Music of freedom from era of confinement

Concert reviews

April 24, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The most surreal event in music history must surely be the one that occurred in a prisoner-of-war camp known as Stalag 8A on Jan. 15, 1941. Five thousand soldiers, who had been fighting Nazi armies just months before, gathered to hear the premiere of a long, complex chamber work called "Quartet for the End of Time." It was written by one of their own, Olivier Messiaen, who was inspired to write the piece after he discovered a violinist, cellist and clarinetist in the camp. (He was the pianist.)

His fellow prisoners listened intently to music that ranged from direct and tuneful to dissonant and diffuse, from harsh and unsettled to serenely content and ethereal. It's fascinating to imagine battle-scarred veterans dealing not just with those sounds, but also with Messiaen's mystical concepts - among the movements are "Crystal Liturgy" and "Cluster of Rainbows, for the Angel Who Announces the End of Time."

A much smaller crowd was on hand for this unique musical vision during Sunday's Chamber Music by Candlelight program at Baltimore's Second Presbyterian Church. Except for some incessant chatterers, the audience seemed to connect strongly with Messiaen. The players certainly made every effort to make that possible. Violinist Ivan Stefanovic, cellist Kristin Ostling, clarinetist Edward Palanker and pianist Mary Woehr (all of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra) explored the composer's strange sound-world with extraordinary intensity. It was an enveloping experience.

Technically, there was much to admire, especially in the "Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets," when Messiaen calls on the instruments to play rapid bursts of melodic ideas in unison. Palanker's solo in "Abyss of the Birds" masterfully caught the mesmerizing tautness, lyricism, expectancy and uncertainty.

Ostling delved deeply into the aching phrases of "In Praise of the Eternity of Jesus," as Woehr articulated the accompanying chord bursts with great control. The complementary, concluding movement addressing "Immortality" and the biblical concept of the moment when "there shall be time no longer" found Stefanovic and Woehr likewise closely meshed, richly expressive.

To this day, there is still nothing quite like "Quartet for the End of Time," nothing quite so audacious, challenging, compelling - except, perhaps, for some of Messiaen's other compositions. He was among the most thoroughly original figures in all of music. This performance underlined that achievement.

The concert also offered a penetrating, detailed account of Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet, with violinists Kenneth Goldstein and Mari Matsumoto, violist Noah Chaves and cellist Bo Li. Aside from some intonation slips, violinist Qing Li and violist Kris Braly made an effective case for a Mozartean duet by Franz Anton Hoffmeister.

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