February the 13th falls on a Wednesday next week (thankfully not a Friday), so that seems an appropriate day to attend a concert entitled “The End of the World,” part of the Northern Lights Festival de Febrero.
Two performances take place at Haus Der Musik, at 4 and 7:30 p.m., featuring the highly acclaimed Manhattan Chamber Players, well known in Ajijic for the magnificent concerts they have presented in the village every year since 2016.
The concert features two pieces written in Europe during World War II, when it must have seemed like the end of the world. The first is the Sextet from the beginning of Capriccio (A Conversation Piece for Music), the last opera written by Richard Strauss and premiered in 1942. The action takes place in the chalet of a countess near Paris and is basically a discussion between a poet and a musician as to which of their arts is the more important. The sextet we will hear is from the very beginning of the opera when the musicians play for the countess and her guests. The melodic and harmonic language is rich late Romanticism and seems to be a nostalgic musical look backward for Strauss, who was horrified by the way Fascism was destroying all that was beautiful in German culture, as well as the obvious destruction of human lives. (He made great efforts to protect many Jewish people.) Referring to the poet and composer, Strauss said: “The battle between words and music has been the problem of my life since the beginning, and I leave it with Capriccio as a question mark.” (At one point late in the opera the countess muses that she is equally fond of the poet and the composer.)
The second piece is the Piano Quintet in G minor op. 57, written in 1940 by the 34-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich about a year before the Nazis invaded Russia. Luke Fleming, the artistic director of the Manhattan Chamber Players, mentions that although there was still peace in Russia, everybody knew it wouldn’t last. This was the calm before the storm.
In five movements, the quintet opens with the kind of ferocious outburst often associated with the music of this composer, yet it soon gives way to a quiet, contemplative lyricism. Throughout the piece, as in Strauss, beauty abounds. The fugal Adagio second movement alternates between melodious tenderness and intense passion. It is introspective, yet conversational because of the imitative counterpoint. In the Scherzo, some people hear the kind of sardonic mockery of Stalin present in so many Shostakovich scherzos but all I hear is rollicking, boisterous high spirits. Oh well, nobody’s perfect. But it seems incredibly fun to play, and musical perception is subjective anyway.
The fourth movement, Intermezzo, opens with a sweet melody in the first violin over a “walking bass” in the cello, soon to be joined by the viola for extra sweetness. Then the piano enters to take us into a realm of loneliness and desolation, perhaps in the knowledge that the peace won’t last, but principally I feel that there is a great deal of love in the music. The movement trails off to end in repeated notes in the piano, which transform and lead us into the last movement, an exuberant and melodious dance. Then, after an intense interjection of the strings the music trails off into a quiet ending. Like Strauss’s opera, this piece ends not with a statement but a question.
And it is a question of one of the world’s great human beings, with a great heart. At a gathering of Russian musicians towards the end of Shostakovich’s life, one referred to him as a man who “feels more for humanity than the rest of us combined.”
Dr. Charles Nath has been a part of the musical world of Guadalajara since 1988, with 26 years as principal clarinetist of the Jalisco Philharmonic as well as many chamber music presentations. He also wrote a column on music for the Informador newspaper and made numerous music appreciation presentations on radio and television.