Never saw his chapel

A concert that makes you feel: Rothko Chapel's 40th anniversary bridges the sad & the spiritual

A concert that makes you feel: Rothko Chapel's 40th anniversary bridges the sad & the spiritual

Mark Rothko
Having battled depression most of his life, Mark Rothko committed suicide a year before the Rothko Chapel opened.
Events-Tariq Ali at Rothko-Nov 09
When you hear the music in the Rothko Chapel, it takes on a new dimension. Hickey Robertson
Mark Rothko
Events-Tariq Ali at Rothko-Nov 09

Some performances highlight repertoire, others focus on the performing artists. Rothko Chapel’s 40th anniversary concert promises an experience. Presenting works that tie to a milestone in Rothko Chapel’s continuum, the chosen repertoire was appropriate for the space’s spiritual energy and acoustics.

The repertoire and performers delivered in the first show Friday night.

Rothko Chapel’s dual vocations, contemplation and action — represented in the building’s relationship to Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk — seem to be aligned with current events, inspiring an aching need for peace while supporting those that seek liberation from oppressing regimes.

Mark Rothko, after a long battle with depression, committed suicide on Feb. 25, 1970 and was not able to see the Chapel completed a year later. Coinciding closely with the Chapel’s actual anniversary date this marker serves as a reminder of the binary nature of struggles and accomplishments.

Akin to a spiritual vortex, Rothko Chapel’s spirit, best represented artistically by Morton Feldman’s piece of the same name, is being expanded by the performance of the work by other ensembles this week, including Axiom in New York and the San Francisco Symphony, in combination with Mozart’s Requiem.

But they don’t have the privilege of hearing it in its intended space.

Composed for solo viola, chorus, percussion and celesta, the work is uncomfortably dissonant, sparse and introspectively disturbing at times. Juxtaposing large intervals with choral tone clusters, it is only the viola that emerges with two familiar melodic moments on top of a percussion ostinato (something that repeats consistently) that according to guest performer and viola virtuoso Kim Kashkashian, “reminds us that everything is going to be OK.”

“Conducting this piece requires an immense focus,” Robert Simpson, Houston Chamber Choir’s conductor, explained. “The meters are constantly changing and I had to make lots of personal notes on the score to keep things together.”

From the audience perspective, there was no appearance of complexity. The sonorities floated with no distinction between what one may consider the beginning, middle or end.

Rothko Chapel’s 40th anniversary concert was brilliantly programmed, a task entrusted to Da Camera’s artistic mastermind, Sarah Rothenberg, who managed to academically and artistically weave seemingly incongruous works in designing an arching aesthetic experience for listeners.

In addition to Feldman, the concert also assembled, on the first half, lesser known pieces including vocal works of John Cage, piano shorts by Erik Satie and a piece for viola and percussion by Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian on the second half.

Focusing on compositions that evoke timelessness and the illusion of stillness, Rothenberg collaborated with the Houston Chamber Choir and Houston Symphony's principal percussionist Brian Del Signore, in addition to Kashkashian.

“Satie’s works are often disregarded by musicians,” Rothenberg noted. Considered by some as a precursor to minimalism, Satie’s relationship with the Dada movement, rejecting the modern world, had meaning for Cage in his exploration of Zen Buddhist philosophy.

Programming and interchanging Cage vocal works with Satie piano compositions made academic sense. Their performance in the presence of Rothko’s large monumental monochromatic panels worked.

To create a cohesive pre-intermission half — audience members were asked to hold applause — Rothenberg took great care to crate a common tonality, choosing and ordering works that were harmonically related.

“I wanted to link all the pieces and provide easy transitions for the choir,” Rothenberg said. “The ending of the piano pieces served as a way to give the choir their pitches. Cage’s choral works are not widely known. I had to do a lot of research to find them, especially as I searched for choral pieces without text.”

Satie’s Gnossiennes floated, partly due to Rothenberg's smoky sound and gentle touch, blurring the lines of time and space, playing gracefully with inflection only to highlight the musical line. The antiphonal and call-and-response setup of the choir morphed the simplicity of held static tones into healing vibrancy.

But most surprising was the performance of an Armenian work, an addition to capitalize on the presence of Kashkashian, a musician who defies any stereotypes of her instrument. Collaborating with Del Signore, who exemplified the nuance and colors available in percussion instruments, the duo intimately reaffirmed my love for small chamber ensembles. 

Mansurian’s Tagh for the Funeral of the Road captured the exoticism of non-traditional scales often found in Eastern European music naturally and organically. Using Thai gongs pitched to A and D, vibraphone and crotales, Del Signore created a colorful atmosphere and allowed the rich viola overtones to sing. Kashkashian is also a colorist, understanding that phrasing begins before sound is made and ends after the bow has left the string.

I often think that one could gage the audience’s emotional involvement based on an inverse relationship to the number of coughs.

The room was quiet. And I almost hoped for a non-clapping ending, letting me go home, synthesizing and dissipating the experience. I understand Rothko and the Chapel with clarity after this listening adventure.

Though the performance was sold out, plenty of seats were made available by defaulting concert goers. Their loss could be your potential gain, as the show repeats Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.