In the grand scheme of things, a 90-minute delay shouldn’t mean much in a concert program spanning from the world’s creation to its end. And at least to this attendee, a concert that suggested a tighter framework of Saturday-night reverie into Sunday-morning reverence felt right beginning a bit later in the night. Flight delays caused the start time for the Israeli Chamber Project’s Merkin Hall concert, titled "From Creation to the End of Time", to be pushed back from 19:30 to 21:00 (attendees were notified by email that afternoon). Despite what must have been a taxing day, the musicians delivered a spirited set of works from the first half of the last century by three French composers who perhaps have come to seem more conventional by virtue of the conventions they helped to establish.

Israeli Chamber Project
© Yael Ilan

Before the crux of the evening Milhaud’s – La Création du monde (1922-23) and Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941) – ICP flautist Guy Eshed played Debussy’s 1913 Syrinx in darkness (the piece is to be performed out of view of the audience). The brief work perhaps allows for considerable interpretation on the part of the performer, and Eshed took it at a relaxed and breezy pace, belying the tensions the musicians must have felt in the hours before showtime. 

It’s hard to deny a level of cultural appropriation in La Création when seen through a contemporary lens. The work was based on African folk mythology about the origins of the world and musically inspired by the jazz Milhaud heard on a trip to the United States in 1922. It’s also difficult not to hear the continued influence of New Orleans by way of Paris in the music George Gershwin would soon be writing. Scored by the composer for an 18-piece orchestra, the ICP played it in their own quintet arrangement (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano), bringing out the jazz roots in the piece. Following what was set forth in Syrinx, they took the Milhaud at a warm and easy stride. The stripped-down instrumentation brought out the rich harmonies embedded in the work, especially in Tibi Cziger’s clarinet. 

Such tactics, however, didn’t seem to serve the final piece of the night. The end of time isn’t the cause for celebration that the beginning of it is, and the quartet (without Eshed) struck an awkward imbalance between the relative swing of the first half and Messiaen’s austere demands. Cziger’s interpretive glissandi and blue notes didn’t match the requisite starkness of the work, nor did they mesh with the somber reading of other sections – in particular the fifth movement, Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus, for cello (Michal Korman) and piano (Assaff Weisman). Messiaen gives that section the wonderful tempo marking of "infinitely slow", for which they slowed from the unfortunate trot maintained for most of the eight movements. While Messiaen was interested in abandoning strict counts even in this relatively early piece, the work was meant to represent the end of time, not conflicting times. The musicians played wonderfully beginning to end, but perhaps going from the dawn to the dusk of human existence without so much as an intermission was a bit much to take on for the jetlagged ensemble.