Fort Worth — I cannot recall attending any concert with a greater contrast than the Oct. 14 performance hosted by the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The first half of the program was Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”), while the second half was Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat (“The Soldier’s Tale”), complete with marionettes.
The pairing, though perhaps unlikely, worked beautifully, and the result was one of the most delightful concerts of the season so far.
The famous story of the composition and premiere of Messiaen’s quartet for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano has in many quarters overshadowed the music itself. And as origin stories go, it’s a doozy. Clarinetist Rebecca Rischin’s excellent book For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet best chronicles the tale, but here’s a much-abbreviated version. Messiaen, a French army nurse, was confined to a Nazi prisoner of war camp during World War II. While there, he befriended three other musicians, and in 1941 wrote and premiered an eight-movement piece for the four musicians and their available instruments. This piece evoked both Messiaen’s deep Catholic faith, with movement titles such as “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus,” and his abiding love for ornithology, with its bird calls. It also uses experimental (for the time) metrical techniques—there are no time signatures in some movements, and in others, the time signatures often do not govern the actual rhythms. All of these features make the piece both infinitely complex and also quite difficult to play well. The musicians featured on Saturday presented a polished and occasionally astonishing performance despite this difficulty.
The Society’s Artistic Director, Gary Levinson, was the violinist, while the clarinetist was Franklin Cohen, who retired last year as principal after a 40-year career with the Cleveland Orchestra. The cellist was SMU professor Andrés Díaz, and the pianist was Jihye Chang of Florida State University.
While some movements feature all four instruments, others feature just one or two—“Abyss of the Birds” is a clarinet solo, “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus” features a cello solo with piano, and the final movement, “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus,” highlights violin, again with piano. Cohen was especially spectacular in his solo movement, with remarkable control and beautifully shaped phrases. His pianissimos came out of nowhere, and his crescendos were precisely even: truly astonishing. Díaz has a lovely, resonant sound, and created intensity out of Messiaen’s interminable lines. Chang supported this sense of line with almost hypnotic chords. Levinson, in the critical final movement, entranced with lush sound, while Chang was again a rhythmic rock.
This was an outstanding performance of a piece more talked about than listened to.
After intermission, an abrupt change in mood: Stravinsky’s theatrical work for septet, narrator, and, originally, dancers used Dan Butterworth’s marionettes in the place of those dancers to excellent effect. A screen enlarged the knee-high puppets for easier viewing. Butterworth’s ability to show surprisingly subtle changes in mood or action, as well as the puppets themselves—the soldier, with and without his fiddle, the devil, the soldier’s princess—brought childlike glee to the mostly older crowd. John Kuether, as the narrator, was superb, using an astonishingly wide range of voices to bring the story to life.
The musicians, too, brought their best to Stravinsky’s delightful piece. It is usually performed with a conductor, due in part to Stravinsky’s constantly changing time signatures. Richard Lee of the East Texas Symphony did Saturday’s honors. The rest of the musicians, with the exception of clarinetist Cohen, were Dallas Symphony members: Levinson on violin, Nicolas Tsolainos on bass, Theodore Soluri playing bassoon, Russell Campbell on cornet, Chris Oliver playing trombone, and Doug Howard adding percussion.
This ensemble brought drama and levity alike to Stravinsky’s music. Levinson excelled at the Russian folk tune-inflected music representing the fiddle-playing soldier, though when the narrator intoned that the soldier’s fiddle’s “tone’s not rich and the pegs slip,” it was hard not to giggle at the irony of DSO Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster Levinson accompanying that narration on his Stradivarius. DSO Associate Principal Trumpet Campbell provided rich tone without overbalancing the violin, as did DSO Associate Principal Trombone Oliver. This was my first opportunity to hear these two brass players perform chamber music, and I was well impressed. Cohen again showed himself to be an elegant and subtle player, while Principal Bass Tsolainos and Principal Bassoon Soluri grounded the ensemble.
DSO Principal Percussionist Howard, too, could easily have overwhelmed the others, but he never overplayed, even as his part became increasingly significant—the piece, indeed, ends with violin and percussion in a sort of duel, but finally the violin drops out, leaving only the percussionist—the devil—to hammer out his triumph.
This was a delightful afternoon, beginning with Messiaen’s mysticism and concluding with Stravinsky’s theatrical cautionary tale, reminding us that selling one’s fiddle for the promise of infinite wealth is a bargain doomed to go poorly. Or something like that…