Tommasini clearly has lots of craft and understands writing for this ensemble...
— Christian Herzog (sandigen.com)

San Diego Arts

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Connections Chamber Music: Sonic Stories

End Of Time Very Popular

By Christian Hertzog

Posted on Sun, Jun 27th, 2010

Last updated Wed, Jun 30th, 2010

Any newcomer to 20th century music history soon realizes that there is a wide gulf between the composers heralded in textbooks and what is really heard in the American concert hall. Many of the revolutionaries around which such books revolve—Schoenberg,

Ives, Berg, Webern, Varese, Hindemith, Milhaud, Boulez, Stockhausen, Cage—are rarely encountered in either symphony halls or on chamber music series.

In response to this neglect of important repertory by orchestras and string quartets, ensembles sprang up last century devoted to the music of their own time. This has created a curious dichotomy between the composers (such as the above men) singled out by scholars and performed by new music ensembles, and the composers who are programmed on orchestra and string quartet concerts: Ravel, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Britten, Copland, etc.

There are few composers of the last century who comfortably inhabit both worlds. Some, such as Schoenberg, are perfectly fine for conservative programs, up until a certain point: Verklarte Nacht is wonderful, but don’t try to put the Five Pieces for Orchestra on a subscription series. Other composers, such as Milhaud or Hindemith, suffer the opposite problem—they started out as radicals, then found themselves conservatives to a younger generation of composers, and thus today are neglected by new music ensembles, while orchestras shun their works as too uncomfortable for the patrons.

Some composers find themselves championed by both worlds—Bartok and Stravinsky, for example. Over the past few decades, another composer has emerged, popular among musicians and audiences, formerly shunned by academics, but now embraced as a 20th-century original—Olivier Messiaen.

This wasn’t always the case. In the 1970’s, Andre Previn conducted Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Audience members vigorously protested with booing, walk-outs, and angry letters to the Post-Gazette. I was a teenager in Pittsburgh when this happened, and I’ve never seen or read about another symphony audience reaction comparable to that since.

Surprisingly, academia did not defend Messiaen either; as a Music major from 1979 to 1991, I was never once assigned any of his works to study or discuss.

These days, audiences embrace Messiaen’s unique music. Salonen programmed lots of it during his tenure in Los Angeles (and Dudamel has Turangalila on the schedule for next season). Messiaen believed in the primacy of melody and rhythm, no matter how dissonant his harmonies became, and his sense of instrumental color is appealing. Even in the guise of his most radical music, the undeniable spirituality behind it all—Messiaen wore his Roman Catholicism on his sleeve, unlike no other composer of the last century—attracts more listeners as the years go by, no matter their faith.

Postwar music histories penned in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s gave Messiaen a few paragraphs to mention his serialization of rhythm, durations, and dynamics (considered the first in Europe), focusing more on his composition classes which were attended by Boulez and Stockhausen. More recent histories devote an entire chapter to his singular contributions to 20th-century music: his slowing down of time, his use of non-Western rhythms, his creation of a personal musical rhetoric based on synthetic scales and transcriptions of bird-song, to which he subscribed for half a century. What was seen by academics in the late mid-century as the bizarre wanderings of a religious kook down a musical cul-de-sac is currently hailed as an original, monumental body of work.

In more than 3 decades of attending live concert music, the one piece I have encountered more than any other performed by both conservative music societies and new music specialists is Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. If the number of recordings in print of a composition is any gauge of its popularity among musicians and listeners, the Quartet for the End of Time ranks fifth among chamber music from the middle third of the 20th century, superseded only by Shostakovich’s Piano Trio no. 2 in E minor, the

String Quartet no. 8, the Piano Quintet, and Bartok’s Contrasts. (See below for a more detailed list).

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sandiego.com | Arts | Connections Chamber Music: Sonic Stories 7/1/10 9:38 PM

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The Quartet for the End of Time appeared on the final concert, Sunday afternoon, of the intriguing Connections Chamber Music Series in North County. Much has been made of the work’s genesis in a German concentration camp during World War II, but Messiaen’s true achievement in the Quartet was in escaping the confines of his immediate surroundings by conveying to listeners the glorious divine eternity he fervently believed in.

One does not have to be religious to appreciate this music or understand its intent. The clockwork patterns of the 1st movement represent something larger than one’s self, patterns which keep repeating in ever new combinations and which could conceivably keep on going for hours before the entire cycle would repeat. The “eternity” and “immortality” of Jesus is suggested by an incredibly slow pulse, a stretching out of time not encountered before in chamber music (although these two movements had their origins in music for instruments which can sustain notes far longer than any wind or string player—organ and ondes Martenot). The ever rising violin melody and piano accompaniment in the last movement unmistakably invoke ascension and aspiration towards a higher plane.

The apocalyptic “Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets” consists entirely of a unison melody played in rapid, forceful, irregular rhythms, a daring compositional gambit which effectively contrasts with the shimmering chords, longing melody, and incredibly slow tempo of the preceding movement.

The biggest challenge to listeners who aren’t scared away by Messiaen’s novel harmonies (not so new-sounding these days!) is his lack of development. With the exception of the last movement, where there is a clear ascension, there is no motion towards any fixed goal, no aspiration towards climax and denouement as in traditional chamber music. His forms are big static blocks, juxtaposed with each other; unlike Stravinsky, who created tension by his juxtapositions of musical sections, Messiaen starts up the music and lets it go. It is what it is. When you strip away all the metaphysics, the Quartet for the End of Time is just 8 separate musical tableaux, but the fervor, the devotion, the passion, and the invention contained within each tableau makes Messiaen’s quartet one of the most moving and necessary pieces of chamber music from the last century.

The musicians involved in Sunday’s performance—Bridget Dolkas, violin, Lars Hoefs, cello, Nicolas Gerpe, piano, and the extraordinary Benjamin Lulich, clarinet—captured the magnificence of Messiaen’s music. However, the small grand piano available in the Encinitas Library had an unsatisfying bass register and a thinness of tone throughout, which undercut the earnestness of this performance. In the second or seventh movements, one wished for more panic, more fury from the ensemble. Nevertheless, Hoefs and Dolkas were lovely and serene in the achingly lyrical slow movements (5th and 8th respectively). Benjamin Lulich was most impressive in the extremely difficult 3rd movement, another compositional gamble by Messiaen—solo clarinet at a very slow speed for over 7 minutes. The long, held crescendos on a single tone (frightening in effect), the extremely loud accented beginnings on soft notes, the leaps between registers during the bird calls—all require the utmost technique, which Lulich brought to his part.

At a previous concert (http://www.sandiego.com/arts/connections-chamber-music-series) on the series, audience members were dazzled by the clear bright blue sky behind the musicians; for this concert, shades were drawn to create a black backdrop to the performers, which helped listeners focus on the transcendental music instead being distracted by the gorgeous Pacific Ocean and downtown Encinitas.

Dolkas, Lulich, Hoefs, and Gerpe opened the program with a recent work by Matthew Tommasini, Dreams of Orpheus. I pity any composer who has to share a program with the Quartet for the End of Time, especially when Messiaen closes the program; his colossal gestures wipe out all traces of earlier music. Dreams of Orpheus is an effective work, building up surely from a slow beginning, picking up in tempo from each section to the next until the piano hammers away at loud, crunching repeated chords beneath sustained cries in the clarinet and strings, all which die away. Tommasini clearly has lots of craft and understands writing for this ensemble, but in appearing on a program with Messiaen and Janacek—two composers with strong personalities—it becomes apparent that Tommasini has not yet found his own voice. There is a strong postminimalist aspect to his sonorities and an evocation of 19th-century narrative structures reminiscent of John Adams, and a superficial harmonic/melodic resemblance to neo-tonal composers like Higdon or Theofanides, but with more rhythmic sureness and a bit more angularity than one finds in the “Atlanta

School (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704026204575266873488834084.html) ” of composition. It was given a strong

performance by all four musicians. You can listen for yourself to a different performance here

(http://www.matthewtommasini.com/audio/DO.A.11.23.08.mp3) , and even study the score here

(http://www.matthewtommasini.com/DO.full_score.pdf) if inclined to do so.

Janacek’s Pohadka (which translates as “fairy tale”)inhabits a borderland somewhere between three-movement sonata form and a tone poem. Short, attractive motives are developed, explored, and then cast aside for more captivating material. A much slights piece than Janacek’s other late chamber works, Pohadka gives cellists a chance to take the spotlight in Janacek’s mature idiom, which no doubt explains its popularity among cellists. It was given an appropriately poetic reading by Lars Hoefs, and the tinniness of the piano upon which Nicolas Gerpe dashingly played was much less objectionable here than in the Messiaen.

There was a gimmick to the entire program consisting of a narrator, Kenneth Bell, before pieces and between movements. His relation to Tommasini’s piece and Janacek’s was unclear. The unattributed text before Dreams of Orpheus (it sounded like a poem on the Orpheus myth, and it wasn't that compelling) didn’t really shed any light on the music which followed, and as Tommasini himself wrote in his program notes, his work is more of an impressionistic re-telling of the story.

The fairy tale Bell told for Pohadka was an entirely different one (a Snow Fairy story) than “The Tale of Tsar Bendvei” which inspired Janacek. It was ultimately a harmless juxtaposition, but on the other hand, if the music can effectively tell a story, why even bother throwing an unrelated one on top of it?

At first I thought Bell’s intrusions during the Quartet for the End of Time were unnecessary, but later I thought that perhaps it was a sly move on the part of the program directors, Dolkas and Tommasini. Bell read passages from Messiaen’s own preface to the score; his program notes can be terribly confusing and distracting to Messiaen newbies—a listener may try so hard to figure out what a “blue-orange chord” is, or snicker at Messiaen’s, um, unorthodox personal interpretation of Catholicism that they can miss the glory of the music. The excerpts chosen for Bell’s narration dealt with explicit narrative without any of the spurious mysticism or impenetrable musical theories of Messiaen’s program notes, and so were welcome to many.

Bell possessed a commanding, bass voice, and when he knew his lines, he was effective. Unlike the musicians, who all were very much on top of their parts, the occasional mistake crept into Bell’s readings. On the whole, the presence on the program of a narrator was more of a distraction than a necessity. There are compositions which incorporate or benefit from the presence of a narrator, but Bell’s presence on this program with those three works ultimately seemed superfluous.

For a copy of the program, click here (http://static.sandiego.com/articlefiles/d369c140-0569-4b1b-b00b-98ef6a35c270/sonic%20stories.jpeg) .

Number of currently available recordings (per ArkivMusic (http://www.arkivmusic.com) ) of mid-20th-century chamber music