Max Richter politicizes melancholy at Zellerbach Hall

Max Richter/Courtesy

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Max Richter’s style as a composer draws easy comparisons to the minimalist work of artists such as Philip Glass, which is another way of saying that Richter’s often subdued music is likely to be used in a secondary context — as ambient tunes to score a late-night study session at Moffitt Library, perhaps. There’s a reason why Richter released an eight-hour album called Sleep that’s designed to… well, you get the idea.

But far from lulling his audience to slumber, Max Richter and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble’s Friday night performance at Zellerbach Hall, courtesy of Cal Performances, allowed for a visceral experience of Richter’s music. Every note hung in the air with a profound sense of purpose, an affect underscored by the fact that Richter spoke little, preferring to let the night’s music — renditions of Richter’s seminal albums Infra and The Blue Notebooks — do the talking for him.

And while Richter was the night’s main draw, his positioning at the left of the stage suggested a sense of equal-footedness with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, or ACME, musicians — violinists Yuki Numata Resnick and Laura Lutzke, cellists Clarice Jensen and Paul Wiancko and violist Caleb Burhans occupied the center of the stage. Nevertheless, it was easy to forget the physical presence of all of the musicians, as they seemed to disappear beneath the warm blanket of chords resounding from Richter’s piano and the unfurling of the ACME musicians’ melodies.

Richter and ACME’s performance of “On the Nature of Daylight,” arguably Richter’s most well-known piece as result of its use in the films “Shutter Island” and “Arrival,” was particularly effective — without its cinematic context, and with all focus on the song itself, the already emotional composition gained a heightened, all-encompassing pathos.

Indeed, Richter’s music has a transportive quality to it, which he alluded to when introducing Infra, the night’s first selection of music. Richter explained that the album was a response to 2005’s 7/7 bombings, which targeted London Underground trains and, as such, was meant to offer reflections on the victims’ morning commutes. Hence, the album’s track list consists entirely of songs entitled “Infra” (a reference to the Latin word for “beneath”) or “Journey,” followed by a number.

The mournful chords permeating Infra, especially on songs such as “Journey 1” and “Infra 6,” were composed in the late 2000s, but the fact that they remain woeful in 2018 says just as much about our current state of affairs as it does the strength of Richter’s compositions. Even though Infra was inspired by a very specific moment, its performance Friday night — from ACME’s elegiac, sweeping melodies to Richter’s austere piano and even the haunting electronic whine emanating from Zellerbach’s mounted speakers — suggested a certain, unfortunate timeliness, which Richter himself seemed to affirm.

When Richter introduced the concert’s second half, a performance of The Blue Notebooks, he explained that the album was written in protest of the Iraq War, of which he said, “Politics was moving into a branch of fiction, and … yeah, here we are.” At this, the audience responded with a collective, pained chuckle — the weary kind, which suggested an awareness of the horrific consequences of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination (just hours before, the Senate had voted to move him to a final vote Saturday), and all that it represents within the Kafkaesque narrative of the Trump administration.

Again, Richter seemed aware of The Blue Notebooks’ contemporary resonance. The performance included a speaker, Laura Hooper, narrating excerpts from Kafka’s “The Blue Octavo Notebooks.” On the album, these words are narrated by Tilda Swinton, which could have easily been replicated through Zellerbach’s speakers. But the choice to include Hooper’s live narration assigned a pressing significance to Kafka’s words.

The night came to a close with a surprisingly lengthy encore performance of music from the television show “The Leftovers” (there’s a pun about encores to be made here), rounding out with the lonely piano melody of “The Departure.” The tune is peak Richter — melancholy, but with a small, warm center. Perhaps such a warmth, sparse and fleeting as it may be, is the best that Richter could have left us with.

Contact Harrison Tunggal at [email protected].