Presenting the chamber ensemble Tashi in a program focused on Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” McCarter Theater brings an event of mythic proportions to Princeton on Thursday, April 24. Consisting of violin, clarinet, cello, and piano, Tashi reunites for the first time in 30 years to play the Messiaen piece that led to the ensemble’s creation.
Formed in 1973, Tashi consists of Ida Kavafian, violin; Richard Stoltzman, clarinet; Fred Sherry, cello; and Peter Serkin, piano. Tashi was the first classical ensemble to play in a nightclub when they performed the Messiaen Quartet at the Bottom Line in New York City. This year the ensemble commemorates the composer’s 100th birthday in concerts where the Quartet is central. Pieces by Charles Wuorinen, Elliott Carter, and Toru Takemitsu, most of them written for Tashi, make up the first half of the program.
Pianist Messiaen wrote “Quartet for the End of Time” in 1941, during his captivity as a German prisoner-of-war in Stalag VIII A, a camp near the Polish border. Music-loving guards at the camp, recognizing Messiaen’s name, assigned him to an empty barrack and provided him with pencils, erasers, and music manuscript paper so that he could compose. Composing was Messiaen’s way of rising above his imprisonment. “I composed this quartet in order to escape from the snow, from the war, from captivity, and from myself,” he said. “The greatest benefit I gained from it is that among 300,000 prisoners I was probably the only one who was free.”
For the first performance of the Quartet he enlisted three other interned French musicians, for whom instruments were available. They were cellist Etienne Pasquier, a member, with his two brothers, of the distinguished Pasquier String Trio; clarinetist Henri Akoka, an Algerian Jew, who, with his clarinet, later escaped from a cattle car transporting prisoners of war; and violinist Jean Le Boulaire, who, under the name Jean Lanier, ended up as an actor on stage and in movies and television after the war.
The outlooks of the four were far-flung. A devout Catholic, the serene Messiaen, pianist, formed a bond with the excitable clarinetist, atheist Akoka. The pessimistic violinist Le Boulaire and the even-tempered cellist Pasquier, both non-practicing Catholics, devoted themselves to mastering Messiaen’s challenging composition.
At the premiere of the piece, the four musicians played for an audience consisting of prisoners-of-war from many nations and the camp’s German staff. The listeners temporarily forgot their enmity as they heard sounds that marked a unique outpost in the history of western music.
Seeking simplicity as a musical goal, Messiaen drew on a multiplicity of cultures for material. Devoutly Catholic, he saw a connection between musical sounds and mysticism. In the belief that birdsong was a divine gift, he notated the songs of birds, and used his transcriptions in his compositions. He was particularly interested in manipulating rhythm.
The title of his “Quartet for the End of Time” has a double meaning: It refers to a passage in the Book of Revelation where the Angel of the Apocalypse, standing with one foot on the land and the other in the sea, his head surrounded by rainbows, lifts his hand and declares, “There shall be time no longer.” The title also refers to Messiaen’s musical philosophy, which opposed the strict time-keeping of conventional music.
The first performance of the “Quartet for the End of Time” took place with inadequate instruments. By Messiaen’s account, the cello was missing one of its four strings, and one of the metal keys of the clarinet had melted. The piano keys could all be depressed, but they didn’t all rebound, and had to be pulled up by an assistant.
The standard story of the composition of the “Quartet for the End of Time” comes from Messiaen himself. It is the stuff of legend. The clarinetist Rebecca Rischin, in her carefully researched 2003 page-turner, “For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet,” removes some of the romance from Messiaen’s narrative, while retelling it with reverence.
With Messiaen’s story at first unchallenged, the piece had the allure of an exotic puzzle to chamber musicians during the first decades of its existence. In the early 1970s pianist Peter Serkin proposed to clarinetist Richard Stoltzman and cellist Fred Sherry that they rehearse the work. “We needed a violinist,” says Sherry in a telephone interview from his Manhattan home. “I thought it would be good to have a woman. An all-male group gets into that guy-stuff and ends up being too dogmatic. We invited Ida Kavafian.
“We started in the fall of 1972 at my place. We’d meet up and have rehearsals in concentrated bursts. Dick was in California, outside of Los Angeles; Peter was in Vermont; Ida and I were in New York City. We had marathon rehearsals. We would be playing, playing, playing, and talking to each other. The interaction was special because we were all so different. This was a difficult piece and we were all discovering it together. We were also discovering different parts of each other’s musicianship.”
He continues: “We had no plans to perform but eventually the idea of a concert came up and the four of us played the `Quartet for the End of Time’ at the New School in 1973. I felt there was some magic around our performance. What started as a modest idea took off. People wanted to hear us play this piece that nobody knew. Concert promoters resisted but audiences embraced the piece and us.
“We had to find a name,” Sherry says. The quartet chose “Tashi,” the name of Serkin’s dog, which means “good fortune” in Sanskrit. Sherry estimates that Tashi played the “Quartet for the End of Time” about 350 times.
In 1974 Messiaen coached Tashi on the piece in a private meeting at a New York apartment. Tashi performed the work for the last time in 1978, and by the end of the decade, the original ensemble no longer existed.
“Since 1978 we’ve all seen each other, and played together, but not as Tashi,” Sherry says. “Jacqui Taylor, who runs `Free for All at Town Hall’ was the moving force behind the reunion. She called every original member of Tashi separately and we all agreed to play together again as Tashi. The first performance was in Portland, Oregon, in January.”
Sherry was born in Peekskill, NY, in 1948, the middle child in a family with three boys born within a period of four years. His father was in the supermarket business; his mother was a housewife.
All the Sherry boys had music lessons. Fred’s older brother studied piano; his younger brother, trombone. Fred started cello at age seven. “I started in a school program,” Sherry says. “School programs are tremendous tools for learning. They should not be underestimated. The music you encounter as a child is the music you will feel sympathy for during your whole life.
“The music I heard as a child came from my father’s record collection. He was an avid record collector and an amateur singer. His record collection included Stravinsky, Bartok, Bach, and Beethoven. It was all one music to me,” says Sherry, whose musical enthusiasms run from the renaissance to contemporary compositions.
Sherry’s first musical experience at school was in a rhythm band in kindergarten. “The teacher assigned me the tambourine,” he says. “It was a difficult part, but I understood it. One day when I was fooling around with the tambourine, the teacher thought that I couldn’t manage the part. She switched me to drum, where I only got to play one beat a measure.” Did Sherry learn from this experience that he should not fool around if he was going to be noticed? “No,” he says. “I never learned that. I just realized that the teacher had misunderstood.”
A teacher himself, Sherry is on the faculties of the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Mannes College of Music. He is developing a method book for cello designed to help students with recent developments in music, including 12-tone pieces. “All music was devised by humans for humans, so how unnatural can contemporary music be?” he says. “The shape of human hands hasn’t changed since the 17th and 18th centuries.”
To make himself comfortable with contemporary music, Sherry devised musical gymnastics. “I invented a lot of stuff so I could do things I was having trouble with in composers like Babbitt and Wuorinen and Carter. I developed new exercises for ways to handle polyrhythms and difficult intervals. Now I’m writing it down.”
An advocate of new music, Sherry has performed on five continents and in all 50 states. He has collaborated with jazz pianist Chick Corea, and has been part of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center since the 1970s. From 1988 to 1992 he was the Chamber Music Society’s artistic director. He has performed as an orchestral soloist.
Sherry performs rarely with his wife, pianist Carol Archer. “It’s better to be married and have a wonderful life at home than to perform together,” he says. “Performing together is not that easy.” But he has no qualms about performing Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” with the ensemble who gave the piece impetus in the United States.
Tashi, Thursday, April 24, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. 609-258-2787.