Not many pieces of music can hold their own while sharing a program with Olivier Messiaen's inventive, ecstatic and apocalyptic "Quartet for the End of Time." But one such work had its Washington premiere, performed by Da Camera of Houston, Saturday night at the Library of Congress: "Heartsounds" for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass, composed in 1990 by George Tsontakis, who has twice won the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award.
The music uses moderately unconventional techniques (including a lot of disembodied-sounding string harmonics, sometimes set against deep bass rumbles), piquant harmonies, wide-ranging dynamics and powerful, varied rhythms to convey a kaleidoscope of emotions.
Its intensity and range of feelings, its unconventional instrumentation and structures, and above all its emotional impact, make it an excellent companion piece for Messiaen's quartet. Composed in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, the quartet is unquestionably one of the 20th century's enduring masterpieces. It uses the instruments available in the camp--violin, cello, clarinet and a piano with some notes missing--to embody in compelling sound Messiaen's mystical vision of the end of the world.
His varied instrumental combinations include solos for clarinet (unaccompanied), violin and cello (with piano) that were given breathtaking performances.
The program was dedicated to the memory of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, whose many gifts to the library included the superb auditorium, named in her honor, where the concert was given. The evening began with one of the many masterpieces she commissioned: Ravel's exotic "Chansons Madecasses," interpreted with subtlety, erotic magnetism, ferocity and idyllic calm by mezzo-soprano Milagro Vargas.
Other performers in the program, all chamber musicians of exceptional ability, included flutist Nadine Asin, clarinetist Alan R. Kay, violinist Ida Levin, violist Toby Appel, cellist Eric Bartlett, bassist John Feeney and pianist-Artistic Director Sarah Rothenberg.