All About the Benjamin

| 17 Feb 2015 | 02:10

    When Brian Ferneyhough's first opera, Shadowtime, gets its U.S. premier this week at Lincoln Center Summer Festival (it played London in early July and Munich in '04), it'll bear both the composer's enormous detail and density of sound, and a whole new angle on the critic/philosopher Walter Benjamin. Shadowtime takes Benjamin as its subject, in a libretto by the poet Charles Bernstein that begins on Benjamin's last day then plunges into his afterlife, which is to say the world of his thought, leading to the Underworld-which in Shadowtime is Las Vegas.

    Benjamin, one of the 20th century's most influential thinkers, took his own life in 1940 at an inn on the Spanish border, fearing capture by the Nazis. In constructing his opera-of-ideas, Ferneyhough produced seven scenes, several of which have been played as a concert pieces. As the composer put it in an e-mail exchange, "there needed to be fluctuations in intensity of focus, swinging back and around the distinction between the collective and the individual." Along with interrogation by historical figures from Marx to the Marx brothers, Shadowtime features pianist Nick Hodges and guitarist Mats Scheidegger. "The figure of the pianist is also that of the 'objective' narrator of the opening," Ferneyhough said, "and that of the Joker figure associated with the turning wheel of fate. He is also the narrator of the sixth scene [which considers allegory in Benjamin's thinking], so his presiding over Benjamin's descent into the Underworld makes sense."

    The composer calls Shadowtime's second movement, a guitar concerto titled "The Fluttering of Gabriel's Wings," "a dopplegaenger, in that guitar shadows the soloists' every step. I needed an instrument capable of great violence and extreme delicacy, whose integration into the ensemble could never be more than provisional: the 'shadowy' rendering of unimaginable pinions." The movement recalls another Ferneyhough piece dedicated to Benjamin, "Kurze Schatten II," available on a Montaigne CD featuring the Arditti Quartet. A Ferneyhough recital on Monday at Juillard included "Terrain," also on the Montaigne CD, in which a violin and wind octet flaunts symphonic issues of prominence and interdependence. Other daunting musical concerns are evident on the Ensemble Recherche's Stradivarius CD of his chamber music, with strings and percussion in perpetual embarkation on "Incipits," and a roiling, tangling 20-minute string trio.

    Ferneyhough's spent most of his professional life outside his native England in Germany and California, and anticipation runs high for a work of Shadowtime's magnitude. Some of the opera's promise might be found in the final movement of his Fourth String Quartet, the Montaigne CD's opener that adds a soprano voice to the instrumentation, mirroring Schoenberg's renowned Second Quartet. The soprano rejoins the quartet about three minutes in, and they play almost as if not hearing one another before the quartet subsides. Over the ensuing four minutes, Brenda Mitchell sings brilliant interpolations of a poem by Jackson Mac Low, tracing a core of arch beauty while deploying a relentless variety of vocal inflection ranging from trills that all but whiplash at the back of phrases, to clicked syllables and seemingly random utterances.

    "His is music that's inherently engaging, even captivating," says Mark Applebaum, who studied with Ferneyhough and now teaches with him at Stanford, and who includes a "Ferneyhough Remix" on one of his own Tzadik CDs. "Sometimes it's quite witty, and revels in elevating his sound above surface details of demanding technique."

    George Steel, director at Columbia's Miller Theater, who presented Ferneyhough's "Carceri d'Invenzione" earlier this year, said that that Composer Portrait concert came from "daring the group Ensemble 21 to do the most complex piece they could imagine. It's a giant cycle of bewildering and ecstatic complexity. Ferneyhough represents the most extreme point of view in the style of music whose godfather is Milton Babbit."

    Applebaum went on to describe "Carceri"'s second passage, for piccolo, as "a super intensive piece in live performance, because there's no escape from its physically, emotionally raw intensity. There's an inherent theatrical nature in all of his music, watching humans realize this extraordinarily challenging music. It's gone from music that's regarded as almost unplayable when it's written, to there being people who can play it-it just takes a certain dedication." Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall, Columbus Circle, 212-721-6500; 8; $25-55.