“Pay attention to me!” a gruff voice barked off stage of a dimly-lit, closed-curtain Shalin Liu Performance Center at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival on Saturday afternoon. As the lights flickered on, a sparse set littered with metal cages and black feathers appeared. Alon Nashman nervously gaited across the stage, sitting down behind one of the cages with a handful of black, dusty feathers before beginning with feather pen in hand, “Dearest Father.”
Nashman’s one-man show Kafka and Son dramatically reimagines Franz Kafka’s infamous unsent 100-page letter to his father. Right in time for Father’s Day, this letter details exactly the ways in which Kafka is afraid of his patriarch and imagines his father’s response. Although this seemed like an odd choice for a chamber music festival, the program fit right in, especially because of the incidental music of Osvaldo Golijov, the festival’s current featured composer. Although Nashman has been performing the hour-long act for about ten years, Golijov had never seen the show until Saturday.
The St. Lawrence String Quartet’s 1992 recording of Golijov’s Yiddishbbuk decorated the one-act monologue. The composer cites a Kafka quote as the inspiration: “a broken song played on a shattered cymbalon.” Moments from Golijov’s score added drama to the most intimate moments of Kafka and Son, generously filling the hopeful, freeing, optimistic thoughts and occasionally marring Kafka’s jarring imaginings of his father’s words. Although it sometimes accompanied, oftentimes, it acted as a goading third character, pulling on phrases and expanding the charges and responses into more thoughtful passages. Nashman employed feathers writing implements and as menacing props. Kvetching about his childhood and his father’s nasty demeanor he tossed and re-arranged threatening metal cages and bedframe as black feathers fluttered anxiously about. Occasionally, Nashman contemplatively held a white feather high above his head, perhaps signifying Kafka’s occasional hopefulness for emotional and artistic transfiguration. At the end of the play, Nashman lifts his shirt above his head and flaps his arms like a phoenix; his silhouette projected onto the back of the stage wall by a single footlight made a dramatic impression of a man about to take flight from angst. It was decidedly not a butterfly, since Kafka’s famous character Gregor Samsa metamorphose into a revolting creeping vermin. The words vermin and parasite came across the footlights often.
Before Nashman’s play, Danny Koo (violin), Barry Shiffman (viola), Andrés Díaz (cello), Roberto Occhipinti (bass), Tara Helen O’Connor (flute), and Todd Palmer (clarinet) performed Golijov’s Lullaby and Doina. It was unclear whether this piece was intended to be an introduction to a melodrama or a separate concert piece. Though welcoming the drama, it also spurred the question: if it could be played live, why couldn’t Nashman’s work be accompanied live? Barry Shiffman was a member of the St. Lawrence String Quartet that recorded Yiddishbbuk; why not have a live performance at a chamber music festival? And why was the amplified music so much louder than the live music?
Although Golijov’s music springs from Kafka, one couldn’t help but wonder: would Kafka himself have approved of this cleaned-up and polished Klezmer cum Roma music? He wrote in his letter that he could not even find his way in Judaism, since his father practically ruined all of religion for him with his abhorrent attitude. Would something by Thomas Mann’s Andreas Leverkühn have been more apt for a show about a German intellectual in the first decades of the 20th century? Or maybe Kurtag?
Kafkas’s biographer and literary executor Max Brod reported that, “as if to compensate for the remarkable gift he had of musical speech, he had no talent for pure music…Kafka played no musical instrument; he once told me he couldn’t tell the difference between The Merry Widow and Tristan and Isolde.”
Golijov’s music, though, is an absolute joy to hear, offering an echo of Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony and roots like the gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks.
Rachael Fuller is an MIT administrator who has studied piano and music theory. By night, the concertgoer is also a practicing musicologist.