“Timelessness” was the attribute emphasized by Alan Gilbert in his program note for Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a curious description, given that the music requires its performers to manipulate fiendishly complex permutations of time.

Alan Gilbert © Chris Lee
Alan Gilbert
© Chris Lee
Messiaen’s work is significant, in part, for its break with conventional meter. It employs an elastic arithmetic that produces rhythmic palindromes, which – by adding or subtracting subtle note values – can be read forward or backward in exactly the same way. Of course, the audience need not observe this in order to appreciate the piece. Rather, Messiaen’s musical innovations strike listeners with a kind of meditative simplicity.

The quartet topped off the New York Philharmonic’s Messiaen Week, during which maestro Gilbert traded his baton for a bow, to play violin alongside the Philharmonic’s principal cellist and clarinetist Carter Brey and Anthony McGill (respectively), and the orchestra’s Artist-in-Association, the pianist Inon Barnatan. Meanwhile the week’s orchestral conducting was left to the Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence (and heir-no-longer-apparent) Esa-Pekka Salonen.

As a whole, the concert bore Gilbert’s distinct imprimatur: high-concept, cerebral, and set in a New York City landmark outside the traditional concert hall. Gilbert has played violin or viola with the Philharmonic’s chamber ensembles about once every season during his tenure as Music Director. He described Messiaen as one of his personal “heroes” and seemed to relish the challenge of playing this eight-movement anomaly.

The program also reflected the proclivities of the Met's general manager of concerts and lectures Limor Tomer. Since assuming her role at the museum in 2011, she has made a point of staging performances in the building’s galleries. She recently told The Washington Post that, in this way, the events “behave like exhibitions, not like concerts.” The Quartet for the End of Time took place at the foot of the Temple of Dendur. The 2,000-year-old Egyptian structure possesses unquestionable visual appeal, and the surrounding glass enclosure had surprisingly fine acoustics, with the exception of its unfriendliness to the clarinet’s lower register.

Today, the story behind Messiaen’s chamber work has become legendary. While he was imprisoned as a conscripted French soldier in 1941, the professor of harmony from the Paris Conservatoire persuaded a sympathetic Nazi guard to provide him with pencil and paper, which he used to compose a chamber work for the musicians (and the instruments) at his disposal: violin, clarinet, cello, and (later) a mouldering piano. It was first performed outside on a cold, rainy day within the prisoner camp.

Replete with sweeping solo passages and Christian symbols, the quartet depicts the apocalypse as described by the Book of Revelation. In that text, sound endures even after time stands still. The Philharmonic players approached this mystifying idea with utmost sensitivity, as birdsongs enveloped the opening "Crystal Liturgy.”

Messiaen’s vision of the apocalypse is gentler than most. However, the clarinetist Anthony McGill’s clarion “Angel Who Announces the End of Time” provided one if its more frightening outbursts. McGill appeared equally skilled and spellbound as he howled his way through the solo "Abyss of birds," which features shapeshifting notes sustained for inhumanly long durations.  

Likewise, the cellist Carter Brey displayed a remarkable ability to transform the character of a note midway through. His tender "Praise of the Eternal Nature of Jesus" was the highlight of the entire concert for me. The movement spilled over with a single ascending figure that Messiaen described as "infinitely slow", only to melt away like an ebb tide.

The performers thankfully left a moment for reflection before attacking the unison “Dance of Fury, for the Seven Trumpets”. To my ears, this movement has an inappropriate clownish feel, with its mimicking of gongs and trumpets. Still, Inon Barnatan’s crisp style was quite well suited to its percussive nature.

Messiaen was a synesthete who described notes as “blue-orange lava” and a “tangle of rainbows”. Even in a small ensemble, color meant everything. The Philharmonic’s quartet fully embraced this idea, and presented a full spectrum with just four instruments.

The work closed with the skeletal "Praise the Immortality of Jesus", scored for violin and piano ostinato. Here, Alan Gilbert had his moment to speak alone with the audience. His voice came across, at times, as deliberately feeble and exhausted – but, above all, honest and pure. Like Messiaen, who may appear overly analytical in certain contexts, maestro Gilbert has the capacity with some repertoire to ascend into ethereal realms. For him, this quartet supplied such an opportunity.

What’s next for the outgoing Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, who plans to leave his perch in 2017? It’s unclear as yet, but this program reflected both his legacy with the institution and the gifts that he will carry down the road.

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