Unheard-of//Ensemble probes inner space in Messiaen’s “Quartet” and new works

By David Wright

Unheard-of//Ensemble performed a streaming concert for Kaleidoscope MusArt Saturday night.

The composer’s life was upended by a world crisis. Forced into isolation, facing a deeply uncertain future, he cast about for a way to keep his art alive. Using the scant materials at hand, he composed a piece that became an immortal document of his time.

It may sound like a scene from 2020, but the year was 1941, and Olivier Messiaen, a devout Roman Catholic, was experiencing the catastrophe of World War II as a window into eternity. Sitting in a German prisoner-of-war camp, he composed Quartet for the End of Time for the only musical instruments available: clarinet, violin, cello and piano.

That influential piece has inspired a mini-repertoire of works for its unconventional forces, as well as chamber groups formed expressly to perform it. Among the latter is Unheard-of//Ensemble, which was presented Saturday afternoon by Miami-based Kaleidoscope MusArt. The richly expressive online performance of the quartet was flanked by two of its newest offspring, Morgan Reed Greenwood’s Please, do tell: Six Bagatelles for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano and Liliya Ugay’s After the End of Time.

In the recorded concert, viewers saw the musicians—Ford Fourqueran, clarinet; Matheus Souza, violin; Issei Herr, cello; and Daniel Anastasio, piano–maskless and slightly distanced from each other, performing in a small space bristling with microphones (and presumably cameras). Unobtrusive post-performance audio and video editing by Fourqueran gave the stream lively, transparent sound and a variety of well-chosen camera angles.

That set the stage to appreciate both the wealth of the composers’ imaginations and the fine details the players brought out in the scores.

The event’s overall title, “Dialogue Juxtaposition,” would of course do for any well-planned concert program, but here it suggested a conversation among historical eras, including the new pieces. The Messiaen’s fellow travelers on this program were as different as the years in which they were composed: 2019 and 2020.

Greenwood’s epigrammatic Bagatelles, each a tiny valentine to a close friend named in its title, evoked images of a convivial time that, one year plus into the Covid age, is beginning to feel like ancient history.

Ugay’s music, on the other hand, embraced Messiaen’s vision of a time out of joint, but in present-day terms, and without the French composer’s theology.

Greenwood’s Please do tell, a winner of Kaleidoscope MusArt’s Beethoven-year competition for bagatelles, led off the concert with a bouquet of musical in-jokes, following a tradition as old as Rameau and as recent as Bernstein. The movements included “Salutation (for you),” perky and staccato; “Audiobook of the Dead (Burt),” wrapped in Mussorgskian gloom; “Procedural Details for Gainful Employment (Josh & Hop),” for soulful clarinet and nervous violin; “Falling Up the Down Staircase (Kalo),” one quick run up the piano keyboard; “A Small Collection of Birds (Matt),” a meditative cello solo; and “Warmest Regards (for everyone, briefly),” a full-ensemble sendoff with more bird calls. The players deftly characterized each bagatelle and, at barely a minute each, the microworks certainly didn’t overstay their welcome.

Call it the end of days, or slouching toward Bethlehem, or whatever, something new seems about to be born amid the social disorientation of 2020-21. Ugay, a composer and pianist with a longstanding interest in what she calls “socially-inspired music,” has caught a whiff of it in After the End of Time, which brought Saturday’s concert to a vivid yet ultimately enigmatic close.

The sympathy for the underdog that inspired Ugay’s recent concert series titled “Silenced Voices” (featuring rarely-heard Soviet composers) here inspired her to take Messiaen’s apocalyptic vision down into the turbulent streets and lonely front rooms of 2020.

On Saturday, the piece’s five movements—really four, plus a ghostly epilogue—opened with “Chaos,” with the piano dashing this way and that amid dissonant interjections, then fell back into “Isolation,” a soft, dejected dialogue mostly for piano and clarinet. “Protest” hit the streets again, with furious, Messiaenic syncopations driving the shouts and cries, only to be resolved in “Unification,” which opened hymn-like in euphonious thirds and sixths before rising to more impassioned dissonance.

And what comes after “after the end”?  A final movement, “Aftersounds,” stole by in near-silence, broken only by the occasional, dimly-overheard phrase, ending the piece (and the concert) with a single, smothered note on cello and piano.

Saturday’s performance left nothing to be desired for bold, engaged execution and first-rate ensemble playing.

The same could be said for the program’s centerpiece, the great Messiaen work that is the raison d’être for ensembles like this one. The cramped performing area, viewed on a small screen, created the feeling of an exploration of inner space rather than the cosmic vistas the work evokes in a church or a large hall, but there was ample satisfaction to be had in ensemble movements such as the slyly syncopated “Liturgy of Crystal,” the quiet but intense “Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of Time,” and the “Interlude” that provided merry relief from all the questing and questioning.

Individual players showed marvelous control of breath or bow arm as Messiaen glimpsed eternity in the work’s vastly sustained movements: “Abyss of the birds” for clarinet, “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus” for violin, and above all Herr’s cello in “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus.”

In sum, this was one of those chamber music concerts whose juxtapositions sparked a dialogue in the mind that continued long after the last note.

Kaleidoscope MusArt (kaleidoscopemusart.com) will post this program on its YouTube channel.

Posted in Performances

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Sun Mar 21, 2021
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