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Music review: Spectral Scriabin

March 18, 2012 |  3:58 pm

“Spectral Scriabin” at the Broad Stage on Saturday night looked  promising, with look, indeed, part of the promise. Eteri Andjaparidze -- a pianist from the Georgian republic with a cult following and now a respected educator in America -- teamed up with extraordinary lighting designer Jennifer Tipton to illuminate a fascinating Russian composer who heard in colors.

Created for the Baryshnikov Arts Center in Manhattan and also presented at Lincoln Center’s 2011 White Light Festival, “Spectral Scriabin” came highly regarded, at least according to its press clippings. Maybe something in Andjaparidze’s brittle and sometimes banal playing or Tipton’s overly subtle gauzy projections got lost in the translation, or in the cross-country transport. But there is more than one way to look at Scriabin.

Born in 1872, Aleksandr Scriabin was a late Romantic who turned Modernist and then turned mystic and died young in 1915. As a musical revolutionary, Scriabin helped move music forward, influencing Stravinsky and Schoenberg and even Henry Cowell’s eclectic California school.

A decade after Scriabin’s death, at the fashionable salons in Paris, London, New York, Chicago and L.A. -- where Duchamp was debated and banned copies of Joyce’s “Ulysses” were circulated -- Scriabin’s music was often played and his mystic chord  mooned over by Madame Blavatsky's Theosophists. The young Elliott Carter and John Cage were Scriabinites. Pierre Boulez has become one in his later years.

But what Scriabin is mostly remembered for today, unfortunately, is his synesthesia (he associated tones with colors) and his mystical over-the-topness. He wrote that he wanted to suspend bells from the clouds over India in his last orchestral work, the incomplete “Mysterium.”

Andjaparidze put together an uninspired program consisting mainly of preludes, etudes, poems and small character pieces. She did begin with the rhythmically advanced, late “Vers la Flamme,” and end with the Fourth Sonata, Scriabin’s first spiritual masterpiece. The pieces ran, one into another, for an hour and were played with the audience in the dark, so that Tipton could colorize the backdrop. 

Tipton’s lighting effects at the very start of Saturday’s recital were splendid. As Andjaparidze began the spooky opening of “Vers la Flamme” in as much darkness as the fire officials allowed (exit signs remained illuminated), her hands were bathed in a ghostly glow. Then the music stand on her piano began to glow. But there was little spookiness to the rushed and squarely phrased playing.

There were, however, sparks. Andjaparidze has fingers of steel and she gets an impressively metallic sound from the keyboard with her sharp attacks. She favors momentum over wistfulness. Early preludes and etudes were treated as showpieces. The Waltz in A-Flat was dizzying. The Poem Languide in B Major was also dizzying.

Tipton’s lighting effects relied on large discs of pastels projected onto to the scrim. Occasionally, but only occasionally, a strong red or blue created a mood. It could be that I was sitting too close to the stage for the pastels to take; it could be that the show was created for a smaller space; or it could be that too much extraneous exit sign light bled onto the stage. But the lighting ultimately put attention on the pianist herself, rather than on illuminating the music.

Now and then, Andjaparidze surprised me. The Andante opening of the Fourth Sonata, which ended the program, was beautifully spare; every note, in this instance, actually glowing. That didn't last. The fast second movement became yet another showpiece, although it did allow Tipton her one great moment. At the climax, the backdrop became a blaze of white light, in a Robert Wilson way (Tipton has worked extensively with Wilson).

As I write this, the L.A. Marathon is being run under my window, and my street has been turned into a big advertisement for Honda. The theme is “The Power of Dreams,” even though dreams are in short supply. What dreams are there in helicopters hovering overhead and an atrociously bad rock band the city has set up to egg on (or bum out) miraculous runners?

The power of dreams is their otherworldliness, a runner's high. Scriabin’s music cannily catches this dream state. Andjaparidze’s Scriabin was closer to a big race to a blazing finish.


What color is music?

Sardono Dance Theater and Jennifer Tipton at REDCAT

Jennifer Tipton lights up REDCAT, and many other stages

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Eteri Andjaparidze performs "Spectral Scriabin" at the Broad Stage on Saturday night. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.