The Nasher Sculpture Center’s Soundings concert series on Saturday comemmorated the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death with a show at City Performance Hall that included a work commissioned for the occasion.
Curated by pianist Seth Knopp, artistic director of Yellow Barn, Vermont’s summer chamber music laboratory, the Soundings series presents music that leans toward contemporary music on the “experimental” side.
Such was the case Saturday night; the Nasher, Yellow Barn and Carnegie Hall together commissioned a string quartet from rock band guitarist turned distinguished composer Steven Mackey. It was performed by the Brentano String Quartet, the chamber group with whom the 2013 Cliburn competition semifinalists played at Bass Hall in Fort Worth.
The three sections of One Red Rose, Mackey’s difficult and dissonant quartet — “Five Short Studies,” “Fugue and Fantasy” and “Anthem and Aria” — received a mostly convincing performance. Recorded speeches helped, but the Kennedy connection was vague.
This longish piece was a musical kaleidoscope, with elements constantly reconfiguring. Every sound, such as string snaps and buzzing, was explored. Mackey contrasted virtuoso flights with muted contemplation. String quartets love new pieces, so this work may have a future, divorced from its initial concept.
The other two other pieces explored both the ephemeral and unmeasurable concept of time, as defined by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant.
Olivier Messiaen’s deeply religious Quartet for the End of Time occupied the first half of the program. The quartet (piano, violin, cello and clarinet), derives from a passage about the end of time in the biblical book of Revelation. The work was written and first performed in 1944 while Messiaen was in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. Time moves both excruciatingly slowly and quite quickly, at different times, in this 50-minute piece.
It was masterfully played by Knopp, Brentano violinist Mark Steinberg and cellist Nina Lee, and clarinetist Charles Neidic. Some said the addition of recorded quotes from Kennedy’s political speeches added power, but others found them a worldly intrusion into the divine.
John Cage’s 4’33” (“four minutes, thirty-three seconds”) opened the second half. That is that amount of time the players sit in silence while the audience supplies the sounds. We were too quiet.