Uri Caine’s Schubert on Ice! With Aerobics!

United StatesUnited States Schubert: Theo Bleckmann (voice), Uri Caine (piano), Ice Theatre of New York (Jessica Renée Huot and Conor Wagar, dancers), National Sawdust, Brooklyn, 9.2.2018. (KG)

Schubert: Winterreise (1827)

Uri Caine may be best known as a jazz pianist, but he has done some remarkable — and not uncontroversial — reworking of the great classical composers. He shone a Sephardic light on Mahler, for example, improvised atop Beethoven, Gesualdo and Scarlatti, and made Bach’s Goldberg Variations more variegated than ever. With singer Theo Bleckmann, Caine has of late turned his interpretive eye to Winterreise, Schubert’s immortal song cycle. The pair has performed Schubert’s cycle before, but at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust, they did so on ice—or at least, what looked like it. For Caine, it seems, much is revered but nothing is sacred.

The repurposing was there from the beginning, with Bleckmann creating a bed of looped vocals before Caine played the first familiar theme. Bleckmann’s vocals soon faded, and he began a fairly orthodox, if slightly uptempo, version of the opening ‘Gute Nacht.’ Caine played without pedals, making the opening a bit like a saloon song, setting the tone for an exploratory evening—and at the end, Bleckmann returned with the loops, like a digital winter wind.

For the second song (only 14 of the 24 lieder were performed), dancer Jessica Renée Huot of the Ice Theatre of New York took to the synthetic floor surface. Bleckmann’s vocal effects sharpened as if he were a sole, lonely Swingle Singer. The third selection was sung in English and felt almost like a pop song, as Huot dramatically spun and covered her eyes.

Huot was joined by another ITNY dancer, Conor Wagar, on some of the pieces (others featured Wagar alone) but rather surprisingly, both were upstaged by Bleckmann himself. He ventured onto the ice with apparent trepidation and seemed to take an unscripted spill (fortuitously just at the point of Schubert’s hero laying down to sleep below the linden tree), but more often than not proved himself to be able on the blades.

Bleckmann and Caine moved through the songs more like set pieces than a cycle, and indeed drew increasingly enthusiastic applause after each one, so that eventually those ‘in the know’ eventually broke decorum and joined in. As the vignettes played out—a little angular jazz here, some chanson there, and bits of beatboxing and Balkan dance, not to mention the flashlights, glockenspiel and toy ambulance—they transformed Schubert’s rigid continuity into something more like a costume drama. The men in black slacks and white shirts, and Huot in a simple white dress looked great under the simple lighting. And even the venue’s stylized black-and-white walls (so often visually overpowering during performances) functioned like snow-covered branches lit by the moon.

The interpretations were often considerably lighter than Schubert’s songs of love and loss. At about the three-quarter mark, when the duo plunged back into the chill of bitter sadness — Bleckmann singing over an electronic drone and Huot slowly pushing Wagar across the ice — it was nearly paralyzing, and this time there was no applause. They promptly changed the mood again, however, with the dancers checking their phones, and Bleckmann on kazoo while reworking a verse: ‘It’s only spam, there is not one email for me, my heart, my heart.’

Bleckmann can be exceptional with the right material. His Kate Bush project — performed with a small, all-male ensemble — strangely lacked the fierceness and guttural terror of much of Bush’s work. But the vulnerable beauty of Schubert’s song cycle, mixed with Caine’s restless reinterpretation, demanded discipline while allowing for interpretive wanderlust, not to mention an outlet for his aerobics—who knew?

Kurt Gottschalk

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