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[whitespace] Stopping Time

The San Jose Chamber Orchestra reached for spiritual heights in performance of Messiaen's 'Quartet for the End of Time'

By Scott MacClelland

ETERNITY WEARS many faces. For Tim Robbins on Sunday night it was an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. For French prisoner of war Olivier Messiaen in 1941, it appeared as an ecstatic work he named Quartet for the End of Time. Several of those who were unable to share in Robbins' golden moment showed up at Le Petit Trianon to witness Messiaen's apprehension of eternity as presented by members of Barbara Day Turner's San Jose Chamber Orchestra. This "Concert Spirituel" included In Pace by Rene Clausen, excerpts from The Psalms of Ra by Jim Berenholtz and the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony.

In an unfair programming choice, the eight-movement, 50-minute Messiaen made everything else sound insignificant. Even at that, violinist Cynthia Baehr and cellist Lucinda Breed Lenicheck were taken to the edges of their abilities by the technically treacherous writing. (Messiaen's voice leading is as distinctive as it is counterintuitive.) Clarinetist Janet Averett and pianist Craig Bohmler were also challenged by music of simple utterance and total exposure. (The odd instrumentation represents those musicians of skill and availability in a Silesian internment camp during World War II.)

Inspired by the Revelation of St. John, Messiaen reconciled his ecstatic vision with allusions to the bird songs that held his interest lifelong. The dance episodes, while startlingly syncopated, are easy work compared with the glacially paced meditations. But while the strings gain the support of the piano, the "Abyss of the Birds," for clarinet unaccompanied, is a technical Mt. Everest for single-reed specialists. It often shows up in clarinet competitions and auditions, not least for the several extraordinary crescendos that emerge seamlessly out of silence and swell on a single note to fortissimo. Averett, well known in Silicon Valley music, played it magnificently, totally without vibrato and pitch perfect.

Rene Clausen is a one-man choral-music empire, a Moorhead, Minn., counterpart to Britain's John Rutter, the choirmaster who composes and arranges prolifically, conducts in concerts and recordings, leads workshops and masters classes and sells it all through his own website. For the San Jose concert, Daniel Hughes' 33-member Choral Project sang Clausen's sonorously dense tapestry In Pace of 1997.

Then a strange thing happened. Jim Berenholtz' setting of Psalm 104, from his multimovement Psalms of Ra (2004), was played by the string orchestra in a transcription of the text-driven piece. But without anyone singing the words, it was impossible to know how faithful was Turner's interpretation. This dangerous path certainly showed off the rich sound of the orchestra in the flattering acoustic, but the piece itself was ultimately incoherent. In the second except, "Blue Star," flutist Viviana Guzman--in chartreuse chiffon and royal blue velvet--improvised on a scale over a bed of string improvisations on two alternating, assigned notes. In a word, voluptuous.

Turner's interpretation of Mahler's love letter to his wife was both vivid and affective. The San Jose Chamber Orchestra has recently released two fine CDs, one program each of works by Berenholtz and Bohmler.

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From the March 3-10, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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