In the minds of some, Friday was destined to mark the end of the world. For those who gathered for an evening concert called “Quartet for the End of the Apocalypse” in St. Joseph’s University Church, the day marking the completion of the Mayans’ Long Count calendar was an observance of music’s great ability to affirm our humanity and nourish our souls.
Sponsored by local new music collective Wooden Cities, the concert itself was conceived by Christopher Culp, the evening’s clarinetist, who performed alongside three other musicians as the appropriately named Apocalypse Quartet.
The final choice – to make composer Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” the night’s only work – seems obvious, but it showed vital clarity. Given the concert’s purpose of lending perspective to our obsession with apocalypse, it was supremely fitting that this “Quartet” – arguably the most important musical composition of the 20th century – would serve as an aural starting point for meditating on how we deal with “the End.”
Based on the Book of Revelation, the eight-movement “Quartet for the End of Time” (written for cello, clarinet, piano and violin) is above all enigmatic, a scintillating mix of wonder and dread. The audience’s first glimpse of the Apocalypse Quartet’s true potential as an ensemble came early on in the roughly 55-minute piece, with the contrapuntal exchange of trills in “II. Vocalise for the Angel who announces the end of Time.” Elsewhere in the movement, an eerie melody played an octave apart by violinist Ana Vafai and cellist Tyler Borden was given an unsettling sheen by the dissonant chordal accompaniment of pianist Antonella Di Giulio.
“III. Abyss of the Birds,” an entirely solo movement for the clarinetist, finds the piece at its most spiritually galvanizing. Messiaen requires startling diversity in both mood and timbre from the soloist: Culp moved from somber to quizzical to wistful in a matter of seconds.
His affection for and commitment to the composition was plainly evident, the clarinet’s tone seemingly careened from deep and sorrowful to bright and pungent. The articulations ranged from full and rounded to incisive and searing.
In “V. Praise to the Eternity of Jesus,” a stable rhythm in the piano supplied the stasis for the plain-sung beauty of the cello melody, realized with mesmerizing conviction by Borden. The subsequent sixth movement, “Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets,” demands absolute unity among the ensemble in phrasing, dynamics and nuance of articulation. This challenge was broached by the quartet with particular zest and tenacity.
As revealed in the seventh movement, perhaps the most odd and otherworldly element of Messiaen’s music is its ability to communicate exuberance and joy in the midst of turbulence and tension. What was most moving about the Apocalypse Quartet’s performance was how keenly and vivaciously they embodied this enduring paradox. Vafai’s violin solo was distant but not detached, removed but deeply sympathetic.