Pianists Katherine Chi and Leksandar Madžar, along with the assistance of three engineers (could their roles have been described in more direct, everyday language?), certainly pulled off one the best concerts of this young season, a concert that may very well come in as one of the top 10 concerts of the entire year. What they did for nearly 70 minutes of non-stop playing at the Gardner Museum on Sunday afternoon, November 15, will be remembered for some time to come. If you don’t know about the Gardner series, you might want to check it out. It’s full of surprises.
The concert program notes began with words of the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, “To say it as simply as possible, Mantra, as it stands, is a miniature of the way a galaxy is composed.” Every bit of evidence from their Sunday performance of this ’70s child pointed to Chi and Madžar as having nebulae, star clusters, globular clusters, and all other interstellar matter at their fingertips and mental synapses. Cosmic exhilaration filled the Tapestry Room from the first to the last modulated tones. A high-speed passage in perpetual motion lasting for an extended length of time headed Mantra to an inevitable close astonishing ever as much as gratifying. The dueling pianists kept absolute track of every quiet twist, slipped in here and there, as well as every one of the many crashing syncopations pounced back and forth between the two.
Throughout Mantra Chi and Madžar volleyed more than fistfuls of harmonies and other continually varied musical objects, this, in their own contained space onstage, all of it with élan. Always working together, they made Stockhausen’s oftentimes hard-to-take music a magnetizing event, splitting notes as though they were coming apart at the seams, dialing around their electronic devices creating sonic wobbles, buzzes, slides, rumbles, and a myriad of phantom sounds resembling bells, gongs, chimes and the like: all cosmic rays in this enormous, vast space. The prime electronic force — ring modulation — was new to the ’70s, and Stockhausen married it to the centuries-old piano in an infinitely changing stream. Both pianists seemed just as married to the composer’s galactic process and expression. According to Stockhausen, “I had no accessory feelings or thoughts; I knew only that I had to fulfill the mantra.” Fantastically in sync, their playing also fulfilled the mantra.
The near-capacity crowd was clearly and most wonderfully composed of a wide range of listeners, some of them obviously new to the Gardner offerings. However, why a few in the audience made a point of exiting midway through, causes one to pause and wonder if they would have done the same in the midst of a performance of Mozart or Beethoven. What can be said about that? Or about a listener who took to texting?
In his book, The Rest is Noise, Alex Roth gives an altogether horrifying sketch of Stockhausen’s teenage years beginning with his father who was a “spiritually tortured Nazi Party member who went to the Eastern Front and never returned.” His mother, confined to a sanatorium, was eventually “killed in the Nazi euthanasia program.” Among the gruesome duties he was forced to assume at the innocent age of sixteen was the hauling of World War II corpses off to makeshift morgues.
Such images have poured into my mind’s eye on previous hearings. The sounds of the shortwave radio, which appears in various other works, to me, further suggested a wartime picture. So, too, did the repetitive soundings induced through Morse code. Even the woodblocks and “antique cymbals” came to symbolize iciness. Surely, some have heard this, too, while others very probably experienced something quite different.
But this afternoon, nothing short of galactic exhilaration of the kind you feel when you look at the sky one beautiful night. The concert was advertised as “A tour-de-force performance of Stockhausen’s Mantra, one of the seminal works of the 20th century in this unique, rarely performed piece, technology and instruments combine for a truly cosmic experience.” I would have to say that that is exactly where Katherine Chi and Leksandar Madžar, et.al. took me. And, can you imagine, that the audience went beyond politeness and appreciation in expressing their wonder and exhilaration.