The International Strad


November 2004


Violin as player


Johanna Keller visits New York's Nine Circles Chamber Theater, where the violin is placed at the crux of the drama


Picture the scene on stage: it is 1945, and the bespectacled young philosopher Isaiah Berlin comes to Moscow and meets the 55-year-old legendary Russian poetess Anna Akhmatova, dowdy and worn down by years of stress under Stalinist rule. Behind them, like a ghost, hovers the glamorous and lithe figure of Anna in her youth, a dark flame, the darling of the Russian poetic world in the still-hopeful years of the dawn of the Russian Revolution. 'You are the guest from the future,' sings the older Anna to her visitor from the West, while from the orchestra pit rises an achingly beautiful melody played by the violin. It is a dream-like glimpse of one of the 20th century's most intriguing encounters between two of its most important intellectuals.


It's no accident that the musical climax of Guest from the Future, the new opera that had its premiere at New York's Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson this summer, belongs so prominently to the violin. For this is the work of Nine Circles Chamber Theater, a critically acclaimed US-based ensemble co-directed by violinist Gil Morgenstern and novelist Jonathan Levi (who was trained as a violinist). Since their first production together in 1998, their unusual ensemble has always put the violin front and centre in its ground-breaking works that explore new ways of combining music, text and drama.


'In founding Nine Circles Chamber Theater, our goal was simple,' says Morgenstern. 'We wanted to work in a cross-disciplinary way and investigate the theatrical and dramatic possibilities of a concert experience. Along the way, we have also been exploring how the violin in particular can communicate without text.'


Like all of their productions, The Guest from the Future developed out of an intensive creative collaboration that Morgenstern likens to the process of working with a chamber music ensemble. The libretto was written by Levi, music was composed by Mel Marvin, and the production was directed by David Chambers, with Morgenstern as musical director. The ensemble's working method is extraordinarily comprehensive: while developing the work over the past three years, the four men travelled together to Russia twice to conduct research, interview disciples of Akhmatova and gather creative ideas. 'In St Petersburg and in Moscow we soaked up as much as we could,' says Morgenstern, 'going to concerts, picking up traditional liturgical music that was incorporated into the opera and meeting with musicians and writers. Meanwhile, the project grew from a chamber opera in our minds into a much larger piece.'


In its size (using 24 musicians and singers), this latest venture by the ensemble is a departure from earlier work, which began on a smaller chamber scale. The company had its beginnings when Levi (a novelist, journalist and founder of the literary journal Granta) was hired by the Unterberg Poetry Center at New York's 92nd Street Y to produce a musical version of a new translation by Robert Pinsky of Dante's Inferno in 1998.


'I ran into Gil,' Lev recounts, 'after not seeing him for a number of years and I told him about this Dante project. Now Gil is a violinist who, unlike myself, has the talent to match his ego. He has a tremendous solo career. And yet there was something about this that intrigued him and he simply said, "I have to be a part of this." I think he was feeling that the grind of flying into a city and playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto for the thousandth time was not for him and he was excited to explore this idea of theatre and music combined.'


For the Dante production an effective electronic score by Chris Walker was augmented by music for the violin by composer Bruce Saylor. This created what Levi has called 'the violin as Dante's alter ego,' and gave Morgenstern the opportunity to explore dramatic interaction.


Morgenstern, in addition to maintaining a busy solo performing schedule with such orchestras as the Baltimore, St Louis, Indianapolis, Denver and New Jersey symphony orchestras, is also a collaborative artist. He is the violinist and artistic director of the Broyhill Chamber Ensemble and for more than a decade he has been artistic director of the Appalachian Summer Festival in Boone, North Carolina. He was a pupil of Ivan Galamian at Juilliard.


'One of the things I like best about Gil's playing,' Levi says, 'is that he can make the violin seem like a natural extension of the body. He can make it speak as the voice of an involved character, or as a distant commentator. The violin is so adaptable - capable of playing solo lines or being harmonic, or percussive for that matter. It can be pure drama.' Visions of Dante turned out to be an intriguing dialogue for solo violin and actors that captured the attention of New York critics and audiences and was performed on a tour of the US. Buoyed by their success and intrigued by the creative possibilities of this first collaborative venture, Morgenstern and Levi formed the company and took its name from Dante's vision of the underworld.


Nine Circles' second production, The Scrimshaw Violin, premiered in 2001 at 92nd Street Y and was equally successful. Based on a short story by Levi, the chamber opera in one act told of a rabbi who arrives on the island of Nantucket. Beset by religious doubts but possessed of an uncanny ability to identify the cause of death by touch, the rabbi meets a whaling heiress who introduces him to a violin that is presumed to be made of scrimshaw (carved whalebone). To his horror, the rabbi discovers it is in fact an artifact from the Holocaust.


The story, with its central image of the violin and a thematic exploration into the significance of music making, offered myriad musical and dramatic possibilities to exploit the sound and character of the instrument.


'If there is any art, it is in how stories are told,' Morgenstern says.


'Of course I'm most comfortable communicating with a violin in my hand. But I've always been looking for new ways to expand the possibilities of the instrument. The violin is a tough prop. Onstage, it can be awkward. How can you incorporate it without, well, schtick? How can you use the violin, the physicality of it being there making music, and still convey the intent of a dramatic work? For me, this has been the challenge.'


Written by Saylor, the music for the Scrimshaw Violin was scored for four singers, violin, viola, clarinet, bass and piano. Morgenstern, in the leading musical role, interacted with the characters while he played, becoming at times a separate character, at other times a kind of invisible doppelganger. The Scrimshaw Violin was a unique blend of chamber music and theatre, and proved to be a gripping work recognised by critics as a truly innovative galvanisation of words, music and drama. Critic David Noh writing in Opera News called it 'modern opera in the best sense: concise, witty, elegant and bold.'


'Our mission has been to create chamber theatre and make something entirely new,' Levi says. 'As with chamber music, for most of our productions there has been no conductor. We all work in concert and there is a meeting of equals. You might say we are trying to make a form of chamber music where everyone is breathing together. In developing all our pieces, we workshop the ideas and it is like rehearsing a string quartet. Everyone has ideas. And all the ideas count.'


The idea for the next production came from Morgenstern's experience as the son of parents who had fled their native Austria in 1938 when the Nazis marched into Vienna. In 2003 Nine Circles presented an exploration of poet Paul Celan, who was imprisoned by the Nazis, lost his father and mother in the death camps and committed suicide in 1970. The Art of the Fugitive: The Paradoxical Life of Paul Celan incorporated the poet's words along with the Chaconne from Bach's Sonata for solo violin in D minor, new music by Saylor and selections from Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps. It was a riveting evening that was not a song cycle, nor a biography, nor an opera, but a ritualistic and stately evocation of the poet's agonising losses.


Using structural techniques more akin to collage or montage, Levi and Morgenstern fashioned an 80-minute evening of poetry and music that climaxed with a chilling performance of Celan's poem Todesfuge (death fugue). While Morgenstern delivered an intensively focused performance of the Bach Chaconne, the actor intoned Celan's famous lines:


 Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening

 we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night

 we drink and we drink

 we shovel a grave in the air where you won't lie too cramped


Just a small example of the intellectual rigour that Morgenstern and Levi have employed in creating these works is evidenced in the choice of the Bach Chaconne for this moment in the drama. Consider that Celan was a poet who chose to write in German, the language of Bach and of his Nazi oppressors; also consider that many German and Austrian Jews prior to the rise of the Nazis had assimilated the great works of German culture - from Bach to Goethe. Therefore the juxtaposition of this Bach masterpiece with Todesfuge created a moving dialogue between past and present, a clash of cultural politics and language, and a commentary on great art that outlasts its makers.


For Morgenstern, however, the most demanding production so far has been When Samson Met Delilah, premiered at Symphony Space, New York in 2004. A 'reconception for violin and voice' of Saint-Saens's Samson et Delilah, the 70-minute production distilled the opera to a two-character work with the role of Delilah sung by mezzo-soprano Klara Uleman and Samson played by Morgenstern on the violin.


'We asked Bruce Saylor to write a contemporary voice for Samson,' Morgenstern explains, 'and he made it work with the Saint-Saens. Delilah's music is right out of the opera. She would sing and I would answer on the violin. After the first few minutes the audience got used to the conceit and it really worked.'


For the violinist, it was a tour de force performance. In order to prepare himself for what amounted to playing an opera role without singing a note, Morgenstern spent five weeks working daily with the Dutch director Corina van Eijk. The work, he said, was arduous.


'It was a completely new kind of training,' Morgenstern remembers. 'I had to play on my knees - that was frightening and disorienting at first. She made me aware of everything I was doing, from closing my eyes to looking at the violin. It freed me from narrow vision and made me listen to my playing in a completely different way. I had to learn to communicate as an actor would. It was all very liberating.'


Morgenstern points out that because most instrumentalists concentrate on a narrow set of physical skills in order to master their instruments, and sometimes work in isolation, they can become locked into particular ways of moving that can affect musical phrasing and even listening.


'During my years working with Jonathan and others, the collaborative process has changed me,' Morgenstern says. 'I go from this chamber-theatre experience back into my little box playing, for instance this week, a Dvorak Piano Quintet. And I find that everything is different for me. I'm much more free. At home I've got two kids who play instruments and whenever they come to talk to me about phrasing in the music they are playing, we talk about what story it might elicit. I've come to see that narrative is built into everything. It's really all about story.'


So where will the story of Nine Circles Chamber Theater take Levi and Morgenstern next? They are currently working on a project that incorporates a Russian animation of Gogol's The Overcoat. And they are considering developing a theatre work about Dvorak's visit to the US. After that, who knows?


One thing is certain - wherever the next Nine Circles production goes, audiences are bound to be intrigued by this ensemble's original blend of words, music and drama, and by their exploration of the seemingly limitless possibilities of the violin.


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