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Capital City Concerts to Play Messiaen’s “End of Time” Quartet on October 17

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by Nat Frothingham

Clarinetist Daniel Gilbert
Clarinetist Daniel Gilbert

Capital City Concerts will open its 15th season of performances on Saturday evening, October 17 with a concert in Montpelier that will feature Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” — a work that artistic director Karen Kevra describes as “one of the greatest masterpieces of the chamber music canon.”

The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. and will take place at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier at 130 Main Street. The Messiaen chamber work is unusual for a number of reasons. It’s unusual because of the instruments that make up the quartet: a cello, piano, clarinet and violin.

It’s unusual, as Karen Kevra pointed out in a telephone interview, because Messiaen — who was both French and a Catholic — chose to take his inspiration from the Book of Revelation in The Bible. An inscription he added to the score reads as follow: “In homage to the angel of the Apocalype who lifts his hands and says, “There shall be time no longer. It’s also unusual because of the remarkable circumstances circumstance that surrounded the first performance of Messiaen’s striking chamber work on January 15, 1941.

As Kevra pointed out in a telephone interview — Olivier Messiaen was both French and a Catholic and his chamber music composition takes its inspiration from the Book of Revelation in The Bible with an inscription in the score that reads as follows: “In homage to the angel of the Apocalypse who lifts his hands and says, ‘There shall be time no longer.’”

Also unusual were the particularly historical circumstances surrounding the first performance of Messiaen’s remarkable “End of Time” chamber work on January 15, 1941.

Students of modern European history will remember that World War II began when Hitler’s armies invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Also remembered is the subsequent German invasion of France and the Low Countries (Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg) beginning on May 10, 1940. France was next in line and German troops occupied Paris on June 14, 1940.

According to an online Wikipedia entry — when World War II began in 1939, Messiaen was drafted into the French army and, because of poor eyesight, he was assigned to a hospital auxiliary and worked as a nurse. But he was captured by the Germans at Verdun and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Silesia (Silesia was then part of Germany but is now part of southern Poland.)

When World War II broke out in 1939, Messiaen who was in his early 30s had already studied music at the Paris Conservatory and was an accomplished composer. The “Quartet for the End of Time” was composed while Messiean was a prisoner of war and the unusual combination of instruments that he chose for “The End of Time” simply represented the instrumentalists who were available to play from the prisoners in the German prison camp.

Although memories of those present at the premiere of Messiaen’s “End of Time” differ somewhat, here is what Messiaen himself remembered and wrote about the January 15, 1941 premiere:

“The Stalag was buried in snow. We were 30,000 prisoners (French for the most part, with a few Poles and Belgians). The four musicians played on broken instruments … the keys on my upright piano remained lowered when depressed … it’s on this piano, with my three fellow musicians, dressed in the oddest way … completely tattered, and wooden clogs large enough for the blood to circulate despite the snow underfoot … that I played my quartet … the most diverse classes of society were mingled: farmers, factory workers, intellectuals, professional servicemen, doctors and priests.”

In a phone interview, Kevra shared her own experience of hearing Messiaen’s “End of Time” in performance. Remembering that performance she said, “For me it’s one of those pieces that is absolutely transcendent in performance. I find it life-changing.” She went on to say, “It truly was a religious experience — incredibly powerful and moving. People around me were in tears, including myself.”

Performing will be longtime Cleveland Orchestra clarinetist Daniel Gilbert, also violinist Theodore Arm, cellist Edward Arron, pianist Jeewon Park and flutist Karen Kevra. In continuing to talk about Messiaen’s “End of Time” chamber work, Kevra praised the four musicians that make up the quartet.

Speaking about clarinetist Daniel Gilbert, Kevra said, “His playing is so personal, so incredibly honest. There’s a purity to it. It’s without affectation. He has an emotional depth to his playing. There’s never any feeling that he’s showing off.” Speaking about cellist Edward Aarron and pianist Jeewon Park — Kevra noted that Aarron and Park are married, “You have a married couple playing together. They know each other so well,” she said.

Then there is Theodore Arm, a violinist who has often performed as part of the CCC series. Because he is playing violin, Theodore Arm will have a special role in the Messiaen quartet — a quartet that end with a violin solo that in Kevra’s words, “takes you up to heaven — higher and higher and higher. And just dissipates and goes away. It’s very powerful.”

“The End of Time” quartet is the major work of the evening and the only piece in the second half of the concert, after intermission.

The first half of the concert consists of two offerings a Trio for flute, cello and piano by the German romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber and an early Beethoven Trio for clarinet, cello and piano based on an ancient Viennese street song.

Concert tickets are available at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier or online at www.capitalcityconcerts.org/

A limited number of tickets can be purchased on the night of the concert itself — beginning 40 minutes before the 7:30 p.m. start of the concert — as long as supplies last.

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