Caravaggio famously illuminated bright (if brutal) figures that pop almost three-dimensionally against tenebrous backgrounds. Analogously, the dark conditions inside the POW camp wherein Olivier Messiaen wrote his Quartet pour la fin du temps — a resplendent proclamation of pious love — render the piece even more remarkable and profound.
Both Caravaggio’s technique (chiaroscuro) and Messiaen’s masterpiece inspired Andy Akiho to write Lost on Chiaroscuro Street. World-class chamber musicians premiered his work at Menlo-Atherton Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, a sunny day in late May marking the last of Music@Menlo’s “Winter” series. The program included Messiaen’s Quartet as well as Ravel’s Piano Trio.
Like a large Italian altarpiece, it was outstanding and substantial.
Ravel thought about his Piano Trio in A Minor (1914) for years. Once he actually started writing it, though, he had to finish fast: Like Messiaen would do in WWII, Ravel enlisted in the French army for WWI. Beginning the program with Ravel’s piece established a baseline for the more typical instrumentation of piano, violin, and cello to which both ensuing pieces would add clarinet.
Some listeners hear influences of French Basque folk music in Ravel’s Trio. Regardless, cellist Mihai Marica beautifully introduced the first movement’s main theme, and violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky did the same with the second. The inner movement, a scherzo, involves bouncy pizzicato — so bouncy that Sitkovetsky was (endearingly) wont to lift a little off his seat. Pianist Wu Qian set the dramatic mood of the finale in the piano’s low register. The program notes indicated that the piano score for the finale spans three staves. Qian could likely manage six.
Akiho first saw paintings by Italian masters during his residency in Rome as the winner of the 2014–15 Luciano Berio Prize. By contrast, he had long been familiar with Messiaen’s quartet. It is one of his favorite pieces — in fact, it inspired him to become a composer.
While the two works are unique products of their respective times, Lost on Chiaroscuro Street is scored for the Messiaen quartet of piano, violin, cello, and clarinet. Like the visual-art technique the title references, Akiho aims for his piece to prioritize contrasting sections of light and dark. It was commissioned by Music@Menlo, and dedicated by Trine Sorenson to commemorate Michael Jacobson’s 60th birthday.
Lost on Chiaroscuro Street has two main movements, each surrounded by a prelude, postlude, and interlude. Akiho’s primary instrument is the steel drum, and his intimacy with rhythmic complexity shows. Several sections are built from asynchronously layered rhythmic profiles, each sufficiently intense that maintaining them sometimes gave the performers unkempt Beethoven hair. But Lost on Chiaroscuro Street also has gorgeous melodies. Performed by the gifted David Shifrin, the interlude’s plaintive clarinet solo felt like fingerpainting with melted chocolate. Arguably, it channeled the third movement (also a clarinet solo) in Messiaen’s Quartet.
Like Athena springing from the head of Zeus, the implausible creation story behind Messiaen’s Quartet bears markings of myth. The soldier-prisoner-composer wrote it while interred at Stalag VIII-A with the help of an anti-Nazi guard who secured supplies and the necessary space and silence for creative thought. A devout Catholic, Messiaen drew his idea for this eight-movement work from the Book of Revelation. An angel donning an eclectic wardrobe of fire, cloud, and rainbow descends from heaven to announce the end of both time and the mystery of God. In subzero temperatures, Messiaen played piano while premiering the piece alongside three fellow prisoners, while a diverse and inclusive audience of guards and prisoners sat enraptured.
Particularly as heard live on Sunday, the work truly is exquisite and enthralling. It began with Shifrin imitating birdcalls amid music evoking the serenity of noticing nature before others awaken. The penultimate movement represents what the composer describes as “blue-orange lava” adamantly announcing the end of time. But the piece is hardly all doom and gloom. The fifth and the final movements are glorious solo string lauds that — when played by Marica and Sitkovetsky — provide a ready answer to that cloying cocktail-party question about requisite music for living as a happy hermit on a deserted island.
A new “Summer” festival season starts in July (perhaps it ends in late January). Like visiting Rome and experiencing Caravaggio in the flesh, I am consistently astonished when I hear live performances presented by Music@Menlo.