New York Music Daily

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Tag: messiaen

A Harrowing, Shattering Quartet for the End of Time Uptown

Olivier Messiaen premiered his 1941 prison break suite Quartet for the End of Time in the very same prison he wanted to break out of.

And got away with it.

The program notes for last night’s performance of that immortal partita at the Crypt Sessions uptown quoted the composer as saying that “Never before have I been listened to with such attention and understanding.” That the Nazis there missed the point speaks volumes. The prisoners obviously got the message.

Messiaen was eventually liberated from that Nazi POW camp, where he’d debuted it in on a grim, rainy night, playing a barely functional piano alongside a violinist, clarinetist, and cellist who had to make do with only three strings. Talk about chutzpah!

Almost eight decades later, amid the rich natural reverb beneath the vaulted ceiling in the stone crypt at the Church of the Intercession in Harlem, the quartet of violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Jay Campbell, clarinetist Yoonah Kim and pianist Orion Weiss channeled the terror and defiance and hope against hope that kept Messiaen going at a time when he had no idea that he’d survive the war, let alone be released the following year.

The official story, of course, is that the suite is a portrait of a biblical apocalypse. Considering that Messiaen was a devout Catholic and had a whole liturgical script worked out, there’s no reason to doubt that. But the subtext here screamed as loudly as it possibly could: GET ME OUT!

The four musicians had obviously sized up the sonics, realized what powerful amplification they had in the space’s rich natural reverb, and rolled with it. Kim’s long series of slow upward crescendos, requiring daunting displays of circular breathing, left the audience as breathless as she was. Campbell’s shivery, masterfully nuanced, white-knuckle ascent later on was every bit as haunting and elegaic. And Jackiw’s final pairing with Weiss at the end peaked with an almost horrific cadenza, throwing off the Nazi chains to make way for the opening of heaven…or maybe just a return to prewar normalcy

The interweave of birdsong (Messiaen was cruelly tantalized by birds singing outside his cell window) and stark, jagged close harmonies was all too clear early on. The escape sequence and subsequent chase scene – uneasy, sometimes Indian-tinged harmonies furtively scampering and spiced with one sudden, horrified cadenza after another – in the sixth movement could not have been more vivid, or Hitchcockian.

And in the preceding movement, Weiss’ decision not to go for the jugular with grand guignol but instead to hang back and let the menace linger was ultimately the key to the whole performance. Despite the temptations of innumerable creepy tritones and endless dirge passages rising slowly with mournfully tolling, upper-register belltone accents, the group went for foreshadowing. Yet at the end, Weiss didn’t try to mask Messiaen’s forlorn echo phrases, underscoring a vision of a very Pyrrhic victory.

The likelihood of this same group getting together for this same piece is pretty slim, but the next concert in the Crypt Sessions series, on March 7 at 8 PM, has a similarly dark theme. Baritone Lucas Meachem and his wife, pianist Irina Meachem – who will be six months pregnant by the time she plays the concert – will be performing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder suite.  To get tickets, you need to get on the email list – the website, http://www.deathofclassical.com says it all.

The crypt is easy to get to, two blocks up the hill from the 157th Street station on the 1 line. There’s plentiful wine and cheese and crudites and banter beforehand. The crowd tends to skew young, and old: lots of twentysomethings out on a date along with more than a few seniors doing the same. And there never seems to be anyone gratuitously gramming here; this crowd comes to descend into the darkness and listen.

Awestruck, Transcendent, Epic Grandeur from the Spectrum Symphony

One of the most transcendent concerts of 2016 happened Friday night at St. Peter’s Church in midtown, where the Spectrum Symphony played not one but two rare concertos for organ and orchestra by Poulenc and Balint Karosi, the latter a world premiere. First of all, beyond the famous Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, there isn’t much organ repertoire that incorporates much of anything other than brass – simply because church organs are loud. And paradoxically, to mute the organ as a concerto instrument would make it redundant: you can get “quiet organ” with woodwinds. So this show was doubly auspicious, incorporating both the Poulenc Concerto for Orchestra, Strings and Timpani in G along with works by Bach, Mendelssohn and the exhilarating, rivetingly dynamic Karosi Concerto No. 2 for Organ, Percussion and Strings, with the composer himself in the console. Conductor David Grunberg, who is really on a roll programming obscure works that deserve to be vastly better known, was a calmly poised, assured presence and had the group on their toes – as they had to be.

Another problematic issue with music for pipe organ and other instruments, from both a compositional and performance prespective, is the sonic decay. Not only do you have to take your time with this kind of music, you have to be minutely attuned to echo effects so that the organ and ensemble aren’t stepping all over each other. The acoustics at this space happen to be on the dry side, which worked to the musicians’ advantage. The strings opened by giving a lively, Vivaldiesque flair to the overture from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No, 3, BWV 1068, a clever bit of programming since the eight-part Poulenc suite – performed as an integral whole – opens with a robust shout-out to Bach before going off in all sorts of clever directions.

Organist Janos Palur parsed the piece with a deliberate, carefully crafted approach well-suited to its innumerable shifts from one idiom to another, from the baroque, to vividly lingering Romanticism, to a robust, completely unexpected dance and more astringent tonalities. Poulenc’s genius in assembling the piece came through in how integrally the organist and ensemble played it: both were clearly audible and rewardingly supportive of each other when in unison, and when not, transitions between solo organ and the strings were confidently fluid and natural. As the piece unwound, it took on a Gil Evans-like sweep and lustre, the lowest pedals and bass paired with sonic cirrus clouds floating serenely above the dark river underneath.

Percussionist Charles Kiger got even more of a workout with the Karosi premiere than he did with the Poulenc. Switching seamlessly from one instrument to another, his vibraphone amplified uneasy pointillisms that a different composer might have arranged for glockenspiel. Otherwise, his terse kettledrum accents bolstered Karosi’s stygian pedal undercurrents, and his mighty, crescendoing washes on the gongs provided the night’s most spine-tingling, thundering crescendos.

Yet for all its towering, epic grandeur, the concerto turned out to be stunningly subtle. Seemingly modeled on the architecture if not the melodies of the Poulenc, Karosi quickly quoted from the same Bach riff that Poulenc used and then worked his way through a completely different and even more adventurously multistylistic tour de force. There were allusions to the haunted atmospherics of Jehan Alain, the austere glimmer of Naji Hakim, the macabre cascades of Louis Vierne, and finally and most conclusively, the otherworldly, awestruck terror of Messiaen. But ultimately, the suite is its own animal – and vaults Karosi into the front ranks of global composers. It’s almost embarrassing to admit not being familiar with his work prior to this concert. Not only is this guy good, he’s John Adams good. Let’s hope for vastly more from him in the years and decades to come. And the Spectrum Symphony return to their new home at St. Peter’s on January 27 at 7:30 PM with a Mozart birthday party celebration featuring his “Prague” Symphony No. 28,

Haskell Small Takes a Harrowing Journey Inward with His Latest Raptly Mystical Suite

Pianist Haskell Small‘s work is a prime example of the rewards of finding a muse and following that inspiration to the deepest reaches possible. He’s carved himself out a niche as a composer and champion of quiet, mystical, often viscerally haunting sounds. His 2014 album The Rothko Room: Journeys in Silence is a masterpiece of spare, lingering, often chilling inwardly-directed themes. He’s also one of the world’s foremost advocates for the otherworldly, bell-like music of Federico Mompou. Last night at St. Malachy’s Chapel in midtown, the pianist played an unselfconsciously transcendent solo program comprising both his own suite A Journey in Silence: Reflections on the Book of Hours, along with the New York premiere of John Tavener’s Pratirupa. Small is reprising the program tonight, May 10 at 8 PM at the Crypt at the Church of the Intercession. 550 W 155th St. If there’s ever been music written for the spacious sonics of a sacred space, this is it. The concert is sold out, but if you’re in the neighborhood, it would be worth checking to see if there are any no-shows.

Introducing the program, Small – father to another individualistic, intense composer, Sarah Small – explained that as he saw it, silence doesn’t equate to the absence of sound. Rather, it’s an invitation to look inward, a proces that can be pretty scary. The new suite, due out later this year, follows the moods of a monastic day’s routine. It’s replete with moments of lingering woundedness, quiet torment and even despair, yet offers a surprising counterbalance to all that trouble. Small began it with one of his signature, poignant, plaintive belltone themes: Satie, and Messiaen, and Debussy in gamelanesque mode echoed vividly in the distance.. The music peaked with incisive cascades of eerie tritones. then receded back into uneasy, resolutely unresolved territory.

Small very cleverly cached a couple of catchy, unexpectedly upbeat motives – a muted fanfare of sorts that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cesar Franck epic, along with a brief cathedral chime – within its architecture, and then deftly inserted variations on each throughout the suite. This made room for an unexpected optimism throughout an often harrowing journey. Shostakovich does this, sometimes Rachmanininoff too. It’s a hard trick to pull off, but as Small finally reached an almost reluctantly heroic crescendo, the payoff was not explosive but mighty all the same. And then he descended toward stillness again, gracefully, until a few final, increasingly spacious, weightily suspenseful chords that ended with sn almost imperceptibly whisper.

The Tavener turned out to be considerably different. On one hand, there was a clear connection to the first part of the program, considering ite bell motives and stately, strolling, sometimes folksy hymnal passages. On the other, it was as if Small was reminding that he can also play fiercely when he wants. And was he ever required to here! But he gamely tackled its thorny thickets of chiseling, Louis Andriessen-ish righthand riffs over an exhaust cloud of lefthand rumble, each of those interludes kicking off with an almost droll upward glissando. That was when he wasn’t mining the composer’s pensive, Chopinesque prelude segments for as much rapture and wonder as he could conjure. But ultimately, it wasn’t up to the level of Small’s own magic. He encored with a Bach invention, a well-chosen benediction. After journeying so far inward with the rest of the program, the experience was akin hearing it for the first time, a richly gentle offering of comfort and joy.

A Characteristically Vivid, Potently Relevant Performance by Ensemble Pi

For the past ten years, adventurous indie classical chamber group Ensemble Pi have played an annual “peace concert,” featuring socially relevant compositions from across the years as well as most of the classical music spectrum. This year’s sold-out multimedia performance Saturday night in the comfortable downstairs auditorium at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street explored music and writing on themes of captivity and imprisonment. In an era when the Guantanamo Bay gulag is still open, and in a city where atrocities on Rikers Island have recently come to light, it was especially relevant, played with equal amounts vividness and attention to the underlying content.

Which was harrowing. Group impresario/pianist Idith Meshulam led a sextet comprising cellist Alexis Gerlach, clarinetist Moran Katz, violinist Airi Yoshioka, trumpeter Sycil Mathai and vibraphonist Bill Trigg through the thorny, endlessly looping Coming Together, Frederic Rzewski’s portrait of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. An illustration of the crushing tedium and repetition of prison life, it’s cruelly difficult difficult to play. But Meshulam and her steely right hand were undaunted by the challenge of its endlessly metronomic pulse and dizzying permutations. Meanwhile, actor Joseph Assadourian narrated the text, a similarly looping quote from a letter by inmate Sam Melville, killed when troops and police stormed the prison. Later in the program, Assadourian provided his own blackly amusing chronicle of arbitrary judicial conduct in New York criminal court.

Eleanor Cory‘s poignant, carefully voiced short work Riker’s Island, for piano, clarinet, cello and violin, was preceded by a similarly troubling account of women’s prison, read by poet Ashley Mote. The program wound up auspiciously with an unexpectedly and very strongly dynamic rendition of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, in fact so dynamic that it seemed as if the group was playing it at a much faster tempo than it was written for. As it turned out, they didn’t, but the effect was visceral. Messiaen famously composed it in the men’s latrine in a Nazi prison camp in 1941, not knowing that he’d survive or be released. its instrumentation derives from the fact that clarinet, violin, cello and piano just happened to be the instruments played by the prisoners who debuted it.

Considering how unorthodox this lineup is, the piece is relatively rarely staged. It’s even harder for a musician to wrap his or her hands around since the group playing it is usually a pickup band, more or less. But Meshulam and the rest of her quartet left no doubt that they’d internalized Messiaen’s angst, and muted terror, and also his defiance. On the surface, like pretty much everything else the composer wrote, it traces a liturgical theme, but it’s also the story of a successful prison break. Katz animatedly voiced the birdsong beyond Messiaen’s cell window, not to mention his anguish at not being able to see his feathered friends…and all the subtext that image carries. Likewise, Meshulam scampered animatedly through the tiptoeing, furtive theme that recurs just before the rapt, awestruck conclusion – which seemed to pass by in a heartbeat rather than lingering as other groups tend to do with it. It’s hard to think of a more apt way to close such an impactful, meaningful program.