THE KREUTZER SONATA by Eric Samuelsen receives its world premiere in a co-production with NOVA Chamber Music Series October 18-November 9 featuring violinist Kathryn Eberle, pianist Jason Hardink and actor Robert Scott Smith, directed by Jerry Rapier.
As a musician I can’t help but be drawn to Tolstoy’s novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” but one cannot make such a statement without some explanation. A story about a man driven into such a jealous rage that he murders his wife – what’s to love here?
Well, for starters, Tolstoy’s narrator brings into question all kinds of musician-type issues I deal with every day. When I play music by a composer like Beethoven, I go out of my way to try to erase 200 years of tradition and reception history. What kind of person was Beethoven, what was his world like, what was he trying to say through his works? But while I think this exercise is critical to great performances, music only truly exists in the moment it is being brought to life, it exists between living human beings, between musician and audience. That’s what Tolstoy’s character finds so exhilarating and disturbing: once the music is set in motion, we are powerless to stop it. The author’s narrator tries to do exactly that, to put an end to everything by embracing the violence he hears in Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata. But killing his wife, the musician responsible for bringing this music into his life, can’t undo what already exists in his mind. He will spend the rest of his days haunted by the ferocious, accented world of the Kreutzer.
I have witnessed the sort of relationship between musicians Tolstoy describes, he’s not wrong about that. I remember the first time I saw it happen: I was a student at Tanglewood, the performance occurred in a studio class. A sonata for violin and piano, as a matter of fact, the Brahms d minor. The performers played from memory with such commitment, such unbelievable passion. To this day I hold this memory as the epitome of chamber music, of two musicians connected on a plane the magnitude of which the rest of us can only glimpse. And while these two people were not romantically involved, it wouldn’t be hard to see how a partner could be jealous of such a shared connection. Tolstoy was right, that kind of musical brilliance is practically unbearable for those present, so heartrendingly beautiful that it is almost nauseating to witness.
So, in retelling this story, why not give the audience full access to the auditory, emotional world of the narrator? What did he hear, and what does he continue to hear in this music that sets him off? Reading the original Tolstoy is a wild experience, but it is impossible to integrate Beethoven’s music into such a framework. Only the theatre can accommodate this added dimension of being able to hear the Kreutzer and the see the reaction it incites. I don’t know of a better playwright/director/actor team better suited to this task, it’s been a privilege to work with Eric, Jerry, and Scott. And of course, NOVA and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Kathryn Eberle; not only did she perform a complete cycle of Beethoven violin/piano sonatas on NOVA over the past several seasons, she’s also been a great partner throughout this theatrical project (let the record show that she does not enjoy her character being referred to as ‘a dirty bitch’ in the context of this play!).
You don’t want to miss this production. While we’re making no specific effort to tie this story to current events, I believe the original Tolstoy offers much relevance to today’s world. Incredible to think that the homicide of this story is deemed justifiable by the courts, we’re still arguing as a society over the idea of defensible murder (Michael Brown and the Black Lives Matter movement). And misogyny certainly isn’t dead, Donald Trump and the support he receives is proof that an alarming percentage of men hold no objection to sexism ranging from the casual to the aggressive. Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata” may seem like a bizarre outlier at first, but closer examination reveals that we’re still struggling with the same problems, we still have along way to go.
Jason Hardink is Artistic Director of NOVA Chamber Music Series and Principal Symphony Keyboard of the Utah Symphony. His performances include a wide-ranging repertoire of music by living composers and works of the historical canon. Recent performances include Elliot Carter’s Two Controversies and a Conversation with percussionist Colin Currie and the Utah Symphony, a cycle of Beethoven Sonatas for Violin and Piano with Kathryn Eberle for NOVA and the first complete American performance of Wolfgang Rihm’s Klavierstücke at Spectrum NYC. Click here for more information on THE KREUTZER SONATA, including tickets (single and season)!