Sunday, February 28, 2010
The Time-Traveling Mephistopheles Medicine Show
By Tom Wachunas
Exiting Cable Hall at the conclusion of the February 25 chamber music performance by members of the Canton Symphony Orchestra, I overheard two women talking about the concert. One said, “Well, THAT was sure different, and no intermission, either.” Her companion snipped back, “Yeah, probably just as well. Maybe no one would’ve come back.”
Had there been an intermission, I seriously doubt the likelihood of a mass exodus. To a certain degree, though, it is understandable how some in the audience might have been put off by this 60-minute program – Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire Du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale)” - and maybe even felt captured rather than captivated. And yet such a reaction could be viewed as having a poignant irony, given the narrative content of this masterwork.
Written in 1917 amid the devastation of World War I and the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution, the work is among Stravinsky’s early forays into a neoclassical period that followed his explosively visceral “Le Sacre du Printeps (The Rite of Spring)”. It’s probably fair to say that for those predisposed toward more traditional presentations of chamber music, “The Soldier’s Tale” sounds more ‘neo’ than ‘classical.’
Essentially this is a morality fable with a distinctly Faustian connection. A soldier on leave from the front trades away his beloved fiddle (his soul) to the devil, in exchange for an enchanted book that delivers financial wealth. Ultimately, though, despite an interwoven romance with a princess, the soldier inherits an eternity of woe - an unsavory but timeless reminder that a bargain with the devil is invariably a bitter pill. Stravinsky described the work, a re-writing of a Russian folk story, as a “narrative ballet to be read, played and danced.” It includes a narrator, ballerina, and two actors who share the stage with a septet consisting of violin, bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and percussion. The austerity of staging, along with sparse personnel, was such that, due to wartime closings or destruction of major concert halls, the work could easily travel and be produced on a portable stage. These days it is more often performed purely as a musical suite, without its original theatrical accompaniments.
Indeed, Matthew Brown, CSO assistant conductor (and the conductor for this performance) had previously informed the audience in the orchestra’s newsletter that “…this production may strike you as much more ambitious and involved than this series normally entails.” He was certainly right and, in the intimate confines of Cable Hall, the ambitious nature of the production was effectively amplified.
Thomson Smillie was the stage director as well as narrator for the proceedings. After a few nervous moments at the beginning of his reading (in the first of two performances), his delivery became increasingly confident and endearing. Brad Eick, as the soldier, was “nervous” too, but appropriately so to the stalwart character who realizes too late that he’s made a terrible mistake. Nate Ross turned in a facile portrait of the devil who is not so much an outright demon as he is a charming seducer. The remarkably elegant finesse of ballerina Victoria Suba, as the princess healed by the soldier, brought a palpable tension to the story. That tension was further reinforced by the intense rhyming scheme of the narrative (translation by Michael Flanders and Kitty Black). At times the spoken portions were delivered with all the insouciant air of a child’s bed-time story (Dr. Seuss meets the grim reaper?), in sinister counterpoint to the somber plot.
Whether we call this work a “music theater piece,” as did Smillie in his program notes, or an early example of multimedia theater, its true dramatic thrust lies squarely in the music. And in that regard, the musicians here revealed the work’s soul with all the full-bodied sound and technical panache it demands. It is a work replete with unforgivingly intricate layerings of rhythms, tempi, and moods, rendered on this occasion with gripping virtuosity. This musical ensemble masterfully embodied the story’s rich flow of emotional nuances – from wit and romantic whimsy to ponderous cynicism and desolation. A hearty bravo to conductor Brown and each accomplished player: Nathan Olson, violin; David Kahn, bass; Randy H. Klein, clarinet; Todd Jelen, bassoon; Scott Johnston, trumpet; Tom Pylinski, trombone; and Matthew Beck, percussion.
So in the end, I didn’t feel captured at all. Rather, I was gladly beguiled into surrendering to the enthralling, albeit dark magic of a 60-minute musical moment worth remembering.
Photo: “Faust and Mephistopheles Waiting for Gretchen at the Cathedral Door,” oil, 19th century, by Wilhelm Koller
Friday, February 19, 2010
By Tom Wachunas
I’m taking my ball back and finding a different playground. Throwing in the towel. Hanging up my gloves. Tendering my resignation…tenderly. In short, I’ve decided to not so much abandon ship as simply surrender to the larger, practical truths of my journey as an artist in Canton.
Interesting word, ‘decide.’ It’s from the Latin root, ‘cide’ (see’-day), meaning to kill. So at its most literal, decide means “to kill the alternative.” The alternative here in question is my membership in the Canton Artists League (CAL). Guess that makes me an excalite. On second thought, that sounds a bit too sinister, too close to ‘excommunicant.’ CAL is anything but an exclusive entity, and likely not an authority on anything except the minutes of its last meeting. So despite its very catholic sense of itself, and the sincere magnanimity reflected in its mission statement, I’m nonetheless completely at peace with being a ‘former member.’
In considering (and I speak here only for myself) whether or not membership in CAL has unique, indigenous privileges or advantages, I’m increasingly at a loss to name them. Fellowship with other creative spirits? I submit, with all the humility I can muster (I can hear your snickering just about now), that ARTWACH is an ongoing testament to such fellowship, and in fact a service offered to not just CAL, but to the entire Canton-area arts community. My membership in a particular arts organization is not a requirement for continuing that service, or for staying connected to the arts scene at large. I nourished that connection long before joining any clubs or organizations, with gratifying results, and will continue to do so as long as I can walk, talk, and write. Exhibition opportunities? I stand by all of my comments made in the September 19, 2009, post entitled “A League of Our Own,” with a few additional observations.
First, at the time of that posting, a CAL group show was on view at Massillon Museum’s Studio M. That show had all the appeal of a train wreck. Fortunately, a following CAL show at Stark State College (November-December, 2009) was of notably higher quality. CAL needs to honestly re-examine its exhibition philosophy, methods, and practices if it expects to build a CONSISTENTLY respectable presence in this community. Here let me point out that in that area there are currently a few encouraging signs that some changes of approach might be in the air. Meanwhile, I’m far from convinced that merely soliciting lots of new members, or offering an expanded array of workshop presentations or lectures, will automatically alter its current malaise. I say this with full appreciation of the fact that simply being a member is in itself a service to the organization, and by no means do I intend to discourage others from joining its ranks. In fact I continue to recommend it to many artists.
Second, and perhaps more important, CAL simply doesn’t provide exhibition venues (with the exception of its biennial show at the Canton Museum of Art) appropriate to the direction of my current work and the still-evolving ideas behind it. I need to step out of the forest, as it were, and re-assess where I might plant some new trees. I can certainly live with that.
So I find myself in the intriguing position of actually wanting to be on the outside looking in, with no regrets. It is entirely possible, and for now preferable to me, to be genuinely encouraging and supportive of CAL (without being a dues-paying member) either as observer/ reviewer/ commentator, or yes, even gadfly – a function which I have, to quote a wise friend, “become damnably fond of.” But seriously, my passion for the visual and performing arts goes well beyond any compulsion to be affiliated with one particular group over another. CAL – and for that matter any other local arts organization, club, class, or clique – can never reasonably hope to be all things to all artists.
In the end, the notion of being a “member of…” – and all the conceptual baggage we bring to the term - is not how I choose to pursue my involvement with, and love for, the arts community. A more expanded, and to me relevant perspective to adopt is that of ‘active partner in solidarity.’ In that respect, then, I’m perfectly content and otherwise fulfilled to remain a lifetime partner with a very special and necessary group of individuals within our culture – practicing artists of all types. Write on.
Monday, February 15, 2010
The Fine Art of Peeling Onions
By Tom Wachunas
Mary McManaway, the artistic director of North Canton Playhouse, clearly had a heart for “Strange Snow,” a play by Steve Metcalfe that premiered in 1982 at the Manhattan Theatre Club. It went on to become the motion picture, “Jackknife,” starring Robert DeNiro and Ed Harris. When McManaway chose to stage it as a Director’s Special production for her black-box studio theater, she also knew who would be playing the three characters – a daunting task, given the material’s depth and intensity. As it turns out, the cast here serves up a delicious evening of poignant, memorable drama, spiced with a generous, albeit bittersweet dose of comedy.
The action takes place during the late 1970s, in the house co-habited by Martha Flannagan, a spinster school teacher, and her sullen, alcoholic brother, David, and unfolds in the context of an explosive reunion between David and his estranged friend, Megs. Both served together in Vietnam, along with their mutually cherished friend, Bobby, who was killed in action. The irrepressibly energetic Megs shows up at the house at 5a.m. to take David on a fishing trip, prompting the flummoxed, golf club-wielding Martha to think a burglar is breaking in. And indeed, as the play progresses, Megs succeeds in stealing Martha’s very lonely heart. Meanwhile the darker, underlying secrets and layers of the relationships between Megs and David, and David and Martha, are relentlessly peeled away in painfully frank, tearful confessions of shattered dreams, blame, and denial. The play’s romantic comedy comes amid tense counterpoint to its riveting drama about exorcising the ghosts of guilt, anger, and mourning.
Directorially, McManaway has clearly elicited from her actors an inspired chemistry of facile timing and emotional authenticity. While each actor turns in a very credible reading of a struggling individual, the ensemble is an utterly real unit trudging the same road to redemptive healing.
As Martha, Marci Lynn Saling is endearing and downright funny in her portrait of the shy, skittish teacher who seems so easily startled by her own observations. While Saling skillfully plays her character’s growing romantic infatuation with giggly girlishness, she effortlessly swings into very adult moments of anguish, resentment, and self-doubt.
Ted Paynter, in the role of Megs, delivers a thoroughly masterful picture of the infectious optimist, awkward suitor, and wartime buddy desperately seeking understanding and reconnection. That reconnection comes only after a startling, ferocious tangling with David, played by Mike Noble. In his role of the surly, selfish, often cruel drunk, Noble is disarmingly naturalistic, and certainly magnetic as he struggles to find his own capacity to be tender.
Metcalfe’s play imparts a few informative tidbits about his characters’ histories that are, at times, maddeningly vague and left dangling. Some might think it an untidy oversight. But such flaws are really short-lived here, and don’t diminish our overall grasp of the circumstances that have so deeply scarred his characters. And when the writing is as well played out as it is here, we are nonetheless inexorably caught up in their torturous journeys toward resolution.
What has settled most impressively in my memory, then, goes well beyond specifics of the story’s content, which is just engaging enough in its own right. The real power of this play is in its actual performance. So consider it as a gift. As audience we are immersed in a marvelous generosity. Here, we witness remarkable artists pouring themselves into their characters, infusing them with genuine sincerity as they reveal the grittier realities of human catharsis.
Photo (courtesy North Canton Playhouse): Marci Lynn Saling and Mike Noble in a scene from “Strange Snow,” currently playing in the McManaway Studio theatre, at the North Canton Playhouse (inside Hoover High School), 525 7th Street NE, North Canton, THROUGH FEBRUARY 27th. Friday and Saturday, 8p.m. / Sunday 2:30p.m.
Tickets: $12.00 adults, $11.00 seniors and students.
Call (330) 494 – 1613 for reservations, or order online at www.northcantonplayhouse.com
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
By Tom Wachunas
Accident, or skill? Luck, or intentionality? Serendipity, or destiny? What exactly accounts for that ineffable capacity in some artists for leaving us images that settle into our being like so many unforgettable, timeless melodies? How is it that such artists can – like sorcerers casting spells – conjure pictures so gripping and indelible that they become icons of our human spirit? Whatever ‘it’ is, photographer Steve McCurry owns in abundance.
The retrospective exhibit of nearly 50 of his photographs, currently on view at Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography, is called “The Unguarded Moment.” It is a title that points to a fundamental, if not ephemeral discipline in producing photographs of the stunning caliber we see here. Call it complete immersion in the present, or intuition finely honed to discern intriguing pictorial possibilities - to frame and concretize what is by its very nature transitory. In short, to recognize magic when it presents itself.
McCurry’s extensive travels as a documentary photographer for National Geographic to such places as Afghanistan, Burma, Cambodia, and India, have earned him prestigious awards while generating a magnificent body of work that yields visions both revelatory and exquisitely mysterious.
Whether depictions of majestic landscapes, the devastation of war and poverty, decaying sacred temples, crowded cities, or simple portraits, the real and immediate beauty of these images emanates from their passionate embrace of the fleeting human dramas unfolding within them. Some of those dramas are quietly startling, as in “Mother and Child on Tonle Sap, 1996,” wherein a mother and her child lay asleep in a hammock, a python slithering on the floor beneath them. Others are unexpected apparitions of hope amid disaster, like “Tailor in Monsoon, 1983,” showing an old man, completely submerged in the flood but for his smiling, stubbled face, and fingers, gripping a salvaged, corroded sewing machine. Still others are imbued with enigma, as in the eerie “Boy in Mid-Flight, 2007.” A boy scampers through an alley, one wall tattooed with deep-red hand prints – strange runes signaling what might be…hello, surrender, or a warning?
In “Afghan Girl, 1984,” one of McCurry’s truly signature images, a 12 year-old refugee peers at us from beneath her tattered red cloak, her eyes telling a hauntingly – or painfully - mixed story of vulnerability, wounded trust, and resolute strength. In the text that accompanies the photograph, McCurry writes, “There is an ambiguity to her expression, a certain something or quality to that picture that people respond to.” Certain something or quality indeed. Actually, it’s fairly impossible to find a picture in this entire collection that isn’t, to some extent, invested with an uncanny power to draw us into its compelling reality.
Our finest art has always, in varying degrees, transcended the existential markers of time and place to speak to our souls. And these pictures don’t just speak. They sing.
Photo: “Boy in Mid-Flight, 2007,” by Steve McCurry, on view in his retrospective exhibit, “The Unguarded Moment,” at Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography, through April 2, 520 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, www.jsaxtongallery.com
ON FRIDAY FEBRUARY 19, McCurry will be at the Canton Museum of Art for a slideshow presentation and Q&A from 9a.m to noon. He will be at Saxton Gallery from 3p.m to 6p.m for an artist’s reception and book signing – pre-order books early (330) 438-0030.
At 8p.m. McCurry will present a lecture, followed by Q&A, at Malone University’s Johnson Center for the Arts, 2600 Cleveland Ave. NW.
Admission to these events is free, but reservations are required by going to www.evenbrite.com and search under Steve McCurry.
Monday, February 8, 2010
Bass Notes, Grace Notes
By Tom Wachunas
The February 6 Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) concert at Umstattd Hall, with Gerhardt Zimmerman conducting, was a stunning demonstration of effective program pacing - a slow, simmering build-up through four works, into the full climactic boil of the evening’s finale. And remarkably, the musical linchpin through much of this lively and varied program was the double bass as solo instrument.
One delightful and informative feature of CSO concerts are the “Performance Preludes” – informal talks with the audience an hour prior to the concert that are designed to give background on the evening’s program selections. On this occasion, M.J. Albacete, executive director of the Canton Museum of Art, astutely presented a thoughtful selection of recorded excerpts wherein the double bass figured significantly in some composers’ works – Dragonetti and Beethoven, to name just a few. In similar fashion Albacete addressed the general notion of alternative transcriptions of composers’ original works by other composers or conductors, in anticipation of this night’s transcription of Dimitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No.7 in f sharp minor.
First on the program was “Last Round,” by contemporary Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. This extraordinary eulogy to composer and bandoneon (the accordion-like instrument so central to Tango music) player Astor Piazzolla calls for two string quartets, with double bass player in the center, to perform while standing, reflecting Piazzolla’s own performing stance. To be sure, watching the musicians perform here in this fashion additionally conjured the intensity of Tango dancers locked in choreographed combat. While double bass is not a prominent solo presence in this work, it does provide a constant, pulsing stream of sonorous rhythms and punctuations that drive the relentless, menacing attacks and counter-attacks of the quartets during the first movement. The muscular playing by the quartets was notably true to the composer’s desire that they should suggest “the act of a violent compression of the instrument (bandoneon).” Their transition into the slow, far less acerbic second movement was a marvelous bent-note sigh, giving way to a moving, elegiac melody delivered with fine attention to its achingly sweet tonalities.
Thus the mood was set for the bittersweet “Moon Reflected in Er-Quan Spring,” by the legendary Chinese composer and erhu (2-string violin) player Hua Yanjun (A’bing). The piece, originally written for solo erhu, was quickly transcribed into arrangements for orchestra and various solo instruments after A’bing recorded it in 1950. For this concert, world-renowned double bassist DaXun Zhang was on hand to perform it with accompanying string orchestra. He too performed standing up. But unlike the aggressive posture of the previous work, the stance here possessed the quality of a warm caress. Zhang didn’t merely play his instrument well. He embraced it as he would a dance partner, firmly guiding her through deeply lyrical passages, dazzling in their range of scale and timbre. Against the delicately meditative, shimmering textures of the orchestra’s accompaniment, Zhang’s astonishing skill elicited from this most unlikely of instruments those alternately throaty and soaring wails so characteristic of the erhu.
By now the audience was thoroughly won over by Zhang’s charismatic virtuosity, and otherwise primed for the dizzying scale runs and melodic richness of Giovanni Bottesini’s Bass Concerto No. 2 in d minor. It is a work by a composer who was fondly called ‘the Paganini of the double bass,’ and embraces musical wit and whimsy in the first movement, gentle lyricism in the second, and a bouncing, dance-like ebullience in the finale. Fueled by Zhang’s thrilling showmanship, the orchestra in turn performed with crisp panache.
A somewhat jarring shift in mood followed with the Shostakovich String Quartet, transcribed here for full orchestra by Maestro Zimmerman. He explained to the audience that he felt the work was more than simply the composer’s remembrance of his wife, Nina, and their stormy marriage. His orchestral additions include double basses and three percussionists, and the overall arrangement is intended to reflect the composer’s tumultuous relationship with his government and fellow artists in a volatile era of Russian cultural persecution. Accordingly, Zimmerman’s transcription is explosive, bringing a fresh and startling – though never extraneous – urgency to a work already substantial in its dramatic impact. The orchestra rose to the occasion with searing, emotive clarity.
And so it was as if unfettered joy itself, kept at bay to this point, burst triumphantly into the auditorium with the evening’s final performance - Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s electrifying Capriccio espanol. This is a work of colossal color and sparkle, and the orchestra delivered it with its hallmark style of infectious effervescence, much to the delight of all present.
Photo: Double bassist DaXun Zhang, courtesy Canton Symphony Orchestra
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Molecularities and other Quarknesses
By Tom Wachunas
Recently, I finished reading – or more accurately, navigating - a ten year-old book entitled “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene. The experience was a dizzying one – an arduous voyage leaving me with only a feeble grasp of the thinking behind a “unified theory of everything”. At the end of the day I am the proud owner of a dandy glossary of terms that often defy use in everyday conversation with reasonable, socially well-adjusted people – terms like Calabi-Yau space, chirality, fermion, torus, weak gauge symmetry, and Z boson. Ahhh, but the pictures are fantastic.
No, not those dazzling, jaw-dropping digitalized panoramas of starry, deep space dramas or eerie planetscapes. I’m referring to the book’s fascinating illustrations, in lowly black-and-white, of scientists’ models for demonstrating hypotheses about such things as particle physics and multi-dimensional space, to name just a few. So while my general ignorance of hard science remains vast, exceeded only by my ceaseless curiosity, my appreciation of the esthetics of theoretical models is undiminished. That appreciation was recently enhanced by the current exhibition of oil paintings and works on paper by Jack McWhorter, at Malone University’s Johnson Center for the Arts.
The exhibit, called “Forces Constant,” is a gathering of six oil paintings on canvas and 12 framed oil works on paper. McWhorter is an associate professor who teaches painting at Kent Stark. If I read his statement for the show correctly (and it is fortunately written in language far less arcane than Greene’s book), he is inspired by, among other things, the interface of science with art, and the models that scientists employ to illustrate theories about various properties of the universe, or to describe ephemeral relationships within larger systems of interacting phenomena. Which all sounds quite cerebral and suspiciously obtuse, until you get to his phrase, “…formalization of intuition.” Now, the floodgates of imagination are opened, and the paintings begin to take on an efficacious logic of their own. And what abstract painter would have it any other way?
McWhorter’s images aren’t handily explainable as static pictures “of something” in the prosaic sense of capturing familiar superficialities as much as they are essences. For all of their recurring structures and symbols, they are nonetheless (to use one of those pesky cosmology terms) poetic singularities. Or perhaps they’re arrivals, carrying with them ample evidence of the sometimes circuitous paths that led to their current destination, their “look.” In that regard they also embody the sensibility that at any moment they could be moving on. Certainly on one level, then, these are painterly snapshots of structures and relationships in flux – portraits, as it were, of process.
You’d think that such heady (and certainly playful) forays into abstraction as these are - with their overall appearance of loose, gestural spontaneity - would generate highly tactile surfaces lush with paint. Surprisingly, these configurations are thinly rendered, yet still possessing a raw, even dense physicality. The paint isn’t so much laid on the surface as it is thoughtfully “written” into it, then often brushed over and re-written, to produce intricate, translucent matrices of lines and shapes that undulate in ambiguous space, at once shallow and infinite. Equally thoughtful is McWhorter’s rich palette that, whether earthy or ethereal, is easy on the eyes and certainly no less engaging than his energetic drawing.
Having said all of that, the question remains: what, exactly, are we looking at? For example, are the separate clusters in “Three Charged Bodies” variations of a single entity undergoing a metamorphosis? Biological? Chemical? Psychological? Astronomical? Oddly enough, they do bring me back to Greene’s discussion of the extra spatial dimensions that necessarily emerge from String Theory into something called ( I can’t begin to tell you how exciting it is to be able to finally use this term in a full sentence) Calabi-Yau space.
But really, these paintings are, in a larger sense, intriguing and visually thrilling metaphors for the relational thinking that is the heart of artistic intuition. I think. And one of these days I might tell you how they remind me of Laplacian determinism.
Photo: “Three Charged Bodies,” oil on canvas, by Jack McWhorter. On view through February 26, in his exhibition called “Forces Constant,” at the McFadden Gallery, located in the lower level of the Johnson Center for the Arts, Malone University, 2600 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Thunder and Grace
By Tom Wachunas
Modernism in much of 20th century orchestral music can often be identified in terms of its very deliberate explorations of atonality, astringent harmonies (if indeed there are harmonies in the traditional, Western sense), and daring rhythmic structures. Some works display a steely detachment from emotional content, rendering them fairly inaccessible to listeners ill-disposed to such intellectualism. Other “modern” works, though, while certainly challenging in their innovation, nonetheless deliver an edifying, even soaring lyricism. Such was the case in the latest chamber music program by members of the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in the third of this season’s Casual Friday concerts.
First on the program was Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello (1922). Marie-Thais Levesque Oliver, CSO principal cellist, introduced the work by reminding the audience that it marked a distinct turning point in Ravel’s career, adding that she was particularly fond of the work. Watching her perform it, I could see why, if for no other reason than that it showcased her formidable mastery in not only sheer technical skill, but her ability to draw out the music’s emotional subtleties as well.
No easy task, to be sure. For Ravel, this work was a fairly complex and austere departure from both traditional four-part sonata formats, and also from the impressionistic sensualities of his earlier compositions. Forsaking expansive harmonies in favor of an emphasis on melody, Ravel’s structure in this work is more linear – an ongoing, contrapuntal dialogue between cello and violin. Joining Oliver here in her interpretive reverie, with equally skilled poeticism, was violinist Nathan Olson, CSO Concertmaster. For all of the music’s separated music lines, they played with one mind, sounding out remarkable tonal unity with seamless, fluid energy.
In the second movement, Tres vif, Ravel’s eschewing of conventional harmony was more evident than in the first, as melodies were played simultaneously in different keys. But the effect was not as heavy or off-putting as one might expect from such experimentation, largely due to the performers’ delightfully executed synchronicity of pizzicato passages. The third movement has a distinctly more lyrical sensibility, initiated by a mournful cello song. The melodies quicken as the violin joins, and together the instruments here were singing with an ascending, emotive urgency. It was an urgency made all the more poignant by the resonant exuberance of the finale. In the end, it’s fair to say the work and its exhilarating performance was warmly received by the audience, and was an effective primer for what was to come.
In introducing the evening’s second selection, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, CSO Principal Clarinetist, Randy Klein, explained that in World War II, Messiaen was interned at a German prison camp when he composed the quartet for the unusual (but there, the only available) combination of violin, cello, clarinet and piano, premiering it in 1941 before an assembly of 5,000 prisoners. Klein added that he hoped the audience would enjoy the work, while acknowledging that some might find it “uncomfortable.” Aside from the war-time atrocities one might associate with the era, the work does embody some of the aforementioned modernist musical astringencies. But arguably more than any other work of its day, it is unapologetic in its emotional thrust. Messiaen’s own program notes for the work’s eight movements, wisely provided on this occasion, attest to as much.
Beyond the work’s inspiration from the Book of Revelation, in which the “seventh angel” sounds the end of time, Messiaen’s employment of unorthodox rhythmic systems signaled an “end” to metered time as usually expressed in Western classical music. In that regard it is a notably challenging work to perform, and certainly more ethereal, or mystical than traditional in structure. Here, like Messiaen’s metaphorical descriptions of imminent eternity, the musicians rose to the spirit of the music with alternately apocalyptic power and gentle, inspiring grace.
Among the most impressive elements in this performance was the astonishing range of volume, tonal effects, and textures achieved by the musicians. Guest pianist Alicja Basinska played with both the force of angels wresting thunder from the clouds, and the delicacy of birds negotiating the thinnest of perches. Clarinetist Klein was particularly compelling in his third movement solo, executing several astounding feats of controlled breathing wherein excruciatingly slow crescendos rise from utter quiet into long, siren-like wails. Oliver’s cello in the fifth movement exuded plaintive love and melancholic calm without being overly ponderous. And Olson’s shimmering violin in the concluding moments of the last movement seemed to soar ever higher into stratospheric pitches that hovered, then dispersed, finally, into an achingly sweet silence. Like breeching the gates of Heaven.
Photo: “The Last Judgment,” (detail), Sistine Chapel fresco, 1541, by Michelangelo