Playing with a visual context
Before tonight’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concert at Tanglewood, listeners will have a chance to experience the intersection of two art forms that usually stand respectfully at arm’s length. In a prelude concert at Ozawa Hall, the Hawthorne String Quartet will play the lone string quartet by Czech composer Hans Krasa; during the performance, Berkshire artist Jim Schantz will “improvise’’ a painting in response to the music.
The concert - which also includes music of Gideon Klein and Bohuslav Martinu - is a presentation of the Terezin Chamber Music Foundation, a local organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the work of composers who died in the Holocaust. Established in 1990, the foundation takes its name from the Czech town of Terezin (also known as Theresienstadt), whose concentration camp housed many well-known cultural figures during World War II. Though Terezin looked to the rest of the world like an artist’s retreat, many of its inhabitants, including Krasa, were eventually sent to their deaths in Auschwitz.
Merging the music and painting into a single performance was the brainchild of Mark Ludwig, who is the chamber music organization’s founder and the violist of the Hawthorne quartet. (He is also a member of the BSO.) The idea arose out of interviews with Terezin survivors that Ludwig had conducted in the mid-’90s. One of the interviews was with Eliska Kleinova, who had briefly been married to Krasa while imprisoned at Terezin. (Her brother, Gideon Klein, was another Terezin composer.) Kleinova told Ludwig that Krasa had had connections to the Surrealist movement in Paris during the 1920s.
“She said that his original intention for the string quartet was that during a live performance there would be an artist who would paint in response,’’ Ludwig says by phone from Tanglewood. “This was really intriguing - there’d been no documentation of it. But in piecing together his life and where he was musically during this period, it fits.’’
Krasa is known chiefly for the children’s opera “Brundibar,’’ which was often staged in Terezin. By contrast, the quartet, written in 1921, shows a composer synthesizing a number of heady influences and coming into his own voice. (The Hawthorne recorded the quartet for the Decca label; it remains available on demand from the online music retailer ArkivMusic.)
“Already, early on, he has an identifiable style in his music,’’ Ludwig says. “In some ways, it’s musically kaleidoscopic. Just as he creates one mood, it suddenly shifts to another. You can have a waltz, and then it goes into a bluesy section, then there’s a section where you hear Czech folk rhythms. You can tell that this is a composer who already has a mastery of instrumental technique and the ability to really incorporate it without it seeming contrived.’’
Ludwig had wanted to try a “visual performance’’ of the piece for years, but finding the right artist proved to be a challenge. “Think about it: For a painter, it’s generally considered a solitary activity,’’ he explains. “So you have to find someone who’s freed up enough that they don’t feel inhibited, and that music is a strong component in their life to begin with.’’
The answer was, at least metaphorically, right in front of his eyes. Schantz, a painter who works largely in landscapes, has been a friend of Ludwig’s for years and has an interest in the piece’s wider context. “Jim’s been going to the Czech Republic; he feels a real affinity for the artists who painted in Terezin.’’
The first collaboration between Schantz and the Hawthorne was a performance at Simon’s Rock College in March 2006. As the quartet played a few feet away, Schantz created a kind of abstract skyscape, as he has in each subsequent performance. “The results were stunning, not just in terms of the visual project but I think for the performers and for Jim, just the process of being further immersed in the music and in the artwork.’’
Asked in an e-mail whether he found the experience of painting in front of an audience nerve-racking, Schantz answered:
“From the time I first worked with the quartet, I felt a certain amount of liberation while working in real time. . . . It is really exhilarating to work within a set period of time and be literally surrounded by the music. I am completely absorbed in the work while the piece is being performed. While creating the painting, time somehow becomes extended. There’s a certain transcendental experience.’’
Initially, Ludwig tried to peek over as Schantz painted; he soon found himself in danger of losing his concentration, so he decided to have some performances filmed. “When you watch Jim, it’s not only watching the color palette changing. There’s also a physicality, a choreography of his movement that goes with the music. Since it’s abstract, it’s watching, if you will, a dance in color, watching how a palette is achieved in a particular painting. That has its own fascination.’’
Ludwig estimates that tonight’s concert will be about the 10th that Schantz and the quartet have done. Indeed, the collaboration has taken on a life of its own: Schantz’s works will go on display next year in Terezin as an exhibition in their own right. They will then move to Prague and on to New York. And there are plans for further performances into next year.
But, says Ludwig, “we certainly are tying to do it in an organic fashion. We don’t want the experience to become cookie-cutter.’’
Sunday at Marsh Chapel, Boston University; www.zradci.org