Tuesday October 9 2018 - Under Jaap van Zweden there have been premieres on every concert presented during this NY Philharmonic season. This week has been a mini-festival celebrating the works of Dutch composer Louis Andriessen including Agamemnon premiered last week (you can read Oberon's review here), a performance in the Rose Studio at Jazz at Lincoln Center over the weekend, a performance of TAO at the New York Philharmonic this coming week with a post-concert performance curated by Mr. Andriessen on Saturday, a performance with Juilliard's AXIOM Ensemble on Sunday, and the performance I saw last night at National Sawdust given by violinist Monica Germino.
Ms. Germino is a contemporary music champion and used to play many experimental works with amplification. Unfortunately, due to a hearing condition she was told she would either have stop playing violin entirely or change the way she performs. She opted for the latter and that is how this performance titled MUTED was born, which was co-commissioned and presented by the NY Philharmonic. Louis Andriessen, Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe all collectively composed this 45 minute hybrid between music and theater. Ms. Germino is the only performer. She is speaking/singing text (like a whispering version of Sprechstimme) in a low voice, performing on various violins with various mutes, and roaming around the audience while doing all this.
National Sawdust is the perfect venue for this sort of intimate, quiet work. In this venue the music is low in volume without ever feeling like a strain for the listener (as can happen when listening to a composer like Feldman in a big hall) - and the entire way this work engages the listener is through intimacy of space. In the space there were two sets of rows with 50 seats total. Directly in front of the seats were the various instruments Ms. Germino performed on and there were music stands to the left, in back, and to the right of the audience. Throughout the performance, Ms. Germino would wander from one stand to the other.
In the center of the small audience was a sculpture created by Floriaan Ganzevoort that is apparently modeled after a Soundwave (the silvery thing pictured below). This sculpture spins at the top (where many different kinds of mutes are affixed) but also is central in providing lighting (the lighting design is also by Mr. Ganzevoort) that slowly shifted from white light to blue light to warmer reds by the end.
Above: the set up in National Sawdust
The music starts out with the loudest of the instruments: a muted violin. Here, Ms. Germino played folksy and simple melody. As she continued to play, she also began to Sprechstimme a selection from Don Marquis' humorous piece Archy and Mehitabel. Ms. Germino has an excellent persona for this, both clear and relatable - almost like someone speaking to you in a warm home while strumming a guitar, except a violin instead. Some of the setting of the words was fun, with modal scales upon the line "I once was an innocent kit" dripping with nostalgia, to capturing the humor of the text. All of the music was as straightforward as can be, but Ms. Germino gives it utmost commitment.
After this excerpt, Ms. Germino picked up frame violin and began to play while slowly making her way around the audience. The music she was playing sounded like a subdued minimalism, performed incredibly quietly. Every gesture was significant and every sound in the audience was incredibly clear. Later, Mr. Germino picked up her Whisper Violin, specially made to create an intensely quiet, but almost fiber-like sound. The timbre was spectacular, and Ms. Germino clearly knows how to make the most of it. As the lighting move from a brilliant blue to darker oranges, the setting felt more and more intimate. In another dramatic moment, Ms. Germino picked up a violin and began to pluck the strings with what seemed like silk gloves, to further insulate the amount of sound. As she walked right through the audience and it was fun to see the reactions on people's faces. That sort of theatrical shock was fun.
Finally, moved back to how it started: with a simple folksy melody line with Ms. Germino singing Moth this time. Ms. Germino's speech was shocking after all the quiet playing, as it was so much louder than the many minutes proceeding. An interesting trick of the mind make one to make one think of whispers as loud.
Again, the writing was fun such as when the violin strokes corresponded to each of the annunciated syllables in the phrase: "and before i [sic] could argue with him / out of his philosophy / he went and immolated himself". The humor and absurdism of the line (this is a moth, not a person) was extremely funny. Ms. Germino made the most of these moments. While the music wasn't something that I found particularly thrilling, the experience itself was a mix of humorous, theatrical, and earnest. I applaud Ms. Germino's effort for putting this together in a way that didn't come across as gimmicky, instead a genuinely thoughtful evening.