays the Goldberg Variations on an excellent recent recording from Sony, which groups that piece with Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Fred Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! He does not intervene with nor exaggerate the structure and form of Bach’s piece–he plays it with the sense that he finds the music deeply beautiful and wants to make it sound as such.

That was how he played at the Armory. And Abramović’s method added to the experience in one particular. The audience is seated in the round, on low slung lawn chairs, and the performance begins with the sound of a gong. At this cue, everyone dons noise canceling earphones, and sits in silence and near darkness, while a platform holding Levit and piano moves slowly along a track from the back of the hall to the center of the seating.

The pace of the track is sufficiently slow that it is difficult to discern, but is apparent after one looks away for a time. This is not dull, it is refreshing and rewarding to sit in silence for a while, and silence is an ideal precondition for listening closely and openly to complex, absolute music.

But the slow procession of the piano, and the return of the gong—indicating that it’s time to remove the headphones and listen to the playing—adds superfluous ceremony to the classical music concert, which already suffers from too much ceremony.

Even with ears and consciousness primed to listen with relaxed attention, the method ends up objectifying the performance. Levit and the music are presented with an emphasis on the visual sense, a tableau inserted before us to regard, something psychologically and emotionally static—a museum piece. This is underlined ad infinitum by the piano platform, which slowly revolves 360 degrees while Levit plays. This is a concert, something to listen to, but Abramović loses track of listening in her visual interventions.

The almost 60,000 square foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a lousy place for a solo piano performance, with a ton of reverberation. The reflection is almost immediate, and soupy, with an unpleasant metallic edge that comes from an emphasis on the higher partials. When Levit played at forte and above, the sound cut through, but his quieter playing often came out as just a blur. This was rather cruel, as one of his strengths is the ability to articulate clear attacks under legato phrasing, which makes his Bach sing. But the echo swamped his touch precisely when it was most musically impressive, like in his breathtaking and fluid tempo in Variation 17.

Even hobbled by the room and presentation, Levit’s playing left a profound impression. His intensity was real, not only coming through fast tempos, but in the deep, complex, biting feelings he carried in the slower variations–as in his wrenching playing of the Siciliana, Variation 25. Levit’s performance was so strong that one felt  compelled to cut through the staged distance and acoustic as much as possible to find the pianist and his ideas at the center.

At the close, in the final bar of the Aria da capo, Levit held the F# grace note still, turning it into a deliciously agonizing suspension. He waited, it seemed, until the note no longer resonated in the enormous room, and then touched the final G so lightly that it was barely there. One didn’t hear the note so much as the disintegration of tension, the feeling of being home. The long silence afterward was perhaps the most genuine  reward of Abramović’s “design.”

“Goldberg” will be repeated on alternate days through December 19. armoryonpark.org.


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