On Sunday afternoons, Ilya Vidrin, his father, and his siblings visited the Museum of Fine Arts. Vidrin’s father would take his children around each room, encouraging them to take in every aspect that their thirsty brains could handle, pointing to a painting every so often and asking, “What do you think of this one?” Ilya recalled going to the MFA the very next week, and his father asked the same question: “What do you think of this one now?”
Even when art on a wall remains fixed, our relationship with those images changes as we grow. This theme of the night rang true not only for the art on the walls but also for the music and dance. The Koch Gallery of the MFA on Thursday evening proved to be a fascinating, if not overstimulating, performance space for The Reciprocity Collaborative. The gallery is astonishingly full, with paintings, trumpets, and Hanoverian silver decorating the ornate walls from ceiling to floor. One of the largest galleries in the museum, it houses European paintings from Spain, Venice, Flanders, and Hanover, covering years 1150 to 1700. The background thrum of the air handler made for the only unwelcome distraction, though occasional beeps from the painting proximity alarms posed minor annoyances.
Rachmaninov’s single-movement Trio élégiaque commenced with Constantine Finehouse (piano), Daniel Kurganov (violin), and Joseph Gotoff (cello). Dancers came later. Kurganov’s violin empowered, despite the bizarre acoustics of the room—high ceilings with tapestries on the walls to both muffle and embrace the sound. The overall interpretation intrigued. Although there were some very round-sounding moments, several moments often heard as bright and energetic sounded more intimate, capturing the elegiac quality of the trio effectively, although I could not help but think about how very young Rachmaninov was when he composed the piece, the drama perhaps stunted by his immaturity or by the awe in which he held the dedicatee, Tchaikovsky.
In Cenno a Scarlatti, composer Tony Schemmer demonstrated theme and variation, beginning with Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonata (K32). Dressed in a classic 50s cocktail number which felt Baroque in the context, Jenna Pollack stared uncomfortably above the heads of the audience, her arm motions simple, doll-like, and jerking as Finehouse played the sonata theme. Schemmer’s variations growled across the piano, adding a multitude of atonal runs that Pollack mirrored in her feet work, hard to see under the enormous skirt of her dress. Schemmer’s variations and the choreography seemed mismatched and awkward, although perhaps this was the desired effect, as he wrote in his program notes, “I prefer to withhold my own thoughts about what is going on, and invite you to tell me yours.”
Magdalyn Segale and Kristina Bermudez danced their way into John Cage’s Nocturne for piano and violin. Vidrin reminded the audience to consider the interplay of both sounds and silences, nothing the tension between the two that dance can help to visualize. Cage’s relatively tonal Nocturne is sparse, creating tense, private moments that trust heavily on the absence of sound. In turn, the two dancers relied on one another, codependent as they mirrored, leaned on, and climbed on one another. The choreography was incredibly intimate, even sexualized, both dancers caressing each other as the nocturne unfolded.
The main event began as Kurganov’s informally read poet Richard Dehmel’s Verklärte Nacht in translation from his cellphone. In the same breath, museumgoers clamored into the gallery-made-concert-hall and then skittishly snuck across the hall. The story goes:
Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood; the moon keeps pace with them and draws their gaze. The moon moves along above tall oak trees, there is no wisp of cloud to obscure the radiance to which the black, jagged tips reach up. A woman’s voice speaks: “I am carrying a child, and not by you. I am walking here with you in a state of sin. I have offended grievously against myself. I despaired of happiness, and yet I still felt a grievous longing for life’s fullness, for a mother’s joys and duties; and so I sinned, and so I yielded, shuddering, my sex to the embrace of a stranger, and even thought myself blessed. Now life has taken its revenge, and I have met you, met you.”
She walks on, stumbling. She looks up; the moon keeps pace. Her dark gaze drowns in light. A man’s voice speaks: “Do not let the child you have conceived be a burden on your soul. Look, how brightly the universe shines! Splendour falls on everything around, you are voyaging with me on a cold sea, but there is a glow of an inner warmth from you in me, from me in you. That warmth will transfigure the stranger’s child, and you bear it me, begot by me. You have transfused me with splendor, you have made a child of me.” He puts an arm about her strong hips. Their breath embraces in the air. Two people walk on through the high, bright night.
By the time Kurganov finished his retelling, museum patrons lined the walls in anticipation of the action, phones in hand, creating panoramic views of the entire experience, from wall to musician to dancer. The string sextet began without dance, focusing instead on the Schoenberg’s and Dehmel’s unsettling intensity. Iris Platt slowly entered the gallery, joined eventually by Vidrin.
The stage chemistry came not from Vidrin and Platt, but from Vidrin and Kurganov. Kurganov’s penetrating colors and expert phrase shapes matched Vidrin’s concentrated gestures and thoughtful gazes. Platt’s vacant expressions offered little harmony with Vidrin’s, but their dancing transfixed the audience, reaching across the boundaries of the gallery and dancing amongst the crowd, which lined the walls to find clear sightlines in a space that lacked an elevated stage. Kurganov’s passion plainly showed that he cared deeply about the work. However, at moments, his intensity created technical difficulties involving rough intonation and, in a few cases, unsounding notes. He redeemed himself as time went on, leading the ensemble with inventive phrase shaping. Kurganov’s deep feelings harmonized with Vidrin’s theatric spirit, creating a fantastic symbiosis of dance and music.
As Verklärte Nacht ended, Vidrin and Platt slid across the floor of the gallery, outlining the forgiveness, acceptance, and ecstasy of the story. One could easily see the look of adventure in Vidrin’s eyes as he slid, taking him back to the days of childhood when he visited the MFA with his father. When the piece was over, he jested, “I’ve always wanted to do that.”
Rachael Fuller is an administrator at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studied piano and music theory. By night, she is a practicing musicologist and concert enthusiast.