By Hannah Edgar
Despite the cheery billing (“Alexander Fiterstein and Friends”), the chamber musicians who convened at Mandel Hall on Friday night didn’t exactly present light-hearted fare.
In his first University of Chicago Presents appearance in four years, clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein joined colleagues Michael Brown (piano), Nicholas Canellakis (cello), and Elena Urioste (violin) for two weighty World War II-era works borne from turmoil.
Olivier Messiaen wrote and performed his Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time) with fellow prisoners of war in a concentration camp in 1941. Four years later, living in the Soviet Union, Polish–Jewish composer Mieczysław Weinberg wrote his Clarinet Sonata, shortly after his entire immediate family had been killed in the Holocaust.
However, as Fiterstein noted in his brief pre-performance comments, there are moments of levity, even transcendence in both brooding works. Thanks to insightful performances from he and his colleagues, the journey towards those moments of light was as gratifying as the moments themselves.
The Weinberg sonata especially keys into this dark–light duality: the three-movement work is shot through with bitter humor, as essential as it is inexorable. Though Shostakovich casts a long shadow over this work, as in others by Weinberg, it’s a fine testament to the younger composer’s talents, often eclipsed by contemporaries like Khachaturian and Schnittke. (Weinberg is best known to Chicago audiences for his opera The Passenger, performed at Lyric Opera in 2015.)