Occasionally a concert detaches itself from the pack and inscribes itself in the memory. Sunday's concert by the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota at the Minnesota History Center was one of these.
Ostensibly marking the publication of Frederick Harris' formidable "Seeking the Infinite: The Musical Life of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski," the event seemed rather to celebrate the continuing vitality of the 88-year-old composer-conductor, who led the Minneapolis Symphony/Minnesota Orchestra from 1960 to 1979 and who, in an onstage question-and-answer session with his biographer, proved as quirky and disarming as ever.
Chamber music doesn't loom large in Skrowaczewski's catalog, but is more significant than its bulk might suggest. Sunday's program offered three works for small ensembles by the Polish-born musician, together with Olivier Messiaen's seminal "Quartet for the End of Time" (written in a German POW camp and first played there by its composer and three fellow inmates in 1941).
The first, "Fanfare for Ken" (2002), honors Skrowaczewski's friend and champion, the late Kenneth Dayton; more dissonant than most fanfares, it paints its dedicatee with a few strokes. The second, "For Krystyna," is a memorial to the composer's wife, who died in August. At once funeral music and love music, it is aching, ardent, almost too intimate for public performance -- and one of the most moving things to have come from Skrowaczewski's pen.
Concluding the program's first half was the 1984 "Fantasie per Quattro," its instrumentation identical to that of Messiaen's quartet. The piece, vintage Skrowaczewski, has a narrative thrust. Dense with ideas, sometimes romantic in inflection, it owes debts to Shostakovich, Stravinsky and even Samuel Barber, but has metabolized these influences so thoroughly that they scarcely register. The focus and intensity of Sunday's performers -- clarinetist Burt Hara, violinist Ariana Kim, cellist Anthony Ross and pianist Timothy Lovelace -- reflected the proximity of the famously exacting composer.
Skrowaczewski's sense of life is essentially tragic; Messiaen dwelt amid the bright certitudes of his Catholic faith. Their premises differ profoundly. Yet Harris' book tells us that Messiaen was among the composers who shaped Skrowaczewski's style. Sunday's program offered an invitation to hear the Frenchman with the Pole's ears.
There have been more meticulous performances of "Quartet for the End of Time," but none more attuned to its spirit. The depth and expressivity of Ross' tone seemed limitless. And Hara's inconceivably quiet playing, though ravaged by a cell phone, flowed from a place beyond time.