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The state of North Carolina is blessed with many superb summer music festivals. The Eastern Music Festival and the Brevard Music Festival, just to name the two biggest and longest running, are quickly garnering international reputations that rival Aspen, Tanglewood, and Interlochen. But for those of us remaining in the hot, muggy city, quality classical music concerts during the summer months can be as elusive as a cool breeze in August. That said, a clash of scheduling on the afternoon of Sunday, July 16, resulted in two outstanding chamber music concerts to choose from as a long, musical dry spell approached on the horizon. The Ciompi Quartet and Friends were playing at Duke Gardens, while an ensemble from Chamber Music at St. Peter's in Charlotte played a unique program at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
The Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, in conjunction with the museum, presents a series of concerts called "Sights and Sounds on Sundays" where the premise is that the music is used to enhance a current exhibit and show the relationship between the visual and musical arts. This concert was titled "Human Struggle and Salvation" with the featured work being Quartet for the End of Time (Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps) by Olivier Messiaen. Universally recognized as one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century, this set of eight movements written for the unusual combination of piano, violin, cello, and clarinet has rarely been performed in its entirety in this area. Along with its musical challenges, novelty, and distinctive sound is the story of the circumstances surrounding its composition and first performance. Alan Black, Principal Cello of the Charlotte Symphony and Artistic Director of Chamber Music at St. Peter's, gave an interesting (albeit a bit too long) talk before the music began, describing the genesis of Messiaen's best-known composition and a bit about the First Shostakovich Trio, too.
When most chamber music lovers hear that a concert will feature a piano trio by Shostakovich, they usually expect to hear the Second Trio, in e minor – a tour de force that is filled with all the characteristics of the mature Shostakovich style. In fact there is an earlier Trio, Op. 8, written while he was in the conservatory. While there are only two movements, it already contains the beginnings of that unmistakable sound. This is rarely performed, which is a mystery to me, since it's a superb work, and it makes a good filler between (or prelude for) longer works. Joining Black was pianist Lynn Kompass and violinist Jacqui Carrasco. This trio of musicians displays the unique ability to communicate as if by osmosis. There are very few overt, physical components, yet they brought forth a passionate, synthesized performance that illuminated the birth of what would become the soundtrack of an entire country.
The Quartet was premiered on January 15, 1941, in Stalag VIIIA, a German prisoner of war camp. Without minimizing the terrible hardships of the camp and bitter cold of that winter, certain myths have arisen in the years following that have been shown to be untrue. Messaien was given an extraordinary amount of freedom, privacy, and protection by the camp commanders to compose while the cellist, Etienne Pasquier, was even given a pass to go into town to purchase a cello. Composing even a traditional, run-of-the-mill chamber work (for that time in musical development) would have been in itself an amazing feat, under the circumstances, but Messiaen managed to develop an approach to harmony and rhythm that has been copied but never been equaled, even to this day. Perhaps as an escape from the horrors of his captivity and war, Messaien's self-described goal was to "...bring the listener closer to infinity, to eternity in space." This, combined with his precise use of the pitch and rhythm and birdcalls, makes this one very trippy piece.
Of course, as is often the case, serenity and peace for the listener do not necessarily translate into ease of execution for the musicians. Although birds and bees may do it naturally, this music is deceptive, for it is devilishly difficult. But the sign of great musicians, as these players are, is their comfort and ability to transcend the technique and give the listener the spirit.
Joining the trio was clarinetist Donna Black, for whom the entire third movement is an extended solo. Included in the program was a set of notes written by the composer himself, describing each of the eight movements and their relationship to the Revelation of Saint John, chapter 10, the Bible text on which Messaien based this work. There is a wide range of instrumental combinations and compositional styles although homophonic and long unison passages predominate. Counterpoint is nowhere in sight. Maintaining an ethereal and spiritual mood is no easy task, but the artists, individually and in ensemble, played as if that was all the religion you ever needed. Although some of the almost jazz-like, zippy sections with all instruments playing in unison may seem the most technically awe-inspiring, it is the two "Louanges," representing a cessation of time itself, that are perhaps the essence of this grand design. First the cellist and then, in the final movement, the violinist get to showcase long, slow notes and gradually growing intensity – without an increase in volume – that just might be the hardest effect to attain on a bowed instrument. Who needs sermons or other words when you have music like this?