Classically Speaking: Portals into tomorrow

Tim Fain; photo by Briana Blasko

In the thick of the cold season, freezing temperatures and dark days leave us looking for release from our daily stresses. Fortunately, the classical music scene in Buffalo isn’t on winter break. The University at Buffalo Department of Music and Slee Concert Series ( are teaming up with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra ( to present Portals, a multimedia presentation featuring violinist Tim Fain. The performance will be at the Center for the Arts on the UB campus, Friday night, January 25, at 7:30 p.m.

Producer and creative director of Portals, Fain is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, has toured extensively with both orchestras and chamber players, and is probably best known for his violin performance in the film Black Swan. In addition to his work with traditional classical performance, he has been an active performer and commissioner of twentieth and twenty-first century music, efforts that have most recently culminated in his concert performance of Philip Glass’s opera, Einstein on the Beach, and with the formation of Portals.

“We’re excited about teaming with UB to bring ensembles like Portals to WNY. Not only is this performance fresh and new, but the audience participation component allows concertgoers an opportunity to expand their understanding of serious new music.” says BPO director of marketing and communications Susan Schwartz. “It is an integral part of the BPO’s mission.”

More than that, presenting Portals puts Buffalo on the cutting edge of concertizing. Try to imagine the confluence of music, media, and the spoken word. Or, as the Portals website ( describes it, this is “an evening-length multimedia music exploration of the human longing for connection in the digital age.”

To paraphrase the immortal words of Marshall McLuhan, Portals demonstrates that the media really is the message. In our everyday lives, we struggle to come to grips with our electronic future, and concert developers are no different. What is the concert of the future? How will it look? What is the role of the audience? Portals attempts to answer these questions by suggesting a direction and asking the audience to participate in the dialogue between live and multimedia works.

After beginning with a fairly commonplace recital for violin and piano, Fain and piano accompanist Nicholas Britell quickly leave that format in the dust. They are joined by a host of other musicians, dancers, and some film as accompaniment. Some film is prerecorded, especially the dance segments; others are performed live via Skype and projected on large screens at the back and sides of the stage. In this way, the audience can listen to the performer on stage, watch others on the screens along with film excerpts to accompany the music, or even watch the stage performers at different camera angles and via different graphics displays, all to set the mood of the piece or even suggest interpretations of the music. The music begins with a live performer and can then be linked to the performers on screen, with the Internet acting as the “portal.”

At several points in the performance, the spoken word actor, Fred Child, transitions from one musical piece to another with dialogue appropriate to the changing mood of the concert. His reading will be projected as the stage performers change their focus. The oral pieces were selected from the poems of Leonard Cohen and Jacob Rubin specifically for their ability to set the mood for the music to come and, in that way, serve as a “portal” back to the stage.

In many respects, Portals was born out of collaboration between Fain and choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who also choreographed Black Swan. Some of that choreography will be seen in the accompanying film segments by coproducer and director Kate Hachett.

The music for this performance will feature five contemporary composers. Lev Zhubin’s “Sicilienne” and Nico Muhly’s “Honest Music” begin the concert on an upbeat note that features both the depth and virtuosity of Fain’s violin playing, but perhaps the most celebrated composer featured is Philip Glass, whose “Partita for Solo Violin” gets its world premier with this event. The work was specifically written for Fain and is in seven parts. This piece is clearly a Glass composition with many of the minimalist flourishes that he uses in “The Hours” from Martin Scorsese’s film Kundun, and Einstein on the Beach, yet it also contains some softer, more melodic themes like those found in his collaborations with Ravi Shankar.  

For those who worry that contemporary music is too experimental for their tastes, this performance will allay those fears, as all the pieces are accessible to the classical music enthusiast. The violin playing has a sweetness that is familiar and a boldness that stands up against better-known composers. For example, Aaron Jay Kernis’s “Air” is an absolutely beautiful piece of music, and Kevin Puts’s “Arches” is filled with the joy of being alive.

On January 26 at 10:30 a.m. in the Mary Seaton Room at Kleinhans, Fain will present a master class sponsored by the BPO Youth Committee. The master class will focus on performers younger than eighteen years old, says Schwartz, and is free and open to the public. Themed “Different Vibes,” the class will feature a coffeehouse-like atmosphere where performers and audience can interact. The master class is a traditional means for major performers to teach younger students how to perform works beyond the notes on the page. It is also a must for serious music lovers who want to dig more deeply into the music and discover new riches, even if they don’t play instruments.   


Scientist Peter R. Reczek is a longtime follower of WNY’s classical music scene.

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