Fiterstein, colleagues bring light to musical darkness at Mandel Hall

Sat Nov 17, 2018 at 11:23 am

By Hannah Edgar

Alexander Fiterstein performed chamber music of Weinberg and Messiaen Friday night at Mandel Hall.

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 the clarinetist 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.)

As the sonata progressed through its emotional passages, Fiterstein’s timbre shifted, from a silky ribbon of sound in the first movement’s nostalgia to a keening, harder edge. He played the klezmer-influenced second movement earthily, opting for a no-frills sound, centered by a virtuosic, agitated cadenza.

The piano is a true partner in Weinberg’s sonata, and a compelling narrative voice—never more so than in the stentorian, recitative-like statement opening the third movement. Under Brown’s fingers it was simultaneously fearsome and thoughtful.

Michael Brown, Elena Urioste and Nicholas Canellakis. Photo: Matt Dine

Canellakis and Urioste joined Brown and Fiterstein for the Messiaen, whose varying instrumentation offers spotlight moments for each musician. 

In the unaccompanied “Abîme des oiseaux,” Fiterstein explored the remarkable dynamic range of the clarinet, melting seamlessly to silence and swelling to a hall-filling bird call.  Urioste’s fervent yet intimate devotional in the concluding “Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus,” reduced the hall to a rapt quiet. 

In his cello solo in “Louange à l’Eternité de Jésus,” a major arrival point in the work, Canellakis’s playing felt a bit too extroverted next to his colleagues: crescendos maxed out too soon, with a uniformly rapid but somewhat wide vibrato that didn’t quite fit the music. The approach seemed more fitting in the more pleading, urgent “Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps.”

Brown, Canellakis, and Urioste have toured as a trio together, and that familiarity showed in stellar ensemble work in the full-quartet movements. From the complicated interlocking rhythms and kaleidoscopic sonic effects of  the “l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps” movements, to the unison melody in “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes,” the musicians were deeply attuned both to one another and the mysticism of Messiaen’s score.

A remarkable performance of this work can feel like it stops time or exists outside of it. So it was in Mandel Hall on Friday night.

The Grossman Ensemble, resident group of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, makes its debut 7:30 p.m. December 7 at the Logan Center for the Arts.; 773-702-2787.

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