A subset of the Brussels Philharmonic, led by British conductor George Jackson, gave a superb live-streamed performance of new music on Friday evening from Brussels' Flagey cultural center. Morton Feldman's masterpiece Rothko Chapel was the centerpiece, in which the orchestra was joined by the excellent Vlaams Radiokoor, but the two opening works – a new work by French-Swiss composer Claire-Mélanie Sinnhuber and Icelander Anna Thorvaldsdottir – also had much to recommend them in completely different ways.

George Jackson conducts the Brussels Philharmonic © Antoine Porcher
George Jackson conducts the Brussels Philharmonic
© Antoine Porcher

The title of Sinnhuber's work, Chahut, can be translated variously as chaos, pandemonium or bedlam, all of which describe the work perfectly, with its Stravinskian neoclassical, meter-changing rhythms chugging along, and interjections from the smallish chamber orchestra. It is a comic tonal stew of short motifs all thrown together, sometimes joined by more unusual instruments, notably kazoo and harmonica. Later in the piece the instruments play sustained notes with the percussion battery maintaining the rhythmic progress. It was the perfect curtain-raiser and so imaginative, I felt like it ended too soon.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Streaming Arhythmia was, in contrast to Chahut, serious, often foreboding, even menacing. The musical texture was mostly dark, with the instrumental palette based on several string instruments, a bass flute and contrabassoon. The pace was slow, cloud-like, beginning with sustained long notes, both high and low pitches, gradually adding sharp interjections that gradually became more numerous, like flashes of lightning from an approaching thunderstorm. Two percussionists were kept busy. The broadcast sound was excellent, highlighting the stereo array of instruments across the stage. These relatively static passages alternated with ferocious music. There was final improvisatory passage before the conductor brought the piece to a final sudden flourish. The performance was both convincing and disquieting.

The Brussels Philharmonic © Antoine Porcher
The Brussels Philharmonic
© Antoine Porcher

Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel was written in 1971 as a memorial to Feldman's friend, the painter Mark Rothko, who had committed suicide the previous year. The ecumenical Houston Chapel, a place for meditation and inter-religious conferences, was built to house Rothko's fourteen mammoth shades-of-black-colored paintings. Rothko Chapel is for viola, percussion, celesta, soprano solo and choir, who hum and sing wordless syllables, sometimes together, sometimes in small groupings, echoing the unseen chorus representing the voice of God in Schoenberg's Moses und Aron. The brilliant Vlaams Radiokoor, masked, was arrayed in near-darkness on steps across the back of the stage. Feldman's Jewishness is never far from mind in this work; the closing lamenting viola melodies, against repeated four-note patterns in the vibraphone and celesta, are clearly Hebraic in origin. Time is stretched in Rothko Chapel; silences are as much a part of the musical experience as the sounds. A few smudged notes and choral intonations did not harm this magisterial performance and its cathartic conclusion.

Vlaams Radiokoor © Antoine Porcher
Vlaams Radiokoor
© Antoine Porcher

For Rothko Chapel's first performance in Houston, Feldman wanted the performers to be invisible and silent when they were not playing or singing. The Brussels video production was excellent, but I ultimately found that the cutting from instruments to choir and the live performance non-musical sounds distracted from the meditative aspect of Feldman's music. Perhaps listening to audio alone in the darkness is the best way to experience this work, but I’m still grateful for this very fine performance.

This performance was reviewed from the Brussels Philharmonic's video stream