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Left Coast Chamber Ensemble to play Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time,’ plus San Martin’s companion piece

Members of the group Left Coast Chamber Ensemble — Anna Presler (violin), Eric Zivian (piano), Tanya Tomkins (cello) and Jerry Simas (clarinet) — will be performing in the concert at the Mondavi Center on Saturday, May 11. Courtesy photo

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From page A11 | May 07, 2013 |

Check it out

What: Left Coast

Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre, Mondavi Center

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $20 general, $8 for students

Info: Visit www.mondaviarts.org or call 530-754-2787

Four members of the Bay Area-based Left Coast Chamber Ensemble will perform at the Mondavi Center at 2 p.m. Saturday, presenting the well-known “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (“Quartet for the End of Time”) by the French composer Olivier Messiaen, and a more recent piece by composer Laurie San Martin of UC Davis, written for the same instruments as the Messiaen piece, which served as inspiration.

During 1940, while Europe was in the throes of World War II, Messiaen (1908-92) was interned in a German prison camp, where he discovered among his fellow prisoners a clarinetist, a violinist and a cellist, and Messiaen was a pianist. Given that these were the only musical resources available under very difficult circumstances, Messiaen proceeded to obtain a supply of paper and a pencil (through the assistance of a sympathetic guard) and composed his “Quartet for the End of Time” for those four instruments.

Messiaen and his friends first performed the piece for an audience of prisoners and guards at the camp on Jan. 15, 1941, using instruments that were not in the best repair, including a rickety piano. The piece was recorded after the war ended, and has become one of Messiaen’s best-known works.

While the facts of the work’s origins are straightforward and simple, the spiritual nature of Messiaen’s quartet is more complex. Messiaen’s sense of religious mysticism was attracted to a passage in the Book of Revelation (chapter 10) about the descent of the seventh angel, at the sound of whose trumpet the mystery of God will be consummated, and who announces “that there should be time no longer.”

According to the composer, the quartet was intended not to be a commentary on the apocalypse, nor to refer to his own captivity, but to be a kind of musical extension of the biblical account, and of the concept of the end of time as the end of past and future and the beginning of eternity.

The musical architecture of the quartet includes eight movements, because God rested on the seventh day after creation, a day that extended into the eighth day of timeless eternity. The movements within the piece also include intricate thematic relationships, as for example between movements two and seven, both of which are about the angel; and stylistic and theological relationships, as between movements five and eight.

Messiaen’s quartet has inspired any number of composers in the decades that followed, including San Martin, who took part in a performance of the piece in 1991, an experience she said left the music “simmering in my mind for years.” Later, San Martin got the opportunity to compose a new piece of her own for the same four instruments that Messiaen had used in his quartet: San Martin’s ‘Objets Trouvés’ was written for the Left Coast Chamber with the idea that it could be played as a companion piece alongside the Messiaen.

While Messiaen’s music provided the inspiration, “There were only a few instances where I actually took out the Messiaen score and stole a measure or two,” San Martin said. “Most of the references are less concrete, and are not necessarily noticeable.”

She added that ” ‘Objets’ is in three movements (fast-slow-fast). What’s unusual about the first movement is how long the audience has to wait for the clarinet to enter. When the clarinet does finally come in, it takes over with a long solo section that is free, lyrical and erratic, similar to the third movement of ‘Quatuor.’ Gradually the other players join the clarinet and return to the brisk unsettled music from the opening.

The second movement is slow and lyrical, memorable for the steady eighth-note accompanimental pattern in the piano (which is an arpeggiation of Messiaen-like chords). The last movement is a tour de force. It begins with an explosion of energy and continues to an intense climax. The piece closes with a return of the serene music from movement two.”

Four members of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble will perform these pieces by Messiaen and San Martin: Anna Presler (violin), Tanya Tomkins (cello), Jerry Simas (clarinet) and Eric Zivian (piano).

The concert will begin at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at the Mondavi Center. Tickets are $20 general, $8 for students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.

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