Musical-visual duet responds to 9/11 tragedy

MUSIC

November 04, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Artists can confront things most of us would rather not think about, things like war, death and disease. It's not that they feel some odd attraction to darkness and tragedy, but, rather, that they simply cannot be silent. They are provoked when they see the beauty of this life and this world threatened and shattered. By creating in the midst of destruction, they affirm the better side of humanity.

The still incomprehensible scale of the 9/11 attacks has been answered, and will continue to be answered for a long time, by artists - visual, literary, musical. Two of these responses, a painting by Deborah Patterson, former artist-in-residence at the Institute of Sacred Music, Worship and the Arts at Yale University, and a work for string quartet by Robert Sirota, director of the Peabody Institute, were made in tandem. They share the same title, Triptych, and the same titles for the three component parts - Desecration, Lamentation, Prayer.

Patterson's artwork, in shades of gray and black, offers abstract images on the two outer panels, though the smoky clouds on the first one clearly suggest the collapsing World Trade Center towers. A whiter, gentler kind of cloud rises on the third panel from above a bleak, unsettled mass. In the center is a literal representation of firefighters bearing the body of a priest killed in the attacks.

Sirota's composition contains a touch of literalism as well. In the first movement, the strings imitate the wail of sirens and, toward the end, an eerie chorus of car alarms (the composer says he imagined that "every car alarm in downtown Manhattan went off simultaneously" when the towers fell). But most of the music leaves listeners free to provide their own imagery or feelings - or to take in the notes purely as music.

At least that's how it would be when heard by itself. On Sunday afternoon, in a presentation by Community Concerts at Second Presbyterian Church, the Chiara String Quartet performed Triptych with Patterson's painting on display just over the first violinist's shoulder.

For me, the visual-musical experience seemed a little heavy-handed, the quality of the two artistic expressions unequal. I was reminded of another dual, though solely visual, response to a national tragedy - the compelling abstraction of the original Vietnam War memorial on the Mall in Washington and the less satisfying, realistic sculpture of soldiers added later to that site. Still, having the artwork at hand certainly drove home the circumstances behind this score, which had its premiere a year ago by this ensemble, fittingly at Trinity Church on Wall Street on the very edge of Ground Zero.

The first movement of the piece is generated by a driving, Bartok-like force that suggests a composer writing in a white-hot anger. A lyrical, almost hopeful passage appears later, though infused with an urgency. A somber reflection by the viola is interrupted by vicious snaps and scrapes from the other players and then those screaming alarms. In the Lamentation movement, there is a particularly effective duet for viola and cello built on a sighing theme. That movement hesitantly reaches a kind of repose, which the finale builds upon in gently lyrical fashion.

Triptych finds Sirota framing his ideas in a coherent structure, confidently exploiting the expressive range of the instruments, and, above all, confessing naked emotions. It was given an admirably intense, riveting performance by the young Chiara Quartet, which was formed three years ago at New York's Juilliard School. (The prominence of the viola part in Triptych is not surprising; the ensemble's violist, Jonah Sirota, is the composer's son.)

The group also delivered Schubert's Quartet No. 14 (Death and the Maiden) with abundant passion and sensitivity. Some dropping intonation and tonal grittiness from the violins suggested room for further honing, but the award-winning foursome clearly has what it takes to make a lasting mark in the chamber music world.

I missed the opening work on the program so that I could catch some of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society's season-opening concert, held a couple miles away at Grace United Methodist Church. The program contained an imaginative sampling of repertoire that drew a packed house.

The little I got to hear proved memorable, starting with the pure, silvery voice of soprano Arabella Kornarhens in the a cappella opening of Now I Walk in Beauty. The smooth voices of the Peabody Children's Chorus followed her lead.

The Choral Arts Society sounded richer and more cohesive than ever as director Tom Hall led the singers in three psalms set to music by 20th-century composers. Psalm 90 by Charles Ives, with its daring harmonies, apt word-setting (how perfectly the music illustrates the line "it is soon cut off, we fly away") and haunting accompaniment by organ and hand bells, received a particularly inspired, enveloping performance.

Music elsewhere

Lots of interesting musical activity ahead.

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