Quartet For the End of Time at St. Philip's AnglicanSunday, January 15, 2017
|Angelique Po, Domagoj Ivanovic, Liam Hockley & Laine Longton at St Philip's February 15 2017|
My friends Ian Bateson, Graham Walker and I attended an extraordinary concert today Sunday, January 15th, 2017 at St. Philip’s Anglican Church in the Dunbar, King Edward neighbourhood.
Thanks to organist and Musical Director Michael Murray, this venue has been a scene of concerts in the last few years that compete with the best anywhere else in our city. Kudos to the man, and especially for selecting programs that could be considered difficult by your average concert goer.
Our city became less of a pariah backwater in 1986 when liquor rules had to be brought up to 20th century standards. I no longer had to mess around all afternoon with a salad at La Bodega in order to order the drink (and drinks of my choice).
But in many other respects here in Vancouver we like to play it safe and musically bring in the chestnuts that we know will warm up seats at big venues. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as fantastic as they are could have a rest. And while I would never criticize the immortality and divine attribute of J.S. Bach I believe I have heard enough of his Concerto for 2 Violins in D minor, BWV 1043.
The program at St Philips featuring four performers I had never heard of:
Domagoj Ivanovic – violin
Laine Longton – cello
Liam Hockley – clarinet
Angelique Po – piano
And one composer besides OlivierMessiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, I had never heard of, Russian Galina Ustvolskaya (1919- 2006) combined for a program that was startling, difficult at times, lyrical at others and simply wonderful by the end when Angelique Po slammed a key on the last bass note of her piano that reminded me of my fave Vancouver pianist (Turning PointEnsemble) Jane Hays.
Many who used to go to Johnny Thunders concerts went to see
if the man would die on stage with an OD. I always went to see how if only in
brief moments of lucidity he played with a passion that was second to none. I
go to concerts with Jane Hays to see if she will demolish the piano this time.
I have to mention here that she now has competition from Angelique Po. When I
talked to Po back stage after the concert and cited Hays she said, “How I wish
I had her hair!” All I can say to correct all that is that Po in her lovely
(and tight) little black hair and black pumps does not have to feel left behind
in any way.
Ustvolskaya’s Grand Duet, 1959 played by Po and Longton had at least three movents (from five) that featured a pianissimo touch on the keys and then the sort of banging that proves that Russians like to tell us that the piano is indeed a percussion instrument. Technology seems to have added an extra pedal to the piano. Po uses a tablet in lieu of sheet music. With her left foot she presses on a device (it is black) on the floor to advance the music. Longton had more of a problem with her music (she might need to update!) but offered us some soft almost inaudible moments with her cello. The piece brought to mind a memory I had from years ago when driving on a back alley in East Vancouver I saw a gull on its death throw. I felt powerless in spite of my empathy for the creature. It would flap its wings with force and then would not and appear dead and then it would be wild again until it all ended. The Grand Duet was that for me and luckily we were given an interval to digest music that in spite of having been composed in the middle of the last century felt like new music. This is the sort of music you have to witness live. Forget YouTube and smart phones.
I could not in any way get close to explaining how extraordinary it is so I will put here a lovely tribute here to this work written by a Frenchman in a prisoner-of-war-camp. It is not that normal quartet, a string quartet or a reed quartet or even a wind quartet. It features the only instruments Olivier Messiaen could find in the camp, a piano (an upright of questionable tuning) a clarinet, a cello and a violin.
I have to state here that in this 7-part work every one of the performers has his/her time to shine in the sun.
But as far as I am concerned it really is a vehicle for the clarinetist. I place the clarinet in a very special place because I tried to play it once in my school band where I played the alto saxophone. I could not get two nice notes out of it. My 14 year old granddaughter Lauren plays the clarinet for her school band. We were both friends of Dal Richards who learned to play the clarinet before his saxophone.
Our clarinettist, Liam Hockley a former student of that other clarinettist who played in that other Quartet for the End of Time has kindly provided me with his take (below) on what it feels like to play that third movement : III Abîme des oiseaux (Abyss of birds) which is a clarinet solo in its entirety.
Yes Hockley was taught well by François Houle. Hockley was terrific.
But he had some supernatural help from the cross-shaped church he performed in. My friends Ian, Graham an I were sitting up front and a bit stage right. This spot was under the higher cupola of the church. Every time Hockley played sustained lower or middle notes the sounds were no longer directional. They seemed to swirl around my head and seem to go into one ear and out the other. There were moments when the sound was so faint that it was exquisite. When the sound was swirling Hockley was moving his clarinet (clockwise?). I asked him and he simply explained it as going with the flow as he played.
We left the church realizing we had witnessed a one-of-a-kind performance and we only hope to see these four many times again.
Here are a few off-the-cuff remarks about the third movement of the Quartet for the End of Time; I hope you find them satisfactory. Please feel free to use as much or as little as you like. It's difficult to encapsulate exactly what is so special about this movement!
Messiaen writes about Abîme des oiseaux (Abyss of the Birds): "The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs."
As his description suggests, the movement inhabits two distinct temporal, spatial, and emotional planes: the opening theme of the movement (marked "slow, expressive, sad, and desolate") rotates wearily around a central E-natural, never seeming to gain enough momentum to stray from its pull. The second theme (marked "almost fast, alert, capricious, sunny, like a bird, free") is pure birdsong, shining a light into the dark abyss.
An oddly stark and minimalist gesture appears three times in the movement: a single pitch—the E-natural from the first theme transposed one octave higher—that moves from extreme pianissimo to extreme fortissimo over a long duration. How do we interpret it? To me, it is an all-encompassing gesture embodying the broad spectrum between the extremes of dark and light as they are manifested in our traditions and experiences. As it emerges from the abyss and swirls around the room expanding radiantly outwards it becomes Messiaen's light, stars, and rainbows in pure sonic form.
The the first performance of the Quartet for the End of Time happened on the same date, January 15 but back in 1941 in a prisoner-of-war-camp.