At the Guggenheim, Two Premieres in a Tribute to John Chamberlain

United StatesUnited States  Works & Process: The World of John Chamberlain: Soloists, Howard Stokar (music curator), Guggenheim Museum, New York City, 23.4.2012 (BH)

Bill Charlap, piano
Alan Feinberg, piano
Elizabeth Farnum, soprano
Danielle Kuhlmann, horn
Jesse Mills, violin
Wendy Richman, viola
Fred Sherry, cello
Greg Zuber, percussion
Nicholas Nelson, electronics

Intriguing on paper, this evening—part of the Guggenheim Museum’s long-running Works & Process series—was conceived as a tribute to the late artist John Chamberlain, subject of an impressive retrospective at the museum (John Chamberlain: Choices, running through May 13). Unfortunately good intentions don’t always equate to a satisfying evening; this one seemed much longer than its roughly 70 minutes. (But viewers should not hesitate to take in the Chamberlain show itself, which is dazzling and close to ideal for the Guggenheim space.)

Acknowledging Chamberlain’s love for jazz, pianist Bill Charlap opened with a taut, compressed version of Thelonius Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” followed by remarks from Susan Davidson (a senior curator at the museum), roughly assembled excerpts from Heartbeat (a film about Chamberlain by Alexandra Fairweather) and a poetry reading by Vincent Katz, author of Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art. Later Davidson and Katz returned for a rambling reminiscence about the artist, and Charlap closed with a medley of “Stardust” and “It Never Entered My Mind.”

By far the most interesting segment of the program came in the middle, with three pieces curated by Howard Stokar, who began with Morton Feldman’s For Franz Kline. Delicate and precise, its icy droplets were expertly delivered by a sextet of Elizabeth Farnum (soprano), Alan Feinberg (piano), Danielle Kuhlmann (horn), Jesse Mills (violin), Fred Sherry (cello) and Greg Zuber (percussion). The same crew continued with Drew Baker’s some echoes, a brief, potent elegy using a poem from Robert Creeley (1926-2005). By turns dramatic and tender, Baker’s epitaph was one of the evening’s high points. The other was Jason Eckardt’s to be held…, a meditation for viola and electronics, with a title from Charles Olson’s essay, “Projective Verse,” and text (actually phonemes) from Creeley’s “The Language.” Eckardt’s sinuous phrases—he was inspired by some of the pitches in Giacinto Scelsi’s Manto III—were adroitly handled by violist Wendy Richman (also required to sing) with Nicholas Nelson on electronics.

Bruce Hodges