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The sounds of time

April 18, 2018 GMT

The most obvious connection to the theme was a series of concerts that brought distinguished Houston jazz artists, like pianist Helen Sung and drummer Kendrick Scott, back to play here. Artistic and general director Sarah Rothenberg said at the time that the theme would have different meaning and permutations.

And the conceptual theme of home has also changed in the past eight months.

“Harvey, it put such a different light on this theme,” she says. “It gave the audience here a strange prism to think about home. Everyone feels closer to the idea, especially when you see so many people who lost their homes.”

One of the programs Rothenberg devised for the season is tangentially related to that permutation of the theme. On Saturday, Da Camera presents “Wartime Stories: Reich and Messiaen,” which includes Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” and Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.”

Rothenberg says she can’t recall having seen a performance that combines the pieces. On paper, they appear to have more differences than similarities: Messiaen, a French composer who was born in 1908, and Reich, a New York native who was born nearly 30 years later. But these two works share inspiration in two very different experiences of being uprooted.

“They’re two composers so concerned with time,” Rothenberg says.

Messiaen was in his early 30s when he was swept into the French army during World War II. He was captured early in the war and imprisoned in Stalag 8A in Görlitz. There, he found himself in perhaps the most unlikely quartet in history. While imprisoned, the composer and pianist, a devout Catholic, made music with an agnostic cellist, an atheist violinist and a Jewish clarinetist. Their collaboration and their condition inspired Messiaen to write “Quartet for the End of Time” on paper provided to him by a German guard. The piece of music had its world premiere, for lack of a better phrase, in the Stalag in 1941.

“Messiaen lived in his own world,” Rothenberg says. “His music was often written from this larger view of existence. And so spiritually focused. He managed in these awful conditions to get to an inspired state where he wrote an absolutely cosmic work. I think he took it almost as a test of faith. Music saved him, as it can do.”

Reich was not much more than a toddler when Messiaen was imprisoned, but he was already a child from a broken home. And that home didn’t break subtly: His mother moved to California, while his father stayed in New York. Reich would travel by train across the country, accompanied by a governess, to visit his mother. The circumstances of Reich’s family travels were complicated and far from optimal. But when the composer reached middle age, Reich considered how greatly his train rides would have been different had be been born a Jew in Europe in 1936 instead of in New York. From those contrasting experiences, Reich wrote his landmark “Different Trains.”

“Wartime Stories” features Rothenberg on piano, the St. Lawrence String Quartet and clarinetist Joshua Rubin. A video piece to accompany “Different Trains” was filmed by Mihai Cucu. Jennifer Tipton, who has collaborated with Da Camera on a Messiaen piece previously, created lighting for his “Quartet for the End of Time.”

The medley of music and visuals are meant to create a sensory experience that helps a listener forget about immediate concerns.

“Both pieces make you think about worldly time and spiritual time, which is larger than any of us think with regard to time,” Rothenberg says. “It’s larger than your life or my life.”

andrew.dansby@chron.com