Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Eroica Trio, with the ISO's Cathryn Gross, performs a kind of centerpiece for Butler ArtsFest

Eroica Trio: Sara Parkins, Erika Nickrenz, Sara Sant'Ambrogio
It's fatuous to claim that all religions are one, skipping blithely over vast gulfs of theology and doctrine, but it's at least worth considering that the mysticisms of the major religions occupy a common realm.

And one of the common goals of mystical search is union, or just dialogue, with the eternal, with whatever lies supreme over our time-bound world. As a devout Catholic, Olivier Messiaen knew where to find such an apprehension of the universal passage into timelessness: the Book of Revelation, interpreted through the mysteries of his faith and his exploration of modes and new ways of organizing rhythm.

The ecstasy, the violence, the universal peace, and the sensuous richness of that biblical vision he put into music of glaring, heart-piercing originality while confined in Stalag 8-A during World War II. One of the most famous premieres in modern music took place in that concentration camp. He called the work Quartet for the End of Time.

The Eroica Trio devoted the second half of its concert for Butler ArtsFest Tuesday night to this composition, assisted by Cathryn Gross, assistant principal clarinet in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. At the very start, "The Liturgy of Crystal" plunges the listener into a new world. Indeed, even long acquaintance with the Quartet for the End of Time makes each performance seem like an encounter with new music.
Cathryn Gross joined the Eroica Trio for Messiaen.

The quartet of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano is divided and occasionally reduced to its components over the course of eight movements. The composer explained the choice of eight as symbolizing the day beyond the seven in Genesis that encompass the labor of creation plus a day of rest. Time in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is set in motion by those seven days. Messiaen sets about elucidating the eighth, leaning on the disturbing splendors of Revelation and its assertion of God's love beyond time.

Tuesday's performance was astonishing for its fervor and clarity. The second movement, "Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of time," had trenchant melodies in unison for the strings, punctuated by piano chords. Sara Parkins and Sara Sant'Ambrogio shifted smoothly to the heavenly chant of violin and cello before the thundering conclusion.

Other than the piano (which Messiaen played at the premiere), the players get solo showcases. The
clarinet's is unaccompanied, an extended vision of time trying to snare timelessness, called "Abyss of  the Birds." Gross' firm command of the solo line showed a tremendous range of volume and color, every phrase of which seemed to build a case for the inevitability of timelessness' triumph. The prospect is celebrated in the next movement, an Interlude that Messiaen called a scherzo, the lightest movement in the piece and saucily brought off by the ensemble.

Sant'Ambrogio's intensity in "Praise to the eternity of Jesus" sustained a tenderness that helped point up the contrast with the following movement, "Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets." The group  gave a coruscating account, its command of the peculiar rhythmic patterns precise and solid. Its tone maintained luster through all the strenuousness. And the more kaleidoscopic seventh movement that followed paved the way gloriously for the finale, a showcase for Parkins, accompanied by Nickrenz, that seemed to drape an aura over the stage that persisted after the last lofty note.

Quartet for the End of Time was an inevitable choice for an arts festival called "Time and Timelessness." What theme could be roomier? Here is a piece that grapples directly with the incompatibility of the two. The meaning of "days" in the Creation story continues to divide believers: How can an eternal Creator put in a day's work? Or  take time off after six of them?

Humans feel time inexorably even when we have no standard for knowing what it really is. In secular terms, the Big Bang may be a necessary theory not so much for scientific reasons, but because we can't understand events at all unless we posit a First Event.

We frequently complain of running out of time, yet we can't run out of Time. Even so thorough a religious thinker as John Milton got confused. In timeless Eden, his Adam begins a marvelous love poem to Eve like this: "With thee conversing I forget all time." It's a post-Edenic sentiment. How can  Adam forget what he never knew?

Messiaen looked at the omega instead of the alpha to resolve this dilemma. In this life, we can only submit to praise for the end of time, because (in his view) every universal purpose is thereby fulfilled and our petty strivings are subsumed in bliss — for the faithful, that is. That's what this piece of music says, and fortunately, we don't have to weigh how much or how little we believe that in order to enjoy it, especially in such a stimulating performance.

The first half of the concert included the visiting trio's performance of Jose Bragato's arrangements of three pieces by Astor Piazzolla. The much-loved "Oblivion" occupied the central position, bookended by two movements of  "The Four Seasons of Argentina" — Autumn and Spring. In those pieces,
the insinuations of the tango amid the riot of dance rhythms and tunes were attractively presented. This is music that seems to flaunt the allure of life free of oppressive morality, devoted to curiosity, pleasure, and boldness. It was thoroughly charming.

Music of a  far different atmosphere opened the program. The Eroica Trio played Anne Dudley's arrangement of the famous Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for solo violin by J.S. Bach.  It is not a version to prefer to the original, but it certainly was stimulating not to have to focus on the efforts of one musician to bring off its majesty and expressive breadth. All its riches benefit from being occasionally distributed and highlighted in this manner, as the Eroica women demonstrated brilliantly.