Monday, April 18, 2011

Tradition for the End of Time

Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps by Olivier Messiaen @ Covenant Presbyterian Church of Chicago, May 17, 2011

Rebekah Cope: violin
James Falzone: clarinet
Karen Schulz-Harmon: cello
Rick Ferguson: piano

One of the more inspired Chicago traditions - now having been observed over the past three Palm Sundays - is the annual performance of Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time within the architecturally impressive Convent Presbyterian Church of Chicago. The large chapel playing host to one of the most vibrant, emotional and spiritually intense compositions of the twentieth century. A work that embodies the dual strains of serenity and anxiety as it was composed within the darkness of a German prisoner of war camp where Messiaen was interned.

The eight movements of this profound work of chamber music are an expression of faith. Faith as a foil against the despair of incarceration and an uncertain future. Faith as a necessary companion in the face of adversity.

Musically, it is a challenging piece that explores an elastic approach toward pulse and time and harmonic materials frequently drawing upon octotonic scales. Challenges deftly met by the well rehearsed quartet at Covenant Presbyterian.

James Falzone's use of a slide projector to display the composer's own notes for each movement was a welcome touch. His thoughtful introduction to the piece and post-performance question and answer session gently invited the audience to hear and understand this music. I appreciated the statement that Messiaen's music "is not entertainment." The best music often isn't. Fortunately, Chicago has no shortage of people intellectually curious enough to grasp, and even enjoy, music that challenges our sense of what is possible.

The cavernous echo of Covenant Presbyterian quickly added a thick layer to this sound that took some getting used to. I struggled to hear the rhythmic precision of the first movement and found myself concentrating to hear the cyclical patterns that were buried within a wash of sound. The room acoustics offered similar challenges for the Interlude and "Dance of Fury" movements with their rhythmically propelled energy washing against the acoustic delay. The solo clarinet movement, "Abyss of the Birds," took on an interesting quality within this space. While the long tails of sound at the end of each note and phrase were substantially different for these ears, the harmonies that came out revealed a new perspective on this familiar material. And the cello feature "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus" and violin feature of the final movement, "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus" were absolutely stunning within this wash of harmonic sound. Slow as these movements are, I imagine playing them even slower within that live space would accentuate the qualities of this music even more.

As a non-believer, this is a tradition I can respond to. Just as Messiaen's music draws upon a mysticism that can be admired (and even envied) from the outside. This is thoughtful, reasoned tradition that touches upon meaning and expressions of faith from a grounded perspective. A reason to perform this fantastic piece with these dedicated musicians. Something I'm happy to get on board with.

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