AMICI CHAMBER ENSEMBLE HONOUR MESSIAEN AND ARMENIA reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, December 7, 2008, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto

This year, Amici continues to welcome a new member, pianist and composer Serouj Kradjian. Mr. Kradjian wrote a new work for this concert, an imaginatively rich composition, entitled “Elegy for Restive Souls (2008)” that is certainly worthy of the musicians who performed this world première 20 years to the day after the earthquake that killed 25,000 people in his native Armenia.

The work begins with guest violinist Ben Bowman plucking a tic-toc ostinato rhythm while Joaquin Valdepeñas allows an elegiac melody based on a sacred Armenian theme to float up from his clarinet.  A quiet crash of chords brings the opening time of the work to an end. Then,  David Hetherington’s cello picks up an Armenian folk-based theme that is discussed contrapuntally by the instruments in various combinations and levels of energy, some soft, some dying, some jagged, some whirlwinding.  The piano offers nostalgic interludes, manic jazzy passages, and towards the end, a couple of cadenzas that lead the way to some fascinating orchestral effects before the work makes a soft landing.

The Amici and guest also performed “Suite for violin, clarinet and piano (1992) by the prominent Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian. The four movements are firmly based on an Armenian folk-motifs, beginning with a hair-raisingly slow clarinet phrase that climbs over the steady sad rumble of the piano, past the plaintive song of the violin till at the right altitude, all three instruments weave in the space like larks. One cannot help being astonished by the control Mr. Valdepeñas shows here and in his solos during the Messiaen piece, where you can hear the silence out of which his notes rise first with a faintness close to non-existence that become denser in gradations as fine as a sumi-e brushstroke.

Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” is wonderful to listen to. It is also rewarding to study because it tells some very colourful stories about this remarkable composer. For instance, the work was composed as a way of surviving the cruelty, horrors and “endless boredom” of Nazi imprisonment in Stalag VIII –A, where it was premiered before an audience of 400 prisoners on a freezing January night in 1941.

Constructed in VIII movements, Messiaen notes that parts II and VII contain harmonies to which he ascribes the colour scheme “blue and orange.” In his preface to the score Messiaen writes that having nothing to eat triggered his natural ability to dream in colours and to see colours corresponding to the sounds of music he heard in his head.

The opening section features the voices of the clarinet and violin describing “predawn and the awakening of the birds, a thrush improvises….” These tones imitate actual sounds of birds Messiaen heard in the camp, that he learned to notate for his compositions. Later, he became familiar with upward of 500 birdsongs that he worked into his compositions, because “birds are the opposite of time…with its sadness and tediums; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant outpourings of song!”

Messiaen described this “Quartet” as one of his “first rhythmically important works.” The rhythmic ostinato in the piano part of Crystal Liturgy is based on 3 of a possible 120 Hindu rhythms Messiaen explored to escape from the constraints of metrical rhythms.  The sixth movement employs his by now trademark “nonretrogradable rhythms”, musical palindromes that read identically from both left and right. The point of Messiaen’s rhythmic inventions is that by relying on duration rather than meter, they contribute to the sense of interminableness or ‘eternity’, the aspect of experience that is beyond or at ‘the end of time.’

Because 2008 is the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth, I have had the good fortune to attend three performances of this work by superb ensembles: The Gryphon Trio, with James Campbell on clarinet, The St. Lawrence String Quartet, with Todd Palmer on clarinet, and this one by the Amici Ensemble, with Ben Bowman on violin. What is special about this performance is the hold it took of my imagination. The music that is of time–where music begins—the ordered melodies, the familiar chords, the repetitive ostinato rhythms, are beautiful expressions of imagination feeling its limits: stone, steel, ice, negative emotions like anger or hysteria. The music that brings us to “the end of time” unfolds itself as an ecstatic flow of energy that rises, shines, and dissolves in a flow of imagination that feels no limits at all.

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