Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Music at Market Square for Messiaen's Centennial

In starting to work on a post about the three performances this past weekend I had attended, I got into a riff about how audience distractions can damage, even ruin a performance – mostly just things like people talking (fortunately I didn’t have to deal with ringing cell-phones). Then that reminded me I had not written anything about the Market Square Concerts from November 1st with the ensemble Antares. Now, normally, I don’t care for the idea of being a critic, but I’ll make an exception, here.

The program began with the suite for clarinet, violin and piano that Igor Stravinsky arranged from his theater-piece, L’Histoire du soldat. It’s originally scored without piano but with a very busy percussionist which means the pianist has to make like a bass-drum or trap set in several passages, giving pitch to sounds that originally had no pitch associated with them. An odd idea but an interesting, colorful use of the piano which is, after all, a kind of percussion instrument since its strings are hit by hammers to create the sound. They all played it with the playfulness, sensuality or ferocity it required (it is, after all, a Faust story and there’s a good deal of devilish music incorporated into this suite) but above all with an amazingly clean technical virtuosity.

Ravel’s Piano Trio may have been the closest thing to “standard rep” on the program even though it’s not all that well known. It was given one of the more lucid performances I’ve heard, keeping the structure clear rather than just revel in the beautiful sounds the composer creates over it. At one point when writing it, Ravel was supposed to have remarked to a friend that he had finished written the piece: “now all I need are the notes.” The form of the piece, how it’s put together, is like the human body: the structure is the skeleton which gives it substance. The harmonies are like muscles, since they move the structure forward (and the muscles cannot move without support from the skeleton). Over this, the composer stretches the skin, the surface of the music which is what we hear most easily and which, in many respects, listeners rarely get beyond. If the performers have paid attention to getting the muscles and the skeleton to function properly, the audience doesn’t need to worry about it: it’s understood or, rather, comprehended.

The main work on the program was Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, played in honor of the composer’s 100th birthday anniversary next month. So in addition to Antares, organist Eric Riley, the organist and choir director of Market Square Presbyterian Church, offered his own tribute to a composer who was an exceptional organist and who wrote some of the most amazing organ music of the 20th Century. He played the concluding section of the suite, La Nativité du Seigneur. As the Quartet would show, Messiaen was not just a spiritual composer but a Catholic composer of an uncommon and deeply spiritual, often mystical nature. Much of his music can be long, trance-like meditations based on some passage of scripture or a germ of a spiritual idea that could be the source for a minister’s sermon, though here handled entirely in music. There can also be outbursts of joy and ecstasy that can be “over-the-top” and Dieu parmi nous (God Among Us) is one such joyfully ecstatic over-the-topper. To say Riley nearly brought the house down would also reflect that I was glad not to be sitting directly under the balcony where the organ console is located at Market Square Church, but he did manage to set the walls vibrating to bring it home like a tsunami at the end, cranking the volume up even more. No easy piece, it sounded effortless for all the hands and feet had to do to create this effect: since you couldn’t see him playing, there was no visual element to let you know, “man, this is hard!”

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is a “signature piece” for Antares, an ensemble that consists of violin, cello, clarinet and piano, which just happens to be the instruments Messiaen had available when this work was given its first performance in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. This is a very long work that moves, as its title implies, within a whole different plane from what many concert-goers may be used to. Still, it can be an intensely riveting work but unfortunately the least distraction can destroy the intense spirituality the composer has put into the piece and all the skill and concentration the performers are applying to bring out what the composer wrote which is always more than just the notes on the page.

Whether it was the performers’ “fault” for not being able to hold everybody’s attention (I have attended performances where the audience was so still you could literally hear a pin drop) or perhaps too big a pre-concert dinner or too much heat in the church, this audience was one of the roochiest I’ve sat in for some time. Some people were leaning forward in rapt attention, hanging onto every note (especially during the long quiet movements) while others were paging through the program or the hymnal or just looking around like they were bored out of their skulls. Others were clearly dozing off (one person was leaning so far forward I was afraid he’d lose his balance and wake up with a snort). Fine – Messiaen can do that to people, I’m afraid: it’s not easy music for some people to listen to, I admit.

But during the quietest section of the piece, the clarinetist’s long monologue, “The Abyss of the Birds,” I was surrounded by the almost constant rumbling of what I thought at first was the New York subway except I knew I wasn't in New York City any more. It was stomachs, the rumbling of several stomachs coming from behind me, from the right, from the front - an uncontrollable physical response that, as Murphy would have it, had to occur during the quietest moments. If that wasn’t bad enough, this set the young couple sitting in front of me into spasms of giggles and much elbow-poking. Yeah, I remember getting caught up in stuff like that a few times when something weird happened, so I can’t claim the high road here, but I don’t think it was ever during something as spiritual as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. (I can actually recall two incidents right off the bat which might make an amusing post some other time.) Ah, well...

There were two things about Antares’ performance I would note (as a critic). The clarinetist gave one of the best performances I’ve ever heard of this piece – especially in “The Abyss of the Birds” with its long-tones coming out of nowhere and crescendoing into a roar before erupting into a cascade of bird-song, the section most tragically derailed by the audience’s collective gastric distress. I’ve heard many live performances of the Quartet over the years and several of them by very fine musicians, one of them by one of his teachers, David Shifrin. I would rate Garrick Zoeter’s performance very close to the legendary performances from Tashi (I’d heard two of them in NYC in the ‘70s) with Richard Stolzman which has always been, for me, the unattainable bar other musicians have to aspire to.

The pianist, Eric Huebner, had this distracting idea that the on-the-beat accents in the two slow meditations for cello and, to conclude, for violin (accents which Messiaen marks “cet accent louré doit rester dans la nuance piano” – literally, “this accent should remain within the shade piano” in which case piano does not refer to the instrument) should be played not piano (soft) but forte (loud) as if they were REALly ACCents to be PLAYed on the BEAT. And though Messiaen writes this accent over both the right and left hands’ notes of the chord, Huebner chose to accentuate the top note of the right hand only: this in turn created a counter-melody to the violin that Messiaen did not compose. Since the accents were now forte, the gradual climax had to be louder still, so the piano took on this bangy, brittle, acerbic tone-color that shattered the transcendent mood and the growing ecstasy of the finale which in turn finished off what the audience had already damaged.

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