With a monumental work like Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time filling up the whole second half of the program, the question then becomes what to offer on the first half.
Something light and lovely, as a programmatic apéritif?
Or, maybe something with more of a kindred gravitas, to set the tone for the concert and foreshadow the emotional weight of the Quartet. Like starting out a fine meal with the fromage et charcuterie plate, a half carafe of cab, and a solid loaf of thick, crusty bread. Gets you warmed up nicely for that entrée of steak, lobster, bacon-infused rainbow chard and silky butter beans. Know what I mean?
Last night’s second concert with the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival split the difference and offered both approaches.
David Ludwig’s delicately elegiac Flowers in the Desert opened the program in its world premiere performance, with violist Hsin-Hun Huang, clarinetist David Shifrin, and pianist Jeewon Park. The spare spaces of its sonic landscape prompted an audible audience exhale when the last, redemptive, prayer-like note decayed and floated plaintively to meet the the raised ceiling of the Elley-Long Music Center.
Flowers’ feel and gently repeated note patterns reminded me of the understated beauty in Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel, though Flowers‘ inspiration is rooted in much weightier source material. In May this year, two boys (Antwun Parker, 16 and a younger unidentified teen-aged accomplice) attempted a gunpoint robbery at an Oklahoma City pharmacy. The younger boy got away, while Parker was shot in the head by the pharmacist Jerome Ersland. And then when Parker was down, Erslund shot him another five times in the stomach. Because the autopsy revealed that Parker died from the five stomach wounds, not the original head shot, the pharmacist was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. (More on the story here)
Whatever your opinion on the facts of the incident, the senselessness, sheer brutality and fundamental human failure evident in every aspect of the situation are inarguable, and provide the potent departure point for Flowers’ fragile emotional center.
From there we moved on to the György Kurtág’s ruminative Hommage to Robert Schumann (which prompted my friend to comment wonderingly, “how do you practice a piece like that?”), and the first half concluded in a brilliant stroke of programming with Schumann’s joyously effusive Liederkreis, Op. 39 song cycle, warmly performed by soprano Hyunnah Yo and pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn.
Twenty minutes intermission was hardly enough time to prepare for the next 45.
Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time has long been one of my chamber music favorites. As a profound expression of acceptance and deliverance through personal spirituality, I find its reverance of the natural world to be a centering experience that never fails to ‘reset’ my ears and attitude and encourage me to get over (or through) things happening at the time.
Hearing the Quartet performed in a live setting precludes the opportunity for that kind of self-selected (self-inflicted?) ‘occasional’ listening. Regardless of your state of mind, the music happens when it happens because it’s part of the concert you’ve decided to attend. So it was with last night’s encounter with the Quartet, a bit tired at the end of the week, coming down from a long day at work and the previous night’s emotionally draning late-night visit to the local emergency veterinary clinic. And the music was just right. Serene, contemplative, wailing and world weary in David Shifrin’s clarinet solo in the “Abyss of the Birds” 3rd movement, and stringently punctuated with the announcement of the Apocalypse in the 6th movement’s “Dance of the fury”.
I wish I had liked Alisa Weilerstein’s “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” (5th mvmt cello & piano duet) a bit more, but the phrasing felt choppy and the tempo a bit rushed rather than the expansive legato the music requires to ilustrate the infinite, magnanimous nature of divine love. The continuity of the long, suspended, whispering note that ends the movement was broken repeatedly when the cello’s strings refused to respond to the bowing, concluding the meditation haltingly and oddly countering the movement’s thematic message of the neverending, eternal nature of God’s Word. Weilerstein is a seasoned player for her young age, and her expressive range is already very broad. I’m very much looking forward to hearing how she continues to evolve artistically.
All in all an engaging, exciting evening of visionary programming and music-making in this inaugural season for what we hope will be a long-lived venture, this new Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival. Finally, a special note on the classy Festival program: a nice piece of work. Especially in providing clear translations of the Schumann songs and in the thorough information on each piece. A real pleasure to read.
The Festival’s final performance takes place tomorrow at 3, with a program of Dvořák (Bagatelles, Op. 47), Schubert (C major String Quintet) and a Trio from Canada’s R. Murray Schafer.
Tags: Alisa Weilerstein, David Ludwig, David Shifrin, Elley-Long Music Center, Gyorgy Kurtag, Hsin-Yun Huang, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, Jeewon Park, Jennifer Frautschi, Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival, Liederkreis, Olivier Messiaen, Robert Schumann, Soovin Kim