The Liberty Theatre in Astoria is going dark Friday night, but for a good reason.
The Portland-based Pyxis Quartet uses the absolute lack of light as a blank canvas for its bold, spellbinding performance of George Friedrich Hass’s “String Quartet No. 3 „In iij. Noct.”
“The darkness is the easel, if you will, for the piece,” violinist Ron Blessinger said. “When your ears are dilated by total darkness, you just listen in a different way.”
The concert by the Pyxis Quartet – a member ensemble of the 45th Parallel Universe ensemble – is one of three performing at the Liberty Friday-Sunday.
On Saturday evening, the Hermitage Piano Trio will perform a concert to celebrate and preview its debut album, which was released in May. The following afternoon, Russian pianist Ilya Kazantsev, from the Hermitage Piano Trio, performs works by Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff in recital.
‘Total Lack of Light’
Hass’ 3rd String Quartet, published in 2001, is subtitled “In iij. Noct.” in reference to the Roman Catholic Tenebrae service conducted during Holy Week. Darkness, for both that religious ritual and the musical performance, becomes a key theme, evoking an allusion to the night before Jesus Christ’s Resurrection and complete disconnection from God – hence the piece’s categorization as spectral music.
“There are specters in the air, there are ghosts, there are dialogues in sound and color and noise,” Blessinger said. “It’s a different kind of music-making.”
Without a light source, the quartet – which is also comprised of violinist Gregory Ewer, violist Charles Noble and cellist Marilyn de Oliveira – cannot see one another or their sheet music. They also are stationed away from each other on the perimeter of the performance space, with the audience members seated in the middle, where the musical dialogue travels over, around, and between them.
In past years, they have performed the piece inside the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s planetarium, where they can easily control the need for total lack of light and received an enthusiastic response.
Blessinger chalks it up to Hass’s genius, adding the novel idea of sensory deprivation and playing in the dark could easily be boring “in the hands of a lesser composer.”
Another unique aspect of the piece is the musical score’s lack of traditional notation.
For the 18 sections of the piece, Hass offers simple instructions, including a note with a particular tone or sound to act as an invitation. When one musician makes the invitation, another musician will accept it, and then the others join in.
“The invitations from those 18 episodes are floating in the air, they’re waiting to be accepted,” Blessinger said. “[Hass] leaves it up to us to how we set up the dialogue with ourselves.”
The improvisatory characteristic inherent in the piece can be challenging for classical musicians, but the result is a musical performance that’s intense, “because it’s always interesting and always tantalizing,” he said.
As with most musical works, Blessinger added, “there are moments of intensity and moments of calm, and it organizes itself beautifully.”
The value of live performance
The second concert of the weekend brings three world-class soloists who perform together as the Hermitage Piano Trio: Cellist Sergey Antonov, violinist Misha Keylin, and Kazantsev.
The trio’s repertoire embodies Russian musical heritage while simultaneously including contemporary American commissions and other European traditions.
Their performance will include Horatio Parker’s Suite for Piano Trio; Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor; and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Trio élégiaque” No 2 in D minor.
All three are pieces included on the group’s debut CD, which is dedicated to Rachmaninoff.
Antonov, who has visited Astoria every June for the past 12 years for the Astoria Music Festival, described it as “one of my favorite places ever to come to,” which is why the trio collaborated on its own with the Liberty.
“I couldn’t imagine not coming,” Antonov said.
The musicians, who each have successful solo careers, decided to commit substantial time to performing and recording as a trio.
Antonov and Keylin have played in the group together for eight years. Kazantsev – who also has an affinity for contemporary music from American, Russian and European composers – joined five years ago, although he and Antonov have been friends since third-grade.
Antonov acknowledged the struggle to keep classical music relevant.
“We take it as our personal responsibility to try to correct it and to attract more audiences,” he said.
“We think that the world would not exist without classical music.”
The group performs at schools and colleges to share their passion for classical music with young people.
That’s also why they are doing a concert as an alternative to a traditional release party.
“We’re trying to tell people that the best value in classical music is a live performance,” Antonov said. “It’s being performed in front of you and it’s never going to be the same.”