For the loser, which Lang not only composed but also directed in its premiere staging for BAM’s Next Wave Festival, that empathy extends beyond the score. Everything about the presentation underscored sensations intrinsic to Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel (distilled by Lang from Jack Dawson’s English translation), in which an unnamed narrator, formerly a promising pianist, recounts meeting Glenn Gould in a Salzburg master class led by Vladimir Horowitz.
Its considerable historical liberties notwithstanding, the story details the impact a brush with the incomparably brilliant Gould would have on the narrator and their fellow student, Wertheimer – in the process prompting reflection on the destructive potential of both genius and its absence. “When we meet the very best, we have to give up, I thought,” the narrator says, his declaration followed with a pregnant pause. (That he regularly appends such self-reflexive tags to his observations emphasizes his solitude.) Spiritually scorched by Gould’s incandescence in Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, both the narrator and Wertheimer – the “loser” of the title – would abandon artistic paths; the narrator contemptuously, Wertheimer self-destructively.
The versatile, charismatic baritone Rod Gilfry, in the lone vocal role, performed tuxedo-clad and spotlit in an otherwise darkened house. He stood perched atop a 20-foot platform planted in the orchestra-level seating, singing to an audience confined to the mezzanine. An arresting tableau, the arrangement emphasized the narrator’s comprehensive isolation and smug, self-important demeanor, feigned or otherwise. Gilfry sang with potency and nuance, working further wonders with facial expressions, gesture, and posture. Amid unconventional constraints he delivered lacerating bravura, his haughty declamations regularly moving audience members to laughter.
Below, hidden from audience view, the conductor Karina Canellakis guided a tiny consort (violist Isabel Hagen, cellist Clarice Jensen, bassist Lisa Dowling, percussionist Owen Weaver) in pithy music that paced, juddered, stabbed, and sometimes sang. Framing Gilfry’s busy delivery rather than mimicking or pushing it, spare instrumental lines established mood quietly: sometimes in accord with the narrative thrust, elsewhere seemingly contradicting it.
Close to the end of the loser, the pianist Conrad Tao comes into view, lit gently on the distant stage. A ghostly apparition, Tao represents the specter of Gould, and more pertinently of Gould’s idealized, unattainable genius. Wisely, Lang provides the pianist with crystalline, meandering original music rather than quoting Bach, assuring that his audience isn’t wrenched out of the intensely concentrated microcosm he has created.
Further credit is due: to set designer Jim Findlay for helping Lang to realize his unlikely and evocative construction; to Jennifer Tipton for lighting of exceeding subtlety; to Jody Elff for effective sound design; and to Suzanne Bocanegra for smartly severe couture. It all added up to an encounter that was strangely engaging if not wholly comfortable: a striking meditation on brilliance, mediocrity, and the cruel toll that can be exacted at either extreme, in a production whose every aspect illuminated its core obsession. Less jarring than a sudden, unexpected blow to the head, certainly – yet the impact was equally indelible.