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Review: Meredith Monk, music for one and two pianos

Over the past 50 years, Meredith Monk has been a dancer, a composer, an installation artist, and a film and theater director, in the process collecting three Obie Awards and a MacArthur Fellowship. You’d hardly expect a mere piano or two to do her justice - especially since her primary instrument as a composer has always been the human voice. Yet Thursday evening at Jordan Hall, the New England Conservatory paid tribute to Monk with a program of her complete piano music, and her extraordinary sensibility expressed itself as fully as if she had been on stage herself.

She actually was on stage after the performance, taking part in a discussion with the two pianists, Ursula Oppens and NEC piano-department chair Bruce Brubaker, and cheerfully exclaiming, “This is the world premiere of this concert!’’ That was true, not only because the pieces had never appeared on a single program, but also because Brubaker had to arrange some of them. “Phantom Waltz’’ and “Parlour Games,’’ Monk explained, were composed for a dance-theater work inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. “Parlour Games’’ was a studio creation - four tracks overlaid on one another - that Brubaker redid for two pianos.


Monk invariably rejects being labeled as a minimalist composer in the vein of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley. Her piano music is built from short repeated phrases that grow and evolve, but they don’t evolve in the usual inexorable minimalist way - at times, Oppens and Brubaker seemed to be improvising as they played off each other. They walked out on stage clapping, as if they were applauding Monk, and shouting, “Hey!’’, but that turned out to be part of the opening “Folkdance,’’ a footstomper in seven-beat phrases in which they sometimes clapped and sometimes played.

The pieces spanned 35 years in Monk’s career, from “Tower’’ (1971) to “totentanz’’ (2006). Brubaker soloed on “Railroad (Travel Song),’’ pounding, steaming, whistling, introducing a bass line reminiscent of Debussy, then chugging to a halt. Oppens followed with the somber “St. Petersburg Waltz,’’ which suggested poet Anna Akhmatova and the dizzying steadicam of Aleksandr Sokurov in “Russian Ark.’’ Oppens made “Paris’’ a song of muted regret, though she did smack the keys with the back of her right hand; Brubaker conjured Debussy once more in “Window in 7’s.’’ They played blind man’s buff in the concluding “Parlour Games.’’


The only downside to the music was that there was only 55 minutes of it. More from Monk would be most welcome.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.