The Flux Quartet. From left: Felix Fan, Max Mandel, Conrad Harris and Tom Chiu performing Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Richard Termine.
A Marathon Performance (Aches, Too)
April 29, 2014 | The New York Times
The music of Morton Feldman, for me, is like an acquaintance you don’t really click with but whose virtues you can appreciate in small doses. I can admire Feldman’s spare, slow-moving aesthetic in moderation, but I find his larger works unbearably tedious. And large, by Feldman standards, is gigantic: His String Quartet No. 2 lasts around six hours. When I learned I’d been assigned to review a performance of the piece, I had a brief vision of being trapped in a never-ending Feldman loop, a sort of Sartrean aural damnation.
But there was an exit, fortunately, during a performance by the Flux Quartet at the Park Avenue Armory on Saturday afternoon. Listeners (including myself) wandered freely in and out of the Board of Officers Room as the violinists Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris, the violist Max Mandel and the cellist Felix Fan played for approximately six hours, without pause.
Composers have frequently tormented musicians with awkward or almost unplayable passages, but dehydration is a threat probably peculiar to those performing the second quartet by Feldman, an exuberant New Yorker who died in 1987 at 61. The Kronos Quartet backed out of a performance in 1996 because the physical pain became too much.
In the program notes, Mr. Chiu compared the challenge of performing the quartet to typing on a keyboard positioned a foot higher than normal for six hours. Several times, he grimaced after shaking out his arm; I started to have psychosomatic tendinitis twinges in my arms after about the fifth hour. But despite the grueling requirements, the Flux has made this daunting piece an unlikely calling card, performing it on several occasions. I could only admire their dedication, skill and sheer energy.
But I still failed to admire the piece. Much of Feldman’s whisper-soft music unfolds with glacial slowness and lacks dynamic contrasts, rhythmic pulse or formal structure. Melodic cells repeat for what feels like an eternity.
Many brilliant colleagues have written glowingly about Feldman, and the second quartet in particular. En route to the Armory, I had optimistically hoped for an epiphany, although my hopes faded as long stretches of the piece began to grate with their monotony.
But I also had a renewed appreciation for the fleeting moments of sensual beauty and striking passages that surface throughout, like a moody section with eerie harmonies, and another in which tense cello pizzicati underpin melancholy gestures on the violins and viola. Just as a listener is rewarded with sublime orchestral music after surviving one of Wagner’s more interminable monologues, Feldman’s score shifts gears just about when you reach your breaking point.
But I was clearly in the minority on Saturday. Some 50 of the Feldman fans attending stayed until the end, just before 9 p.m., giving the Flux musicians a standing ovation for their marathon commitment.