The Arthropologist

Enter the Blue vortex: Russian abstract meets music for Da Camera's latest, wild ride

Enter the Blue vortex: Russian abstract meets music for Da Camera's latest, wild ride

News_Nancy_Da Camera_A Little Day Music
Da Camera’s outreach programs include its signature "A Little Day Music" series at Wortham Center. Courtesy of Pin Lim/Forest Photography
News_Nancy_Da Camera_Lionel Loueke
West African jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke makes his Houston debut on Feb. 5 at Wortham Center. Courtesy of Lionel Loueke
News_Nancy_Da Camera_The Blue Rider_pianist Sarah Rothenberg and soprano Susan Narucki
Da Camera’s "The Blue Rider: Kandinsky and Music" features pianist Sarah Rothenberg and soprano Susan Narucki, with lighting and set design by Marcus Doshi and projection and video design by Sven Ortel. Photo by Gus Powell
News_Nancy_Da Camera_A Little Day Music
News_Nancy_Da Camera_Lionel Loueke
News_Nancy_Da Camera_The Blue Rider_pianist Sarah Rothenberg and soprano Susan Narucki

This story starts in New York City, while I was strolling through the Kandinsky exhibit at the Guggenheim. As a dancer, I've always felt a kinship with the Russian abstract painter and aesthetic theorist. His work so dwells in space, motion and emotional tone, the very elements of dance.

But it was music that most enchanted Kandinsky. So it was no surprise when I heard Sarah Rothenberg's familiar voice wafting through my headset.

Houston is rich with discipline blenders, but no one has placed the arts in conversation with one another like Rothenberg, Da Camera Houston's artistic director and world renowned pianist. Houston is about to get a taste of her particular brand of mix mastering with Sarah Rothenberg's The Blue Rider: Kandinsky and Music 8 p.m. Saturday at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Center. 

Here the meeting of art and music references one of the most profound relationships between an artist (Kandinsky) and a composer (Schoenberg). Just over 100 years ago, on Jan 2, 1911, Kandinsky attended a concert of the music of Schoenberg along with Franz Marc and other members of the Neue Künstler-Vereinigung München. Shortly afterward, Kandinsky painted Impression III (Concert), depicting a bold blast of yellow, anchored by a mass of black (the piano), his schematic nod to the grand piano along with aggressive marks, revealing the energy of the audience.

We can almost feel the artist shifting from the representational to the abstract. The visceral excitement of the evening is palpable. 

Schoenberg and Kandinsky began a correspondence, which resulted in Schoenberg's participation in The Blue Rider Almanac in 1912. "It was a great moment in time, where brilliant artists found inspiration in each other's work," Rothenberg says.

This multi media production was originally co-commissioned by Columbia University's Miller Theatre and the Works in Process program at the Guggenheim, where Rothenberg has participated in numerous events. The New York Times concluded the event revealed "a live-wire connection between between these two giants, both cutting loose from representational and tonal practices that had anchored the visual and musical arts."

 "I have had a long standing relationship with Works in Process at the Guggenheim," Rothenberg says. "As I have a interest in The Blue Rider and my specialty is music of the Russian and German avant-garde. It was a natural." 

One glance at the video indicates the viewer is in for an entirely original experience. The piano is set against a vortex-shaped set, which becomes a surface for projections. Lines, shapes and color swirl, expanding the borders of the stage. It's impossible to tell where images begin and end. According to Rothenberg, that's exactly the point.

"The vortex turns into a triangle and at times, disappears completely. The design comes from a sketch Kandinsky made at the concert," she says. "Kandinksy and Schoenberg had ideas on the staging of things. Schoenberg talked about 'making music with the media of the stage.' Although all the images are computer generated, there is nothing that doesn't come from Kandinsky."

Projections will be tied to the music as video is a time-based art form. Expect some three-dimensionality, along with an experience of heightened sensing. As there was no video back then, imagine 21st-century technology merging with the 20th-century aesthetic of The Blue Rider

Although the performance was conceived and directed by Rothenberg, she enlisted an outstanding team of collaborators, including soprano Susan Narucki, set and lighting designer Marcus Doshi, projection and video design by Sven Ortel (who did the projections for Alley Theatre's Wonderland). With a program that includes music by Berg, Thomas de Hartmann, Arthur Lourie, Schoenberg, Scriabin and Webern, the evening will be as exciting to the ears as it is to the eyes. 

Rothenberg aims at a merging of the senses, where you can no longer tell whether you are hearing or seeing. "It's not like anything else," she says. "It's a marriage of the visual and the aural, yet music remains central."

I appreciate that an experience that stirred Kandinsky some 100 years ago continues in the work of Rothenberg and Da Camera. Artists' ideas are not bound by time. To unravel the mystery of this artistic union of art and music attend the pre-show talk by Walter Frisch, author of German Modernism: Music and the Arts at 7 p.m. Saturday.

This program is indicative of Da Camera's mission, which has focused on placing music within a historical and social context. Founded in 1987 by the late violinist  violinist Sergiu Luca, Da Camera has become a cultural pillar of Houston and one of the nation's leading presenters of ensemble music, presenting over 60 artists each season. Since taking the helm in 1994, Rothenberg has continued to define the organization's identity and deepen its outreach, with the Young Artists Program and Mentors in Music Master Classes and other events.

Da Camera has also become Houston's go-to place for jazz events.

"Jazz has a lot in common with chamber music," Rothenberg says.

Next up is the legendary African guitarist Lionel Loueke on Feb. 5.  This upcoming Wednesday at noon, don't miss Timothy Hester and Friends in  A Little Day Music in the lobby of Wortham, which is part of Da Camera's numerous free offerings. 

Wait, there's more. Stop, Look and Listen places Da Camera Young Artists right in The Menil Collection galleries. Da Camera has found a long-standing partner in the Menil.

"It's a great place to hear music," she says. "Music invites you to spend more time with the art."  

Music and art occupying the same space with a purpose, a recipe for successful synthesis of the arts if I've ever seen one.


Listen and watch Sarah Rothenberg play Scriabin's "Vers La Flamme"