By Julian Stuart-Burns and Brandon Zhang
Alexander Fiterstein is currently one of the most acclaimed clarinet players in the world of classical music. He has played with countless classical superstars, has received an array of outstanding reviews, and in 2009 was one of five recipients of the highly sought-after Avery Fisher Career Grant. Given his reputation and the highly compelling program of the concert, his performance at Mandel Hall, titled “Alexander Fiterstein and Friends,” came with hopelessly high expectations. Needless to say, he and his chamber group did not disappoint.
The night started with Weinberg’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (Op. 28), a piece that showcased Fiterstein’s dynamic range and his warm, lyrical tone exceptionally well. Fiterstein noted that the work had been written by a composer whose family was killed in the Holocaust during World War II. The piece is tremendously difficult on the clarinet, requiring extreme stamina and a strong sense of contrast for proper effect. Fiterstein executed even the most difficult, virtuosic sections with profound grace, refusing to compromise his phrasing or tone at any moment. The folky sections were lively and full of surprising yet welcome choices of articulation, driving them forward and giving them an inherent sense of direction, while the quiet moments were intimate and rife with absolutely gorgeous phrasing. The last minute of the second movement—a transitory section where the intricate folk melodies and ghostly harmonies of the movement fade away into a few desperate clarinet notes with tension-heightening chords underneath—was a favorite moment in the program, due to Fiterstein’s breathtaking piano. However, pianist Michael Brown’s forte was annoyingly noisy and legato was severely lacking. All in all, however, the piece was a great appetizer for the performance’s main course.
The second piece of the night was the well-known “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” by Olivier Messiaen. Also known by its English title, “Quartet for the End of Time,” the work was written by the composer while in German captivity as a prisoner of war in 1941. The piece is known for its vigorously dark theme and uncommon instrumentation, at the time of its writing featuring a clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Premiered in a prisoner-of-war camp and performed by fellow prisoners, the piece has become one of Messiaen’s most recognized compositions and stands as a powerful message of art and faith in the face of war and violence.
For Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” Brown and Fiterstein were joined by Elena Urioste and Nicholas Canellakis on violin and cello, respectively. “Quartet for the End of Time” is one of the hallmark pieces composed in the 20th century. It is a grand, all-encompassing work, the central goal of which is to separate music from the confines of time. A great performance of the piece requires an almost absurd amount of contrast—dynamic and otherwise—and absolute cooperation between all members of an ensemble. In response to a UChicago Presents interview question about his fellow musicians, Fiterstein affirmed his confidence in them and the importance of “[trusting] each other, because if you’re playing for the first time…many times it works, but it helps that you’ve rehearsed to a point where you have a certain level of comfort when you go on stage.”
“Fiterstein and Friends” gave a striking performance of this legendary piece. Previously uninteresting parts of the piece sudenly became some of the most thought-provoking sections. The group coalesced into one entity, the sounds of distinct instruments bouncing off each other spectacularly, and creating an atmosphere of transcendence among the audience. The music was, in the truest sense of the word, transportive. A bad or mediocre performance of this piece can feel long, monotonous, and rather dull. But Fiterstein, Urioste, Canellakis, and Brown brought Messiaen’s other-worldly aims to life and let the music escape from the temporal realm.
While the entire performance was nearly flawless, the solo movements were the highlights of the piece. During the solo clarinet movement, “Abîme des oiseaux” (“Abyss of Birds”) Fiterstein showed what he is truly capable of, with his warm, vocal tone resonating beautifully on every note with spotless intonation. He used silence to great effect, slightly exaggerating each of the moments of rest so that the sound had a chance to dissipate completely. When he came back from one of these long rests, his crescendos were so lengthy and gradual that the sound seemed like it was crawling out of the depths of an abyss. By beginning each note with a quiet, harmonics-like tone and gradually increasing its volume to thunderous extremes, Fiterstein demonstrated his masterful and unmatched control of dynamics on the clarinet.
Equally extraordinary was the final movement and violin solo, “Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus” (“Praise to the Immortality of Jesus”), in which Urioste gave a passionate and moving delivery of the piece’s conclusion. Throughout the performance, the four musicians paid careful attention to balance and blend, always ensuring that no instrument rose above the others. It was in ensemble playing that Canellakis uniquely demonstrated his talent in the higher register of the cello, managing to maintain a dominant presence for the entire duration of the performance. Canellakis bathed his performance in vibrato, making the instrument sound as if it were weeping or lamenting. Michael Brown played calmly and with a beautiful tone in the background, never distracting the audience from the lead instrument but instead providing lush harmonic context for the languid melodic figures.
It is no exaggeration to say that Alexander Fiterstein and friends transported the audience at Mandel Hall out of time for the entire 50 minutes of the “Quartet for the End of Time.” Fiterstein is modest in his playing, not allowing his virtuosity to eclipse the music itself. Instead, his virtuosity and profound musical sensibility heighten the music he plays to an unmatched level. While the performance was sublime to say the least, it is the underlying message of melancholic retrospection and artistic resistance against the onslaught of injustice that will remain with the audience long after the violin’s last note.