By Timothy Mangan, Musical America, Feb. 25, 2019

David Lang’s the loser, presented by LA Opera in its West Coast premiere February 22 and 23, works on the principle of musical mesmerization. It relies on a single voice relating its hour-long tale in the first person in a kind of unrelenting tuneful singsong. The accompanying quartet of instruments, latterly a quintet, burbles, stutters, goads and echoes sparingly in support, with limited sets of notes. There is no action, just a man in a tuxedo on a platform, feet planted, looking at us as he tells the story. 

Lang’s theater piece — calling it an opera would be a stretch — was presented as part of the company’s Off Grand series for alternative opera. Bang on a Can, of which Lang is a founding member, produced. The venue was the Theatre at Ace Hotel, a restored United Artists movie palace from 1927, located in a rapidly transitioning area, still with seedy trimmings, of south downtown. The audience was seated in the large, ornate balcony, no one downstairs. In the dark, one could see baritone Rod Gilfry mounting a steep set of stairs until he stood on a small square landing with rails, in mid-air before us. Cue the lights. If he had even wanted to stroll while he sang, he would have had to go downstairs. He didn’t.

the loser is based on a novel of the same name, though in upper case, by Thomas Bernhard. The narrator, who is not the loser, and the titular character are classical pianists, and they have had the misfortune of participating in a master class, led by Vladimir Horowitz, with Glenn Gould, who overwhelms both of them with his talent. Our nameless narrator (though Gould dubs him “The Philosopher”) is telling the story after Gould has died and also after the loser, Wertheimer by name, has hung himself. “Wertheimer and I, as far as our piano virtuosity and in fact music generally, were concerned, weren’t killed by Horowitz but by Glenn, I thought. Glenn destroyed our piano virtuosity at a time when we still firmly believed in our piano virtuosity,” the narrator says.

The music, libretto (in eight “scenes,” better thought of as sections) and stage direction were all by Lang. He warned in a note: “The story is not at all about Gould, Horowitz, or classical music,” which is true to a point. Lang’s piece is more of a character study of the narrator, who is seemingly reliable, but troubled and not entirely self aware. The piece is also an exercise in musical storytelling and listener psychology. Lang’s limited means focus attention squarely on words and narration. Each section has its own coloring, set of notes and rhythmic profile, and they develop very little. Instruments and voice closely shadow one another. Simplicity reigns. There are few distractions from the quietly effective drama of the monologue.

Gilfry, an LA Opera stalwart since its inception, very popular in these parts, sang firmly and indefatigably, enunciating every word. His baritone was warm, resonant and unfussy. His acting was pitch perfect, too, never overdone but conveying the doubt and confusion of the character, his humor and sadness, a tear appearing at one point. The monologist ended many of his sentences with “I thought” or “said Franz” and Gilfry timed and colored these perfectly, the commas made audible. In all, Gilfry’s performance was a feat of endurance and portraiture.  

The ensemble, consisting of viola, cello, double bass and percussion, and conducted by Lesley Leighton, remained unseen. They seemed to be playing in the dark downstairs somewhere and were lightly amplified. The music is thoroughly tonal in harmony, but reticent, muted, spare and fractured, with plenty of silences between notes. Gilfry’s part flows more naturally in sentence phrases, with plenty of time for breaths. A pianist — here, onstage below — is added to the proceedings near the end. In a bit of luxury casting, it proved to be the popular young composer/pianist Conrad Tao. Those expecting either Horowitzian rumblings or Gouldian wizardry, however, were disappointed. The piano part joins in the same style as the ensemble.

the loser is a winner, satisfying on its own, but a little short for an evening. It took a lot of man hours and trouble to get us all crammed into that old place. We deserved a double bill. May I be so bold to suggest Poulenc’s La voix humaine as a suitable pairing?