At first, museum-goers passing through the Koch Gallery, setting off security alarms as they went, thoroughly distracted from Reciprocity Collaborative’s penultimate event in a two-month residency at the Museum of Fine Arts on Wednesday. But no worries, we were to see the entire show, featuring single-movement works by local composer Tony Schemmer, all over again immediately after it finished.
Directed by Ilya Vidrin, Reciprocity has aimed to bring new concepts uniting music and dance to spaces throughout the museum, and the idea here was a new way to experience and appreciate new music, which is to hear it more often. In this case, twice in row.
The first impression still spoke volumes about what was to come.
As dancer Jenna Pollack was set in motion by the darkly ascending thrust that begins Schemmer’s Cenno a Scarlatti for solo piano, a woman played with a cute toddler in the background as a security guard, keys jangling on his belt, forced along a group of people who had stopped to watch the performance in the cut-through set up along one wall of the gallery. The tension between the formality and informality of the occasion would characterize the event.
Pollack, using the space between the piano and audience for her improvisation, created a stately character in slow, decisive gestures, her eyes fixed high above onlookers. Pianist Constantine Finehouse brought a plodding momentum to the piece, which recalled Scarlatti’s work with slyly resolving dissonances and bursts of kinetic energy, all carried along by an 18th-century rigidity. For a performance marked by no backstage, no curtain, albeit by tiny but rambunctious museum patrons, it felt as formal as could be.
After an opening section, the piece spun through a range of ideas—from a ragged Debussian harmonic haze to Scarlatti-inspired technicality to moments of meditative counterpoint.
Yet even as Pollack heartily marked the contours of those phases, the Cenno never shook the staid sentimentality of celebrating its namesake. It nestled more comfortably between the eras of baroque and classical music than between an improvising dancer and a live museum space.
Distractions aside, the gallery proved a well-suited space for such nostalgia. With its palatial scale, travertine marble, and salon-style hanging of European Old Masters like Nicolas Poussin and El Greco, the room is, itself, a tribute to some of the same era.
And the room really sounded good, the red damask covering the walls allowing just the right degree of crispness. For future performers, it’s worth noting that the museum owns an extremely fine piano.
Next up, Schemmer’s string quintet, billed as a world premiere, was perfectly scaled for the space and sounded lush if slightly flat dynamically. The composer, who later explained that the piece had seen an unsuccessful previous world premiere in its original brass quintet arrangement, richly augmented the traditional string quartet with a second cello.
It was an evocative work, sometimes almost graphically pastoral with sweeping, looping melodies underpinned by a gentle chugging à la Philip Glass. Periodic out-of-key interjections added texture and possibly a bit of realism to the idealized scene depicted.
The piece felt indulgent though, somehow—too verdant and serenely secular in a cold gallery with ruddy paintings of the crucifixion. It felt too openly like escapism. And without dance accompaniment, it wasn’t clear how it fit into the overall goals of the residency. It was not until the second play-through of the Piazzolla-like Toney Tango closing the program that the event realized its design.
Though benignly pleasant, Schemmer’s music suffered from the loss of spontaneity in back-to-back performances. Pollack’s performance of the Cenno a Scarlatti was more patient and better defined on the second go, but the quintet gave the impression that they’d already given their best on the first run, and simply couldn’t match it on the second.
As Vidrin joined Pollack in the second performance of the tango, the back-and-forth between dance and music that ought to lift each to new heights was finally achieved. Kurganov played with satisfying abandon—what no longer felt like overplaying—to match the flurry of lighthearted energy from the dancers as they strutted, merging and separating through the space with calculated flamboyance. At last, something spontaneous.
And finally, the formality of it all—the Old Masters, the marble, the through-composed music—seemed not to matter. After all, a little informality at the MFA wasn’t such a bad thing.
Reciprocity Collaborative’s final event in its residency at the MFA, again features the work of Tony Schemmer along with Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and works by John Cage and Rachmaninoff. Thursday, Sept. 28 at 7 p.m., free admission to museum patrons.
Lucas Phillips, a musician and journalist, performed on acoustic bass as part of the residency earlier this month.