For the past ten years, adventurous indie classical chamber group Ensemble Pi have played an annual “peace concert,” featuring socially relevant compositions from across the years as well as most of the classical music spectrum. This year’s sold-out multimedia performance Saturday night in the comfortable downstairs auditorium at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street explored music and writing on themes of captivity and imprisonment. In an era when the Guantanamo Bay gulag is still open, and in a city where atrocities on Rikers Island have recently come to light, it was especially relevant, played with equal amounts vividness and attention to the underlying content. Which was harrowing.
Group impresario/pianist Idith Meshulam led a sextet comprising cellist Alexis Gerlach, clarinetist Moran Katz, violinist Airi Yoshioka, trumpeter Sycil Mathai and vibraphonist Bill Trigg through the thorny, endlessly looping Coming Together, Frederic Rzewski’s portrait of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. An illustration of the crushing tedium and repetition of prison life, it’s cruelly difficult difficult to play. But Meshulam and her steely right hand were undaunted by the challenge of its endlessly metronomic pulse and dizzying permutations. Meanwhile, actor Joseph Assadourian narrated the text, a similarly looping quote from a letter by inmate Sam Melville, killed when troops and police stormed the prison. Later in the program, Assadourian provided his own blackly amusing chronicle of arbitrary judicial conduct in New York criminal court.
Eleanor Cory‘s poignant, carefully voiced short work Riker’s Island, for piano, clarinet, cello and violin, was preceded by a similarly troubling account of women’s prison, read by poet Ashley Mote. The program wound up auspiciously with an unexpectedly and very strongly dynamic rendition of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, in fact so dynamic that it seemed as if the group was playing it at a much faster tempo than it was written for. As it turned out, they didn’t, but the effect was visceral. Messiaen famously composed it in the men’s latrine in a Nazi prison camp in 1941, not knowing that he’d survive or be released. its instrumentation derives from the fact that clarinet, violin, cello and piano just happened to be the instruments played by the prisoners who debuted it.
Considering how unorthodox this lineup is, the piece is relatively rarely staged. It’s even harder for a musician to wrap his or her hands around since the group playing it is usually a pickup band, more or less. But Meshulam and the rest of her quartet left no doubt that they’d internalized Messiaen’s angst, and muted terror, and also his defiance. On the surface, like pretty much everything else the composer wrote, it traces a liturgical theme, but it’s also the story of a successful prison break. Katz animatedly voiced the birdsong beyond Messiaen’s cell window, not to mention his anguish at not being able to see his feathered friends…and all the subtext that image carries. Likewise, Meshulam scampered animatedly through the tiptoeing, furtive theme that recurs just before the rapt, awestruck conclusion – which seemed to pass by in a heartbeat rather than lingering as other groups tend to do with it. It’s hard to think of a more apt way to close such an impactful, meaningful program.