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BWW Review: A Hypnotic Rod Gilfry Is No LOSER in David Lang's 'Next Wave' Premiere at BAM

Baritone Rod Gilfry.
Photo by Richard Termine.

While listening to baritone Rod Gilfry's masterful, mesmerizing performance in the world premiere of David Lang's monodrama, THE LOSER, at BAM's "Next Wave Festival," I thought I could listen to him sing the telephone book. Come to think of it, he came pretty close to that at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House, with this one-hour post-minimalist rant about the long shadow cast by the brilliant pianist Glenn Gould and two lesser musicians who quit performing because of it.

Not that the libretto was uninteresting, at least in Gilfry's hands (and his unerring diction), where it took the form of a one-way conversation with the audience--like meeting an interesting stranger at a bar--some of it amusing, some horrifying. Adapted from a novel by Thomas Bernhard, it concerns two pianists who meet Gould during a master seminar with Vladimir Horowitz and cast their own careers aside, overwhelmed by Gould's astounding talent. Or, as Lang's libretto puts it, "When we meet the very best, we have to give up."

The evening is narrated by one of these men (whom Gould called "the philosopher"), while the other (the title character, who has never won a prize) has committed suicide after his sister marries and leaves him alone to deal with his inadequacies.

Lang is librettist, composer and director all in one for THE LOSER and his staging is interesting, if not totally cohesive. Gilfry is perched atop a custom-built platform on the orchestra floor, standing level with the mezzanine of BAM's opera house where the audience was seated, so he could look us straight in the eye. (The excellent pianist Conrad Tao is on a lower platform on the house's true stage, remote from the audience; as the ghost of Gould, he plays Lang's music rather than Bach.) But is Gilfry on a stage--or a scaffolding that's ready to take him to his doom?

The New Yorker Magazine referred to Lang as "once a post-minimalist enfant terrible, ... [now] an American master," but his minimalist style is difficult to relate to, at least as far as the music written for the baritone is concerned. No highs, no lows--no emotion at all--but mostly a monotone with only the merest hint of inflection. It's enough to keep the narrative going but only just, and it is through the sheer force of Gilfry's personality that we keep involved in the haphazard story of his life and world.

The music for the other performers, however, was more varied--not only the charming composition for pianist Tao, but for the Bang on a Can Opera ensemble under the sure hand of Karina Canellakis. I was particularly drawn to the music for cellist Clarice Jensen, but Lisa Dowling on double bass, violist Isabel Hagen and percussionist Owen Weaver were all deft proponents of the composer's art.

Still, it was Gilfry's evening. The singer had a triumph last year in the title role of Matthew Aucoin's WALT WHITMAN; he might have had one here, too, with a little more to work with.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow

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