By Logan K. Young
Some three years after her death, and the specter of pianist Dina Koston still looms over the Beltway. Having co-founded, with Leon Fleisher, the Theater Chamber Players -- which would become the first resident ensemble at the Smithsonian and Kennedy Center -- in her twilight years, she had gone back to her first love: composition.
A former student of both master teacher Nadia Boulanger and the Darmstadt masterclasses, ultimately, Koston’s retreat to writing proved the wiser move. In fact, as I discovered Wednesday night at the Library of Congress, if things had turned out differently, Koston might’ve been remembered as a composer, first.
Apropos, then, that the inaugural concert of the Dina Koston and Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music would begin with Samuel Beckett’s “Ohio Impromptu.”
A brief but haunting meditation on loss and regret, Beckett’s playlet from 1982 was one of the last dramatic works he ever wrote. Late in his own life, here he’s worn down his characteristic dread to only the bare essentials: a Reader, a Listener, a table and a hat. Under the no-nonsense direction of Studio Theatre’s Joy Zinoman, Ted van Griethuysen ... read his part with stoic grace.
“Little is left to tell,” the Reader intones to his identically clad Listener (whom scholars suggest is but a proxy for the same person.) Unlike the tramps and their pratfalls that temper "Waiting for Godot’s" existentialism, true, “Ohio Impromptu” is stark for stark’s sake. But as the organizing theme for a concert of new music, once again, Dina Koston was dead on.
From the minimally-inclined (Morton Feldman) to Minimalism incarnate (Baltimore’s son Philip Glass), contemporary composers have mined Beckett’s mire more so than any modern writer. Be it English or his adopted French, there’s a musicality all its own to his way with words.
Koston no doubt heard this herself; her teacher at Darmstadt, Luciano Berio, had used excerpts from Beckett’s novel "The Unnamable" in his own magnum opus, "Sinfonia." Regardless, I know I heard it in Koston’s piece from 2009, “Distant Intervals.”
Written for the idiosyncratic instruments of the Cygnus Ensemble -- double winds (one of which is also double reed), two strings and a pair of plectrals including guitar, mandolin and tenor banjo -- Koston’s orchestration called for more forces still. But even as the Coolidge Auditorium stage threatened to buckle under the added personnel, strangely enough, the James Baker-led group rarely got louder than a mezzo-forte.
Just as Beckett’s piece needn’t shout, Koston’s work achieved its titular distance in hushed, almost reverent tones. Her intervals, while angular and decidedly atonal, seemed most concerned with restraint. Nathan Botts’ trumpet occasionally broke this character, but I likened those interruptions to the Listener’s knuckle raps from “Ohio Impromptu.”
In the play, the Listener knocks on the table to signal the Reader to repeat certain phrases (cf. “Nothing is left to tell...”). It’s really his only means of communication. Listening, myself, to Koston’s “Distant Intervals” immediately after, I began to hear a similar kind of registral hopelessness. Errant, displaced notes made for a serial-sounding score -- one who’s internal logic I could not grasp with just the one sitting.
In reality, hers is a difficult piece because it’s a vulnerable piece. Given the overall quietude Cygnus and friends were able to achieve during its performance, and Koston’s “Distant Intervals” proved the perfect companion to a melodrama that’s all about finding one. Little is left to tell, indeed.
Here's a video of the Becket piece performed by Jeremy Irons:
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