Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Thunder and Grace

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

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