Tashi performs Carter and Messiaen

tashi at reed college photograph by Jim Leisy

Review by James Bash of concert one of the Carter-Messiaen Project

A concert of new serious music is the most difficult kind of event to sell in Portland, Oregon. Most performances of new music in this town are lucky to draw an audience of a hundred people and most draw only a couple dozen. So, it is encouraging to know that Chamber Music Northwest was financially sound enough to sponsor a series of three contemporary music concerts, which took place over the weekend of January 25-27. The series, entitled “The Carter-Messiaen Project,” featured the music of Elliott Carter and Olivier Messiaen (both of whom were born 100 years ago) performed by Tashi, a super-star ensemble that consists of violinist Ida Kavafian, cellist Fred Sherry, clarinetist Richard Stolzman, and pianist Peter Serkin. I was only able to hear the first concert in the series (on Friday night at Kaul Auditorium), and I was very impressed with the incisive playing and musicality of Tashi and how they can make the most impossible music sing.

Tashi originally formed in 1973 because of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” and made a lasting mark in the contemporary music at a time when everyone else would faint at the thought. Now, some thirty years later the members of Tashi were reunited for this special concert series, and the audience recognized this occasion by giving the foursome an extended and appreciative wave of applause when they first came out on the stage.

The concert began with two arrangements by Charles Wuorinen, which he recomposed for Tashi in 2007. Therefore, this performance marked the world premiere of these pieces. The first piece was an arrangement of Josquin des Prez’s “Ave Maria…virgo Serena” and the second of Thomas Morley’s “Christes Crosse.” The first arrangement stayed fairly close to the music of Prez – very complex and pretty – but not necessarily modern. The second arrangement briefly introduced Morley’s theme and then moved further and further away. Each instrumentalist would interject short bursts of wildness as if someone has just tasered them a little bit. The music was jumpy and exciting and elicited a strong round of applause at the end.

In 1985 Messiaen wrote “Petites esquisses d’oiseaux” (“Small Sketches of Birds”) at the request of his second wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, who gave its premiere in 1987. This piece depicts several European birds: the robin, the blackbird, the song thrush, and the skylark. But instead of being beautifully melodic, each piece conveyed the nervous, flighty nature of these birds. Peter Serkin crisply captured and released each bird with his playing. Especially impressive was how he could suddenly and almost mercurially shift around the keyboard.

Next, Stolzman played Carter’s “Gra” (“To Play”) for solo clarinet. Before he started, Stolzman spread six or more pages of the score over two music stands, because (I think) there was no chance for him to turn a page while playing. The piece was pure whimsy. Notes seemed to drop in and out serendipitously. It was kind of like watching a cat change its mind every three minutes. At one point, Stolzman played two or more notes at the same time. Actually, he did this twice. I guess it’s an example of multiphonics, and it was amazing! What a great piece! What a great musician!

The second half of the program began with a short piece by Carter called “Figment II” for solo cello. This number had Sherry skipping with his hands all over the strings of his cello. The whimsical and enigmatic mood of this piece made it very enjoyable.

The program concluded with Toru Takemitsu’s “Quatrain II.” Takemitsu was so mesmerized by Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time,” that he wrote this piece in response. Tashi seemed to delve really far into this music. It began with all sorts of seemly arbitrary notes that were punctuated by glissandi in the violin and cello parts – all of which built a pensive atmosphere. After a pause the next session contained a seemed rebuild tension from a different perspective. The most memorable thing for me was when Stolzman played an extremely high note that began from far far away – like the next county – and then slowly become more and more present until it was pretty loud. He did this all in one breath, and it was unbelievable. The ensemble took a detour into a dreamy sequence that also featured some high pitches from everyone before they wrapped up the piece. A long pause followed that last note, so that we could savor it, and then there was a sustained round of applause.

All in all, this was a satisfying concert that would be fun to hear again.

[Concerts two and three were reviewed by the editor of Asymmetry Music Magazine]

Saturday’s concert was practically sold out, owing largely, I am sure, to the Messiaen quartet that was the reason Tashi was formed in the first place. (I saw at least one LP of that floating around the lobby.) This concert also opened with a Wourinen transcription, this one a solo piano piece, which Serkin played rather stiffly, I thought. It was certainly well-received—we hadn’t even begun to finish applauding it before Peter was back at the keyboard and tearing ferociously into the fiendishly difficult and energetic Intermittences by Elliott Carter, which he wrote for Peter Serkin in 2005. Intermittences falls into three fairly clear sections, the middle one being the softer and gentler of the three, but all of them are characterized by savagely virtuosic passages alternating with subdued ones—pretty much what one would expect from a piece with that title. This piece was not played stiffly in the least, just by the way!

Then, at long last, Ida Kavafian got her solo, Carter’s Rhapsodic Musings, which for all its energy and expressive range, is quite a charming, I almost said delicate, piece. Of course, le mot juste for the piece is mercurial, but Ida’s playing is so sensitive and precise, that one carries away the overriding impression of care and delicacy.

This was followed by a trio for violin, cello, and clarinet, as if Tashi were determined to show off every possible combination of the four players. (Next time, some duos for clarinet and violin and clarinet and cello?) The trio, Con Leggerezza Pensosa – Omaggio a Italo Calvino, contains moments of fierce energy—especially in the cello part. But one is more struck with the kaleidoscopic changes, the hairs-breadth coordinations between disparate rhythms, the moments of preternatural stillness, the superb control it takes to play this well, and the uncanny nonchalance with which these three made it all seem so easy and natural.

Tashi has been associated with Messiaen’s Quatour pour la fin du temps since they formed in ’73 to play it. Their LP of that has been a staple of many collections, mine included. Many of us began our acquaintance with the music of Messiaen not only with this piece but with this recording.

If anyone expected them to duplicate that performance—this was, after all, a reunion concert—they got something quite other, for what we got was a brand-new performance of the quartet, in which every detail—every note, every phrase, every dynamic, every tempo, every balance—had been carefully and lovingly rethought. It was a revelatory performance, and I consider myself fortunate to have heard it. Judging from the applause, I was not alone!

The final concert of the series, on Sunday afternoon, was a vastly entertaining mix of video and live performance, video of Carter and his lovely and charming wife as well as footage of Stravinsky and Boulez interspersed with performances of Carter’s music, the 1948 sonata for cello and piano, the 1984 Riconoscenza per Goffredo Petrassi for violin, and the 1974 Duo for violin and piano. Fred Sherry, who had put this show together, was there to play the cello, along with violin Rolf Schulte and piano Stephen Gosling. Both of these latter were well up to their tasks, I am happy to report.

All in all (to borrow a phrase), a very satisfying three concerts.

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