It is the day of our Howells concert, and predictably many of us started off the day with the 11 a.m. chamber music concert. Michael Bennet, tenor, was thrilled to hear one of his favorite pieces of all time – Sextet for Piano and Winds in C major, Op. 100 by Fracis Poulenc. There was also a piece by Richard Strauss which was a nice programmatic mirror to the Joseph Lanner pieces from yesterday’s performance. Following the Strauss was a Mozart String Quartet (K 421 in D minor) whose tragic temperament was transmitted wordlessly throughout the hall. The emotional quakes of the Mozart were a somewhat preparatory gesture, though – an introduction to the sonic grief of Alisa Weilerstein’s performance of the solo cello movement (“Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus”) from Oliver Messiaen’s Quatuor pour a la fin du temps (Quartet for the end of time).
Messiaen was 31 years old when he was captured by the German army during WWII, and it was during his time in a prison camp that he composed the work. A sympathetic guard gave the composer some paper and a pencil, and Messiaen scored the work for clarinet, cello, and violin, as there were other musicians that were prisoners and these were their instruments. Messiaen himself was the pianist. The piece was first performed outdoors in the rain on January 15, 1941, with broken instruments, to an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and their guards. Messiaen said of the performance: “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”
Alisa Weilerstein is an absolute rock-star cellist (which we have witnessed in other chamber music concerts). For this performance, she was subdued, subtle, embracing her instrument as an extension of herself – a sounding for her own pain and sorrow, and for the collective’s, which she laid bare for the audience. It was not flashy, but it was electric, and by the time she finished, a majority of the listeners were visibly, emotionally shaken. As enraptured as I was, I was thankful for the music to end so that I could drop the veil over the sorrow, which Weilerstein has so courageously lifted during those long minutes.
In the afternoon, the choir was called to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist to prepare for the concert.
This will be our first performance at Spoleto that is not the opera, the works will require the choir to lay out their hearts for the listening audience. Tarik O’Regan’s The Ecstasies Above features an octet of singers from the choir, and sopranos Madeline Apple Healey and Anna Lenti exquisitely execute atmospheric lines that feel painfully human in their longing for divine bliss. Following this, basses Giancarlo D’Elia, Andrew Maggio, Myles Glancy and Brandon Waddles bring us back down to earth very literally with a low E drone that is the foundation for John Tavener’s Svyati. The program ends with Howells Requiem, and soloists Allison Miller, soprano, Melissa Richardson, alto, Jeff Cutts, tenor, and Ryan Brown, baritone, bring the corporate grief of the work to the individual.
Many friends and family members were in attendance at the concert, as were many of the principals from Kepler, including alumna Leah Wool. It is an extraordinary experience to begin a day as a listener, deeply moved by another performer’s artistry and depth of loyalty to the composer, and to end the day as the artist with the opportunity to provide that same sense of wonder to the audience you serve.
Our Westminster Choir community has suffered a great deal of personal loss this year. There have been a number of deaths in the families of our members, and performing the Howells serves for us as a musical comfort for the pain of these losses. Making music is a wonderful way to spend a life, but it is far from easy. It is often necessary for a musician to control his or her personal anguish so as to execute fully the art, but to remain open to the pain so as to never be mechanical. It is a testament to the maturity of the artist when he or she is able to strike this balance, and is able to use every experience of living, however painful, and an inroad to a selfless expression of the music.