Classical Notes

Trio experiences and casts the Feldman spell

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By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / September 10, 2010

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In 1996, flutist Fenwick Smith gave a recital that included “Why Patterns?’’ a 25-minute chamber piece by the American composer Morton Feldman. Like much of Feldman’s music, “Why Patterns?’’ is predominantly soft and slow; repeated patterns and irregular rhythms are knit together with an expressive use of silence. Though his music has grown in popularity over the last decade or so, this was rather esoteric fare at the time.

As Smith recently recalled, “people began to get antsy and shuffle around in their seats’’ as the music began to unfold. There was a sense of “Is this all?’’

“But then after about 10 minutes,’’ he continued, “it got very quiet. Everyone was listening. And I found it a very wonderful experience.’’ When Smith arrived home from the concert, he had two phone messages, “from people whom I don’t remember and didn’t know at the time, saying, thank you so much for playing this music.’’

Smith, a venerable Boston musician, returns to Feldman’s music on Sunday, this time in the company of two younger colleagues well known in local new-music circles: pianist Sarah Bob and percussionist Aaron Trant. The trio will play “Crippled Symmetry,’’ a single-movement work of about 85 minutes that is the concert’s sole work. Like the 1996 concert, Sunday’s performance is one of the flutist’s annual recitals, a tradition that stretches back to the 1970s.

During a recent conversation at Bob and Trant’s Jamaica Plain home, all three talked about the effects of immersing themselves in Feldman’s spare, deliberate voice. (The couple’s 1-year old son, Leo, was also an active participant in the conversation.) Though “Crippled Symmetry’’ may seem lengthy for a single movement work by conventional standards, it is outdone by Feldman’s (1926-87) late works, some of which last between four and six hours. In wholly successful performances of these glacial monuments, a kind of spell overtakes the audience, and a new way of listening emerges.

“I first learned to love to Feldman as soon as the concert was over,’’ said Bob, who’s performing one of the composer’s works for the first time. “Because, it’s not that I wasn’t enjoying it while I was in the concert. But when the music stopped, and I realized how I was in a trance that whole time, and then suddenly there was no sound, and then applause, it was so startling. That’s when I realized how genius the music really is.

“We live in such an ADD culture right now,’’ she continued. “Everything’s constant and bright and loud and nonstop.’’ With Feldman, by contrast, “There’s a moment of acceptance, of, this is where I am right now. And that’s such a great state to be in.’’

Of course, bringing about that ethereal effect takes considerable effort from the performers. The unbroken span is the most obvious of the demands that Feldman’s music makes. Another is his unique rhythmic sense. Feldman will reiterate a musical motive with almost infinitesimal changes to its duration. The paradoxical result, Smith said, is that there is a simultaneous sense of repetition and of constant change.

“It’s ironic from a performer’s point of view,’’ added Trant. “It’s a long, slow piece, but we’re very active and we’re calculating these smaller rhythmic figures. When I’m performing this, it feels very busy. And if you’re just sitting back in the audience listening, you don’t get any of that computer-type accuracy that’s happening. And that’s the idea of the piece.’’

Another unusual aspect of “Crippled Symmetry’’ is Feldman’s direction that the piece “is not a synchronized score.’’ What this means is that even when the performers’ lines of music are directly beneath each other on the page, they’re not meant to — indeed, they cannot — be played together. The three parts go out of phase almost immediately, and, Smith said, “There’s no conceivable possibility of having two performances the same.’’

“The first time we did it, I ended 15 minutes before them,’’ said Bob. “How did I pace that? What was I doing that was so different from them? And the second time I was five minutes after them. And there’s no right or wrong with this. . . . What that says to me [is that] we’re always in a different place — physically, mentally. And Feldman really captures that in this beautiful, blossoming sort of way.’’

“In our second or third run-through,’’ said Smith, “there was this amazing little constellation of things that just kind of shot out. Which could never happen again, probably, but other things are happening, all the time.’’

One hopes that Sunday’s performance augurs more Feldman performances in the near future. Regardless, though, it will be something of a milestone for Smith, whose fall recital has become a renowned autumnal rite of Boston musical life. Having covered vast swaths of the flute repertoire over the years, he mentioned that he plans to bring the tradition to a close after next year’s iteration, which will be his 35th. “Wind players don’t last as long as string players and pianists,’’ he said. “Our musculature, no matter how you try to keep it up, seems to want to be a bit looser.’’

Asked whether he was planning something special for that final recital, Smith gave a small smile and said, “I’m looking at some things,’’ but would offer no more.

At Jordan Hall; www.necmusic .edu/concerts-events

David Weininger can be reached at