I only ended up making it to one of the two concerts I intended to this past Sunday - and was late at that - but it was clearly the one not to miss. Tashi, a quartet that first played together over thirty-five years ago, consists of the world's leading clarinetist (Richard Stoltzman), one of the world's leading pianists (Peter Serkin), the world's foremost contemporary music cellist (Fred Sherry) and the former violinist of the Beaux Arts Trio (Ida Kavafian). They broke the mold in more ways than one: they performed in casual
clothes, wore long hair, and were the first classical group to appear at a New York
nightclub, playing the now-defunct Bottom Line.
These four formidable musicians joined forces with one particular piece of music in mind: Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. They studied the piece directly with Messiaen, and would end up performing it over 200 times during the five years of their existence, producing a best-selling recording that is still considered the gold standard. (Alex Ross considers it one of the top ten classical recordings ever made.) They decided to reunite for the centennial of Messiaen's birth, choosing the Free For All at Town Hall series to make their first New York appearance in over thirty years.
The quartet, split into eight sections and nearly an hour in length, was written by Messiaen in a WWII prisoner camp, scored for the musicians he had at his disposal. (Messiaen himself played piano.) It lives in a mysterious, otherworldly soundscape, alternately soothing and terrifying, astringent and tonal. Serkin - a master of Messiaen's notoriously difficult piano music - exploded onto the keyboard, lurching across his bench in fits of energy. Stoltzman played the long solo of the 3rd section with astonishing authority and grace. The fifth section had Sherry playing sad and tender, full of quavering notes that mirrored the cold, harsh conditions of the camp. In between, there were dissonant blasts and brute fortissimos that sent meeker patrons fleeing for the exits.
The final section is an intimate, achingly beautiful passage for violin and piano. Soft and gentle, it rises slowly towards its spiritual conclusion: here, finally, Messiaen leads us to refuge. Kavafian and Serkin created some real magic, leaving the audience of over a thousand in stunned silence for a full minute after the final notes wafted into the balcony. It was a moment those of us present will not soon forget.
If you missed them, the closest place you'll be able to catch Tashi over the next few months is at Tanglewood, where they'll be playing on August 7. I've actually got a ticket to that one, which I bought before the Town Hall show was announced - feel free to contact me if you're interested.