Sarah Rothenberg's The Blue Rider: Kandinsky and Music

Impression III (Concert) by Wassily Kandinsky
Impression III (Concert) by Wassily Kandinsky

Wander through any museum that displays works by modern and contemporary artists and you'll rarely, if ever, overhear someone say "Oh God! How much longer do I have to LOOK at this?" And you'll never see someone run for the exit shortly after confronting a painting or sculpture. Dead shark floating in formaldehyde? No problem. Silk-screened images of an empty electric chair? Pshaw! Put that up in the new baby's room. But attend a concert of 20th or (if you're really brave) 21st century classical music, and you can guarantee that before the first intermission you'll hear groans and sighs of exasperation and see audience members running for the exits shaking their heads in disgust. But why, as music critic Alex Ross eloquently asked in an op-ed piece for The Guardian, do we HATE modern classical music? Why do the words "Second Viennese School," "serialism," or "emancipation of dissonance" (Eek!!!) make a concert attendee's eyes widen in terror and skin crawl with revulsion?

In his treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, painter Wassily Kandinsky (b. 1866) wrote: "Color is the keyboard, the eye is the hammer...the soul is the piano with its many strings." His friend composer Arnold Schoenberg similarly implored people to listen to the world around them for its "colors, noises, lights, sounds, movements, glances, gestures..." The shared aesthetic and friendship between these two artists--one a painter who painted sounds, one a composer who painted--is the inspiration for pianist Sarah Rothenberg's productionThe Blue Rider: Kandinsky and Music, premiering Saturday, January 29, 8:00 p.m. at the Wortham Center. Ms. Rothberg, soprano Susan Narucki, lighting and set designer Marcus Doshi, and video designer Sven Ortel have concocted a visual and aural feast for the senses drawing on the imagery of Kandinsky and the music of early 20th century composers Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Thomas de Hartmann, Arthur Lourie, Alexander Scriabin, and Anton Webern.

The Blue Rider's program of pieces for piano and piano and voice are accompanied by lighting and video that's striking yet understated, perfectly enhancing the emotive power of the compositions and Rothenberg and Narucki's performances. The presentation of music with visuals will delight those already familiar with the sound of 12-tone rows and will most certainly seduce those who are new to this period of European music.

(Sarah Rothenberg plays Alexander Scriabin's

Vers La Flamme

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)

So, going back to the top, if representational and tonal practices were, in Schoenberg and Kandinsky's time, becoming unhinged and leaving many viewers and audiences lost with no means of "interpreting" the new abstraction or atonality, where are we now almost a century later? Is The Blue Rider's use of lighting and video a means to lull a stressed-out audience into sitting through dissonant, serial, and atonal music? Or is that musical language so much a part of our vernacular these days that the visual trip simply compliments the sensual nature of its sound? Kandinsky himself predicted, "today's dissonance in painting and music is merely the consonance of tomorrow." Let your ears and eyes be the judge.

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