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Sunday, May 16, 2004


Last night I heard the Seattle New Music Ensemble play Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet at the End of Time” in St. Ignatius Chapel. Wow.

I live near a small Catholic university with a pretty campus that I walk through once or twice a week on the way to a supermarket or a drug store or a magazine stand. A week ago I saw a sign outside the campus chapel, a very pretty modern building, advertising a concert on May 15, a local group playing Messiaen’s quartet and new compositions by the ensemble’s composer in residence, Forrest Pierce, 2 of his “Blood Concerti” written for the group. I’d heard of the Messiaen piece and recently read about it -- I wanted to go.

The chapel is smallish with high ceilings and wasn’t half full, maybe 50 or 60 people there. I got there early and sat in the 2nd pew, close enough so I could hear the flautist breathe between phrases during Pierce’s concerto for flute and marimba. In the age of recorded music it’s so easy to forget the physical demands of making music; these people were working.

A thrill to hear such sounds up so close. (I should get out more.)

So many funny rituals of classical-music listening. I thought about this while waiting for the concert to start. At a rock show or jazz show, if you’re a fan of the performer, and you’ve been waiting for them to show up, you cheer when they finally do. Same with classical, whether you’re a fan or not. Except the cheering is different. In classical, it’s clapping only, at least before the concert. At a rock show (and maybe jazz), shouting and hooting and whistling are included.

Then there’s this thing about movements. Pierce’s concerti had 3 movements each; Messiaen’s piece had 8. And in classical, you don’t cheer between movements. Geneologically, this makes no sense, as the concerto and the symphony are descended from the dance suite, and the dance suite is descended from, well, dance music, and, presumably, even back in the staid 17th century (if times were staid then, which I doubt), people clapped after each dance, not after each set of dances. But somewhere along the way, the custom evolved to make the shuffling of chairs and papers in the pause between movements part of the sonic experience to be concentrated on in silence, and so be it. I’ll go along with it. After the first movement of the first piece, Pierce’s cello concerto, I wanted to shout Yeah! But I kept quiet, kept it in.

Pierce scored the concerti for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, piano, and percussion; the percussionist played marimba, gong, and two different bass drums, one played with mallets, the other played with a foot-pedal like in a jazz or rock drum set, which the excellent David Reeves played while playing the marimba. Messiaen’s quartet was made up of violin, cello, clarinet, and piano.

Pierce was born in 1972. His stuff was full of nervous energy, emotion, and attractive ensemble effects. Motifs being shot around the group, sometimes joining up in unison. The cello and violin dueting, with the cello playing higher than the violin. The piano playing sustained notes in close intervals with the marimba playing the same notes in a trill, creating an almost subliminal echo effect as the marimba is the quietest instrument in the group and was positioned, as is the custom with percussion, in the back. The violin briefly joining the cello for a unison trill until the cello shoots out for some glass-like harmonics -- this moment thrilled my eyes to watering. The occasional coming-together of attractive almost-hummable melody for 16 bars, and dissolving back into nervous gestural texture.

The cello concerto rocked, and I whistled and clapped after the last movement. I was the only person whistling -- probably a classical faux pas. At least I didn’t yell “Rock!” which is what I really wanted to do. The piece was called “[where] THE GREAT TERROR [can dismember me].”

Pierce’s writing is complex, engaging, and skillful, but at a couple points during the concerto for flute and marimba (“RUMORS OF GOD [run through your dark blood]”) my ears rebelled. The second movement had passages of parallel fifths that struck me as Hollywood-Chinoiserie; there was nice melodic stuff going on simultaneously but the “orientalisms” distracted. And the first movement of RUMORS OF GOD ended with loud rising figure to a sort of musical Ta-Da -- it sounded showy in a song-and-dance way. But these are picky cavils; on the whole, RUMORS OF GOD danced with pleasure. The 2nd movement with the distracting fifths ended up nicely with 16 bars (if I remember correctly; may have been 32) of strong ensemble melody followed by a brief denoument of quietly fragmenting textures -- lovely.

The showy big ending of the first movement of RUMORS OF GOD illustrated a common conundrum: Form is tough. Even two of the movements of the Messiaen struck me as formally off. The second movement started with dissonant loud fast unison playing, evolved into something quiet and tender, and ended with a repeat of the opening. I didn’t get it; didn't get the repeat; didn't get the relationship of the quiet tender stuff with the dissonant loud fast stuff. And the 4th movement for violin, cello, and clarinet without piano ended with a pizzicato’ed 5-1 cadence on the solo low cello that sounded like a Gordon Jenkins orchestration for a Frank Sinatra number. I love Jenkins & Sinatra, but the association in context struck me as unfortunate.

Despite these moments of falling-out, I had come to Messiaen’s quartet expecting something extraordinary, and I got it. Over and over again, thinking, omigod this is so beautiful. One movement a gorgeous clarinet solo, played with clear rich smooth tone by Jesse Canterbury. Notes laboriously emerging from inaudibility and building up to loud-as-possible, cut off suddenly and allowed to echo for a few seconds in the high-arch-ceilinged cement room. Two movements, the 5th and the 8th, slow piano chords supporting slow, slow, slow beautiful singing-toned melody from the cello (in the 5th movement) and the violin (in the 8th) -- in my echoing mind’s ear it’s a 20th century distillation of Chopin’s slow lyricism on piano. Eye-wateringly gorgeous. Beauties abounding in the other movements as well, but the clarinet solo and the piano duets with the violin and cello absolutely spellbound me. I want to hear that music again and again.

The band rocked. Flautist Leslie Laibman had a round full tone that paradoxically included an attractive breathiness. Pianist Melissa Plagemann played with sensitive dynamics and rhythmic authority. Cellist Brad Hawkins played with gusto, verve, and conviction. Violinist Stephen Creswell acquitted his part well in the Pierce. Maria Sampen took his chair for the Messiaen, and her lead playing in the last movement brought tears to my eyes and made me shudder. When we finally did applaud, having held it in after the first seven movements, it felt good to stand with the crowd and clap the group back for another bow after they had left. This “waiting till the end to clap” business has its points after all.

Unamplified instruments -- so beautiful. And so many sonic details -- hearing the page turning, hearing the breathing. Both of the Blood Concerti started with a sharp intake of breath from the cellist on the upbeat, like the shouted one-two-three-four of a rock band, except the one-two-three were silent and the four was just that breath. During the Messiaen, violinist Sampen did the heavy upbeat breathing during pauses in the loud-fast passages.

Intimate and human. Chamber music.

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