Antares play Bartók, Messiaen at Strathmore
Saturday, May 17, 2008 at 08:25AM
Stephen Brookes

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • May 17, 2008
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Olivier Messiaen
Rarely has a piece of music had a more dramatic birth than Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time." Written in 1941 while the composer was interned in a Nazi prison camp, it's a work of often confounding vision and spirituality -- an attempt (as Messiaen has described it) to enter musically into eternity. Not every ensemble is up to that daunting challenge, but Thursday night at the Mansion at Strathmore, the immensely talented quartet Antares made the work the centerpiece of its program -- and brought it off brilliantly.

The evening started with a reading of Ravel's "Mother Goose" suite, though, which to these ears felt disconcertingly down to earth. Written originally for the children of a friend, the suite is a playful, chimerical thing, drawn in delicate colors and populated with elves, fairies and other exotica. Its magic depends on its lightness, and the robust approach taken by the Antares players (Eric Huebner at the piano, Rebecca Patterson on cello, and clarinetist Garrick Zoeter and violinist Jesse Mills) didn't always show the music to its most gossamer advantage.

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Bela Bartók
Bela Bartók's "Contrasts," by comparison, is about as gossamer as a punch in the face, and received a spectacular -- repeat, spectacular -- performance. Exploding out of the gate, it took off on a wild ride through Hungarian dance forms so exhilarating and propulsive that the players -- Mills and Zoeter, in particular -- looked as if they were about to spontaneously combust.

Flames averted, the ensemble returned for an account of the Messiaen quartet that was no less memorable. Antares has made a specialty of this work, and its absolute commitment was evident throughout; this was an utterly commanding performance, technically superb and radiant with otherworldly majesty. All played with exceptional insight; cellist Patterson gave a stunning account of the movement "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus," while Mills played the final movement as if he'd just received it from some distant, vast and magnificent reach of the cosmos.

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