Beckett Chamber Music Series at Boys’ School, Smock Alley Theatre, on 27 & 30 June 2018

The Beckett Chamber Music Series—a new initiative, led by violinist Sarah Sew—is spread over three evenings in the Boys’ School at Smock Alley Theatre. Named after writer Samuel Beckett, the series is based around Beckett’s radio play ‘Words and Music’, and the three programmes reflect the complex relationship of words and music, through the perspective of musical modernism.

Sarah Sew
(photo by Christopher Dowdall)

The second concert in this series puts the great musical modernist himself, Arnold Schoenberg, front and centre, by playing two of his most important pieces, ‘Verklärte Nacht’ and ‘Pierrot Lunaire’—both of them related to poetry.

‘Verklärte Nacht’ [‘Transfigured Night’] is played in its original format, as a string sextet. Often the poem to which it responds (same title, by Richard Dehmel) is printed in programmes and left for audience members to quickly squint at beforehand. Tonight, however, we have the luxury of actor Barry McGovern in the house, up in one of the strange windows above the stage of the Boys’ School, reading the poem aloud and taking us through the tricky night-time exchange of the two mysterious lovers, before the music begins. The six players give committed performances, and the immediacy of the small setting adds powerfully to the intensity of this work.

Ensemble for ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ (photo by Christopher Dowdall)

Less often heard (in Dublin at least), the chance to see a performance of Schoenberg’s ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ is intriguing and no doubt helped draw tonight’s audience. Michelle O’Rourke’s breadth of experience in both early and very new music adds a welcome element of authenticity and verve to this performance, and her technique allows her to craft a sensitive vocal idiom. Her smooth approach, expressively running a gentle continuum between inflected speech and song is a wonder in itself, belying the detailed focus that she—and the instrumental players—bring to this work. Given the vivid sense of colour from both text (once again, read by Barry McGovern) and ensemble, the bare stage presentation by contrast seems almost perversely grim, with everyone dressed in black, as if for a radio performance. We can only hope that these artists reconvene to revive this performance soon.

Radio is the force behind the final concert in this series, which centres on a performance of the Samuel Beckett/Morton Feldman collaboration ‘Words and Music’. Before we get to this, the players open with a selection of shorter chamber pieces by Feldman. ‘Vertical Thoughts 2’ for violin and piano and ‘Projection 1’ for solo cello explore the expressive and sonic possibilities of each instrument in a way that breaks each element down, patiently attending to each moment. The sensitivity as well as the improvisational freedom of Feldman’s open style is extended even further in ‘Four Instruments’ (for violin, viola, cello and piano). The work’s soft dynamic and spare gestures draw refined playing from musicians Sarah Sew, Lisanne Melchior, Aoife Nic Athlaoich, and Jonathan Morris. Flautist Fiona Kelly draws this half to a close with a richly expressive performance of Edgard Varèse’s ‘Density 21.5’ for solo flute, the fuller timbre of the flute a shock after the focused string playing.

‘Words and Music’ by Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman is a real collaboration between writer and composer (and, in practice, between actors and musicians), to the extent that the musical ensemble is a named character in the play, collectively referred to as ‘Bob’. When the original score by Samuel’s cousin John Beckett (still fondly remembered for directing Bach cantatas in Dublin in the 1970s) was mysteriously withdrawn, the piece was left unperformable until 1982 when Feldman composed this new material.

Ensemble for ‘Words and Music’

Tonight’s concert brings together the original director of that 1982 production (Everett Frost) alongside veteran actors Barry McGovern (‘Joe’/Words) and Stephen Brennan (the unnamed ‘Croak’). It’s easy to hear how the spare concentration of Beckett’s text and Feldman’s music work together, especially after hearing Feldman’s other pieces in the opening section of the concert, and it makes for a fascinating half-hour as the play unfurls itself towards and around what Joe calls ‘the wellhead’, where the piece finally rests. Brennan and McGovern clearly relish the chance to encounter the characters of this rare text, as well as their altercations with the pale shimmering lines of Feldman’s score, nicely played by the ensemble with sure focus. Both concerts present intriguing and thoughtful encounters: let’s hope they inspire more to follow.

Concert 2:
Arnold Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht; Pierrot Lunaire

Concert 3:
Morton Feldman, Vertical Thoughts 2 (1963); Projection 1 (1950); Four Instruments (1975)
Edgard Varèse, Density 21.5
Morton Feldman and Samuel Beckett: Words and Music