Four musicians walked on stage rather drably and unceremoniously on Wednesday afternoon at the Performing Arts Centre, but as soon as they took up their instruments, magic occurred.
The Penderecki String Quartet opened the North Okanagan Community Concert Association’s first presentation of 2012 with Beethoven’s String Quartet in G Major, and the spellbound audience hardly dared breathe for fear of missing any one of the delicately placed notes.
It was magnificent from start to end. Each of the four movements built on its predecessor –– first the Allegro, then the adagio cantabile. Only Beethoven and violinists Jeremy Bell on his A.S. Bernadel (1854) instrument and Jerzy Kaplanek on his Antonio Casini (1680) violin could have topped that. And they did, with a scherzo that danced back and forth between them and the viola and cello of Christine Vlajk and Jacob Braun respectively.
It was delicious. And everyone applauded with glowing enthusiasm when the final movement, allegro molto, quasi presto (basically, very fast) ended.
Then came the work of modern Polish-born composer, Dr. Norbert Palej, currently assistant professor of composition at the University of Toronto. If Palej’s pre-recorded introduction to the piece had not been played over the theatre speakers, his De Profundis, commissioned by the Penderecki String Quartet, also comprised of university professors, might have been inaccessible. It opened with violent chording and proceeded to groan, moan, screech and thunder from the depths of despondency, based on Psalm 130.
The psalm begins, “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord…”
The musicians’ faces morphed from smiling, inspired by Beethoven’s masterpiece, to frowning. As I jotted down adjectives to describe their mood, I imagined the Woman in Black wandering the corridors of the abandoned home of her drowned son in the horror movie/play of the same name.
“Discordant, plaintive, sinister, fearful, piercing, out of sorts with itself, reviled, howling, exhausted, shivering, isolated, abandoned, abject, monstrous, violent, eerie, ogred and goblined, disfigured, bizarre, grotesque,” I scribbled.
Kaplanek, playing first violin in this instance, was almost out of his seat, peaked with emotion. Then came the call from the viola (Vlajk) and the response from the second violin (Bell) as they moved in seamless transition to express Oscar Wilde’s reappraisal of his life from his prison cell at Reading Gaol. What a soundscape to Wilde’s epic poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Palej’s music would make.
More images: agony, damp drip of water, rats, despair, then moments of hope as in Psalm 130’s last verse, “And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.”
The piece ends as it began, with strident chords and then, silence.
Self-described symbolist, Claude Debussy, recovered spirits after intermission. Stacatto dances brought smiles once more to the faces of the gracious Penderecki four whose interplay was immaculately precise and piquant, as they plucked strings on the off beat. The third movement smelled of meadows, flowers and bees, and the fourth echoed the haunting theme that permeated the whole.
NOCCA’s next concert March 12, at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m., features the Elmer Iseler Singers.
–– Christine Pilgrim is a local freelance writer and actress who covers the North Okanagan Community Concert Association series for The Morning Star.