What’s your ideal performance space? Sarah Rothenberg

What’s your ideal performance space? Sarah Rothenberg

Sarah Rothenberg
Photo by Christian Steiner

Over the years I’ve noticed that the space in which one plays new music can have a big effect on how the audience responds. Of course, some of this may be due to the fact that certain spaces attract certain audiences, and if I add that some of my favorite venues have been contemporary art museums it may sound as though I just like to preach to the converted.

But I think most of us involved with contemporary music have noticed that the art world does not always share our musical preferences, so we actually do encounter new audiences this way as well. A space that houses contemporary art immediately introduces the right elements of surprise, difference, even strangeness, that one wants the music listener to be ready for.

As Artistic Director of Da Camera of Houston, I have the opportunity to take this one step farther. We have the privilege of presenting concerts in the world-renowned Menil Collection, housed in a majestically serene building designed by the architect Renzo Piano. From the start, I’ve been interested in using the collection as a context for new music. This has resulted in a number of unusual programs.

To celebrate the opening of a new gallery devoted to the work of American painter Cy Twombly, we picked up on the Greek myths in his abstract paintings and presented a program entitled Ancient Greeks and Modern Americans. As the audience sat in an open gallery space surrounded by Twombly’s work, they heard performances of such works as Elliott Carter‘s Syringa and Milton Babbitt‘s Philomel. Another program, Morton Feldman and the Abstract Expressionists, presented Feldman works with titles referring to De Kooning, Rothko, Guston, and Franz Kline that we performed with paintings by these artists on the walls. The memorable finale on this evening involved the entire audience walking over to the contemplative Rothko Chapel, a block away, for a performance of Feldman’s masterpiece created for that space. The unique marriage of music and place was something the entire audience felt in a visceral way, and will probably never forget.

Coming up this season, we will be presenting the premiere of Jane Ira Bloom‘s new work, “Chasing Paint,” inspired by the work of Jackson Pollock, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in a gallery hung with Pollocks. This is as exciting for Bloom as it is for the rest of us.

These are rather rarified examples, and I don’t think that there needs to be a programmatic connection between the art and the music for the effect to be felt, although this can certainly intensify the result. I have wonderful memories of performing a new work by George Tsontakis with members of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at the DIA Foundation in New York. The space was filled with Richard Serra‘s enormous “Torqued Ellipses,” forcing us musicians into a corner of this rather cavernous space, where we were dwarfed by the towering steel sculptures. As there was only natural light and the concert was at night, a few halogen lamps around us gave off a cave-like glow. The addition of a torrential rainstorm outside created an amazing sense of shelter and community as everyone gathered inside to hear new music. Spaces that allow for that community, diminish separation between artist and audience, generate an energy that encourages openness: these are important characteristics that can make a difference for both performer and listener. Anything that radiates the opposite of “business as usual,” and instead wakes people up.

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