Messiaen's triumph on weekend program

Piece: The French composer's moving masterwork for violin, piano, cello and clarinet is to be performed Saturday at Smith Theatre.


January 03, 2002|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

One of the most moving and spiritually charged of all 20th-century chamber works will be performed Saturday night when the American Chamber Players take the Smith Theatre stage under the aegis of Columbia's Candlelight Concerts.

That piece is Olivier Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), a work conceived in the crucible of Nazi Germany's destruction of European life.

Messiaen, who joined the French army to fight Nazi aggression, was captured by the Germans in 1940.

Interned in a Nazi prison camp, the composer fought the inhumanity of the Third Reich by crafting this alternately sad, furious and triumphal quartet for violin, piano, cello and clarinet.

The work was premiered in 1941 by Messiaen and three of his fellow inmates before an audience of 5,000 prisoners. Thoughts of the mournful song of the birds and the hushed, reverent "Prayer to the Immortality of Jesus" being played under such extraordinary circumstances conjure up some of the most heartbreaking, yet uplifting, images imaginable.

Messiaen's masterwork will be performed Saturday by cellist Michael Mermagen, pianist Edward Newman, National Symphony Orchestra principal clarinetist Loren Kitt and NSO associate concertmaster Elisabeth Adkins, whose superior fiddling has been one of the cornerstones of the orchestra's growth during Leonard Slatkin's tenure on the Kennedy Center podium.

The American Chamber Players were founded in 1985 by violist Miles Hoffman from a core group of artists from the Library of Congress' Summer Chamber Festival. Their brand of musical dynamism has made them popular with audiences all over North America. The group has recorded music by Mozart, Bruch, Bloch, Stravinsky, Harbison and Rochberg on compact discs issued by the Koch International Classics label.

To open the program, Kitt will join pianist Newman in the sensually poetic First Rhapsody for clarinet and piano by Claude Debussy.

To round out the program, Newman, Adkins, Mermagen and founding violist Hoffman come together for the sinuous and supple Quartet No. 2 in G minor for piano and strings by Gabriel Faure.

One of the most original of the French composers, Faure is able to fashion interludes full of churning emotions that somehow never lose their poise or Gallic elegance. Most famous for his luminous choral requiem, Faure was anything but a one-trick pony, as this wonderful chamber work attests.

Faure, writes the eloquent pianist Emmanuel Ax, takes us to "a world not often entered by composers, great or less than great - a world where beauty reigns supreme, and even despair wears a halo of radiance."

Candlelight Concerts presents the American Chamber Players in works by Debussy, Faure and Messiaen at Smith Theatre on the campus of Howard Community College at 8 p.m. Saturday. General admission tickets are $24; senior citizens $18; and students $9. A free preconcert lecture by the group's founding violist, Miles Hoffman, will be given at 6:30 p.m. Tickets: 410-715-0034 or 301-596- 6203.

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