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The first time the Amernet performed “The Seven Last Words of Christ” during Holy Week – the week leading up to Easter -- the string quartet played in darkness. Just hours before, cellist Jason Calloway, violist Michael Klotz, and violinists Misha Vitenson and Franz Felkl had rehearsed at St. Patrick Catholic Church on Miami Beach under the usual electric lights. But then a crew plugged in to broadcast the performance for parishioners who could not attend, the lights went out, and would not come on again. The pastor, Father Roberto Cid, worried that the presentation of the sacred work would have to be canceled. But the digitally savvy string players all had the score on their notebooks or pads, just enough light to illuminate the notes.
“It was magical to be able to experience this piece in the dark,” Calloway recalls.
A divine intervention, perhaps, the blackout mimicked the conditions of the now rare Catholic Tenebrae mass, once celebrated on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday night of Holy Week. To represent the spread of darkness and sin through the world, marked by the death of Jesus Christ, a series of candles were extinguished one by one after prayers.
The “Last Words” came about as part of another Holy Week tradition that is said to have originated in 17th-century Peru, following a massive earthquake. Because the Bible holds that such a tremor shook the earth after Christ’s death, priests in Peru began to incorporate into their Holy Friday services the last phrases that the Gospels report that Christ uttered on the cross. By 1786, this practice migrated to Spain, where a Catholic church in Cadiz commissioned Franz Joseph Haydn to compose seven slow, meditative movements inspired by the phrases, as well as an introduction, and a finale, known as the earthquake. Haydn arranged the piece for a full orchestra, for solo piano, as an oratorio, and as a string quartet.
The Amernet has presented “Last Words” during Holy Week each year at St. Patrick since 2015. This is in keeping with the role that the quartet has played as an important contributor to the South Florida classical music scene since violist Klotz, a native of Rochester, New York, and the Uzbeki-born violinist Vitenson, who lived for many years in Israel, took a post, along with two of the quartet’s founding members, as artists-in-residence at Florida International University in 2004. Calloway, a Philadelphian cellist who knew Klotz and Vitenson from their studies together at Juilliard in the late 1990s, joined the quartet in 2010. Felkl, the youngest and most recent member, hails from Juneau, Alaska, which he left to study violin at Boca Raton’s Lynn University.
“The quartet was formed by none of us,” Calloway jokes. But that has not stopped the current generation from making Amernet a Miami institution.
The “Last Words” tradition is inspired in part by the Vermeer String Quartet, which began performing the piece in Chicago during Holy Week in 1988. Though the quartet has officially disbanded and some of the members are deceased, those remaining bring in new players each year to continue the tradition. The Vermeer invites guest speakers, religious and otherwise, to offer a reflection before each movement, on ideas inspired by each phrase, from the concept of forgiveness contained in Jesus’ petition, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” to his lament, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” to his closing resolution, “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.” A young Barack Obama spoke one year, before beginning his political career. The reflections of one year, 1994, were collected and published in a book.
At Saint Patrick in Miami Beach, for the past three years, the church’s music director has intoned each phrase before Amernet plays the corresponding movement. Calloway does not see the need for further discussion.
“The audience hears a wordless impression of these phrases,” he explains. “The music commands the attention of the audience immediately.”
“It’s a long, slow journey,” he continues. “As musicians, we have to fight the urge to lose ourselves onstage.”
Then comes the “earthquake.”
“We’ve been playing for 55 minutes,” Calloway says, “then we have to summon the energy to play the hardest, loudest, fastest, most unrelenting two and a half minutes of music we can muster.”
As powerful as the piece is, the experience is likely to prove even more intense this Holy Week, coming so soon after the collapse of the pedestrian bridge that was under construction at FIU. A colleague in the FIU music school passed under the bridge minutes before it fell, killing a student and five community members and injuring several others.
“We use that stretch of road every day,” Calloway reflects.“I can’t imagine we’ll be able to play ‘Last Words’ in the same way we might have last year.”
The Amernet String Quartet performs Haydn’s “The Last Words of Christ” at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 28 at St. Patrick Catholic Church, 3716 Garden Ave, Miami Beach, 33140. Admission is free. amernetquartet.com
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