David Lang is, per The New Yorker, a “postminimalist enfant terrible,” best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning little match girl passion. I am not familiar with his work, but the little match girl was extolled to me in the highest terms by a total stranger on the subway platform (Nevins Street) going home from the loser, and in New York there can be no more exalted gospel.
Lang’s the loser is a monodrama derived from a novel by Thomas Bernhard concerning two pianists who, while working with Vladimir Horowitz, meet Glenn Gould, a fellow student, and are so astounded by his talent that they lose hope of having careers themselves. One of them, our narrator, gives his beloved Steinway to a nine-year-old piano student who soon destroys it. The other, Wertheimer, the Loser, never becomes anything, and when his put-upon sister leaves him to marry, hangs himself at her door. The lone survivor (Gould, too, being dead) recounts all of this in a light, charming manner with self-deprecating asides. It might be chat with a stranger in a Viennese tavern.
Since the plot lacks incident and the singer barely moves on his lofty platform in the darkened cavern of the BAM opera house, his role is a tour-de-force but not in the usual operatic terms. He must maintain an unemotional tone, musical but with slight melody. He speak-sings to an audience in the mezzanine. In order to keep us attentive for about eighty minutes, he invests his narrative with the mild variety of inflection, of distanced emotion, that the composer scrupulously omits.
No high notes and not many low ones, no artificial seizure of our emotions by ornament or arbitrary technical means. This role is sung at BAM by Rod Gilfry, familiar as Billy Budd, Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar and Stern in Anna Nicole, whose resonant, subtly matter-of-fact delivery and comic timing, combined with the dark, agreeable colors of his instrument and flawless diction, keep us entertained and mostly awake for the long, motionless haul.
The eight separate “scenes” of the story are delineated by each scene’s emotional focus (however slight the progress of the tale), and by similarly slight variations in the instrumental texture assigned to each narration. The music is provided by the Bang on a Can ensemble led by Karina Canellakis, consisting of bass, viola, cello and percussion. The instruments are not always played as one might expect, but the choice (ponticello, plucked solo string or chord, faint marimba) at the start of a scene remains the choice throughout that section.
In the later scenes, there is a pianist representing Gould—or is he the suicidal Wertheimer?—sitting far away and playing faintly. The accompaniments might almost be casually overheard than crucial to Mr. Gilfry’s foregrounded narration, so little do they impinge on or affect his message. “The Goldberg Variations were composed for the sole purpose of helping an insomniac put up with the insomnia he had suffered from all his life,” says our narrator, “but they killed Wertheimer. They were composed to delight the soul and almost two hundred and fifty years later they have killed a hopeless person.”
Photo: Richard Termine