A new work commissioned by the Gryphon Trio takes inspiration from Messiaen’s wartime work
On May 9, at the Banff Centre in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, the renowned Gryphon Trio and clarinettist James Campbell performed Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – with a twist. Preceding the work, which Messiaen wrote while he was a Prisoner of War and which he premiered with a group of fellow prisoners on January 15, 1941, was Echoes of Time – a Gryphon-commissioned work from Toronto-based composer Alexina Louie. The work will act as a prelude to a new 40-minute play that tells the story of how Messiaen composed his seminal work. The play has been written by London-based writer Mieczysława Wazacz, will be directed by her sister Helena Kaut-Howson and will eventually become part of the Gryphon Trio’s touring repertoire.
Messiaen’s wartime composition, inspired by the tribulations of his internment and his fascination with the Book of Revelation’s prophesy of the end of time, is one of the great works in the chamber music repertoire. When Louie agreed to the Gryphon commission, she was excited. The Gryphon Trio has commissioned at least 60 new works, but this would be Louie’s first for them.
As she began to write, though, it dawned on her that her piece would be up for comparison with the Messiaen masterpiece. ‘At first I thought, what a great opportunity. This is going to be fun. And then when I started it, I said, “Oh my God, what have I done?” It’s the greatest piece for chamber ensemble that’s possibly ever been written. What am I going to do? And it’s going to be on the same programme.’
She says the trepidation caused her many false starts. ‘This piece might have had more pages thrown out as I was writing than any other piece that I have worked on.’ Her first efforts sounded derivative: ‘It’s hard not to be slavishly devoted to the piece.’
Eventually, she found her way towards a balance between originality and humility, and the result that I heard on Wednesday evening was brimming with the Messiaen spirit, but did make its own mark, echoing Messiaen’s distinctive musical bursts of violence and his exploration of shards of unexpected scales and agitated, angst-ridden rhythms.
The concert opened with Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov’s Fugitive Visions of Mozart, a series of six achingly beautiful miniatures that gave us our ration of hummable sweetness and light for the evening. Silvestrov’s music, except for a few short, surprising bursts of forte attack and occasional poignant punctuating dissonance, would be the perfect music to soothe a child to sleep.
The performance of the Messiaen clearly captivated the 150 or so people who sat positively silent in the Rolston Recital Hall. It was my first live performance of the Quartet for the End of Time, an unforgettable experience. Among the highlights was watching Campbell fend his way through the treacherous musical meditation 'Abîme des oiseaux'.
All the repertoire performed has been recorded for the Gryphon Trio’s 20th-anniversary disc (their 16th recording), to be released on Analekta in the autumn. I have no doubt the disc will reinforce the Trio’s already distinguished reputation.
Bill Rankin is a Canadian freelance writer who has reported on opera and classical music for the American Record Guide, Opera Canada, the Edmonton Journal, the Globe and Mail and Gramophone.