Raymond Yiu’s Symphony, a sort of Mahlerian song-cycle, which received its first performance on the Prom on August 25 by counter-tenor Andrew Watts and the BBC Symphony conducted by Edward Gardner, is a big piece, ambitiously conceived and handsomely realized. It is some indication of its success that most of the criticism one might have of the piece have to do with appealing aspects of it which one wants more of. It is well timed and beautifully orchestrated and consistently engaging, and, in its final moments particularly beautiful and rather moving, and it very successfully sustains an arc of 26 minutes length. There is some indirection about the relationship of its texts to each other and to the ostensible subject of the whole, which is AIDS. Exactly what about AIDS is a little hard to determine–one ends up with having to say that it has something to do with AIDS, but without being able to say exactly what. The introductory first movement’s Whitman text proclaims strong music that celebrates victors and “conquer’d and slain” alike. The second, instrumental scherzo’s title ‘Strong With Cadence Multiply Song” is a line from Basil Bunting (which the program notes says was significant for the whole work, somehow, but it’s hard to tell exactly how, since we were never given it, or an explanation for its significance), the third movement sets a poem by Cavafy which invokes “beloved sensation,” aka sex, presumably. The fourth and longest movement sets a poem by Thom Gunn describing an encounter of the poet with two other men in a gay bar, combining thoughts and deeds of death and the sexual, and drugs. The final serene movement, setting Donne, celebrates the triumph of love and fidelity over destruction and decay. So the texts highlight different aspects of the subject, as it were throwing light on it from different angles at the periphery , without having a single sustained argument. There are evocations in the second and fourth movements of pop music of the seventies. Whether the fourth movement could really be said to be a “seventies-style disco song”, as Yiu described it, is debatable, but it probably comes close enough; it is in this movement that the use of the counter-tenor to reference such falsetto pop singers as Barry Gibb, Jackie Jackson, and Sylvester is most apparent. For this listener, as strong as the piece is, it would have been even more successful and more moving had it had more grit in it–a little more harshness now and then in the sound–and greater harmonic intensity in its climatic moments. The implications of the treatment of the texts at the beginning–with the singer’s stuttering drawing out of the sibliants of the words “song” and “strong” which are juggled momentaily, were never realized, since that manner of treating text is abandoned for a more traditional, and very masterly, manner of setting the words. But the reservations one might have are small in view of the work’s achievement and of the mastery involved in its execution. Both Andrew Watts’s singing and the orchestras playing was direct and vivid and had clearly been prepared with great dedication. Yiu’s Symphony was preceded on the program by Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, another serious and highly accomplished work by a composer who was around thirty. The second half included the NielsenFlute Concerto, with Emily Benon, soloist, and the JanáčekSinfonietta, both of which were played with considerable elegance and charm. The whole concert was a great pleasure.
The Prom on August 27, presented by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton, contained two first performances. The first, preSage by Ørjan Matre, although billed as a world premier, was actually a second version of a piece originally commissioned by the Oslo Philharmonic to both commemorate the centennial of The Rite of Spring and to mark Vasily Petrenko’s becoming the orchestra’s Principal Conductor. Based on material derived from the section of the ballet called ‘The Sage,’ Matre’s work is a sort of expansion over twelve minutes of a split second before the beginning of that music, with some hints of reminisces of other places in the ballet also included. The recognizability of the material makes this effect possible. The music, which throbs and shimmers and rings many changes of instrumental color while evoking that moment of the ballet, is appealing and engaging, and would be even a little more so were it a little shorter, but it still doesn’t outstay its welcome. I would be happy to hear it again, and to hear more of Matre’s music.
The second premiere on the concert was of Bergen’s Bonfire by Alissa Firsova. Firsova is the child of two Russian composers who defected from the Soviet Union to the UK in 1991, and she grew up and was trained in England, where she has a career both as a composer and pianist. Bergen’s Bonfire is a depiction of an apocalyptic dream of the composer’s. Her retelling of the dream in her note, involving Norse mythology and the end of the old world and the birth of a new, doesn’t actually include anything about a bonfire, so the reason for the title is a little unclear. The work is about ten minutes long, in three sections, the first describing the Twilight of the Gods, with themes for the sun, the moon, and the stars; the second depicts the composer’s walk around Mount Floyen, one of the mountains surrounding Berger, and the third shows a new age of peace and happiness and is based on a piece the composer wrote when she was eight years old. The beginning of the work is very strong and compelling (and is much stronger than any of the music included in the Composer Portrait concert of her music which had been given earlier in the afternoon), and all goes well for a while, until the third section arrives. At that point things start to go badly wrong. For one thing it’s much longer than it should be in relationship to the first two sections, but in addition it slides into a music of simply astounding banality, which would make a second or third tier Hollywood composer of the 30s or 40s blush. One can believe that it was written by a precocious eight year old. Sometimes when you’re presented with somebody’s ideas of the sublime and utopian it can be like having them share their dreams or their sexual fantasies with you–just a little too much information which, when you’ve received it, you’d rather they hadn’t shared it with you to begin with, and which you can’t unhear.
The concert concluded with a remarkably wonderful performance of The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, which had enormous clarity and nuance, rock solid ensemble and rhythm, and enormous drama and character. It was moving and memorable.
Concurrent with the Proms, the BBC sponsors various workshops and events for pre-college composers under the general title of Inspire. I observed on August 21 an impressive Inspire session run by Paul Griffiths (this is not the musicologist and writer on modern music–this Paul Griffiths is a composer, improviser, and “music educationalist” on the faculty of the Guildhall School of Music) which dealt with collaborative composition. Led by Griffiths and assisting professional musicians, about two dozen performing composers created over the morning a joint composition. There is also every year a competition with a concert of the winning works. For the last several years the concert has been presented by the Aurora Orchestra and its music director and principal conductor, Nicholas Collon. This summer’s concert happened in the afternoon of August 28. The format is never quite the same: there is a varying amount of talking (over the years this has been, mercifully, reduced), and the number of works played changes. Past concerts have presented work by the winners and the highly commended composers. This year’s concert only included the five winning works, which were Fantasia for Strings by Matthew Kelley (b.1999), Mechanical Passion by Tammas Slater (b.2000), After Death by Toby Hession (b,1997), The Complications of Life in an Enclosed Space by Daniel Penney (1999) and Like the Wind by Finnlay Stafford (b.1998). All of the works were lively and interesting and were performed with serious care and understanding by the excellent performers. It seemed short; one wanted to hear at least some of works the ten highly commended composers as well.
These concerts are available for listening on the BBC iplayer: Yiu:http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06708yz (the whole concert, the Yiu only at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030rzhk), the Matre and Firsova: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06709tq (the whole concert; Matre only http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030yxs6, Firsova only http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p030z9md).
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One of the major themes of this year’s Proms is the commemoration of the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Jean Sibelius. The Proms on August 12 and 13 were programmed to put Boulez into a context, offering his music alongside that of his predecessors Ravel, Stravinsky, and Messiaen. The Proms concerts on August 15, 16 and 17, featuring all of the Sibelius symphonies in order over three evenings, additionally projected Sibelius’s influence forward: the only music on those three evenings not by Sibelius was the first performance of a BBC commission from Michael Finnissy.
Sibelius is a composer who would seem not to be neglected, however at the same time that his music is “popular” and certain pieces of his are performed fairly often, he doesn’t often seem to be recognized as an modernist whose methods of dealing with musical materials and building musical structures are just as novel as a number of his younger contemporaries, such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Janacek, and Bartok. His seven symphonies are probably his most important works. Hearing them all together, one after another, the consistency of them, both in terms of language and quality, is striking. The performances, on August 15 by the BBC Scottish Symphony, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, on August 16 by the same orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov, and on August 17 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Osmo Vänskä, were all of a very high level, although the playing of the BBC Scottish Symphony was really memorable for the sheer beauty of its sound and the continuous presence of a certain kind of music making which one might describe as loving. In addition to the Symphonies, the first concert included the tone poem Finlandia and the second included the Violin Concerto, with Julian Rachlin as soloist.
Michael Finnissy is undoubtedly one of the major living British composers, which makes the few number of times that pieces of his have been included on the Proms something of a mystery, especially when one considers other composers whose pieces have been programmed many more times and regularly; this piece was the third work of his to be scheduled on Proms concerts. He described Janne, the title being a diminutive of Siblius’s first name, as “an imaginary portrait of Sibelius or, more exactly, a portrait of his music and its sources.” Finnissy described the work as a set of variations (“or variant explorations”) on a bit of a tune from the Finnish folk epic, the Kalevala. In fact those variations underlie a profuse fantasia of “foreign elements”, allusions to music of other composers who influenced Sibelius, Tschaikovsky and Bruckner, and “the flotsom and jetsam of 20th-century musical history (such as Futurism, Impressionism, new simplicity, new complexity)”. The variations, which surface from time to time featuring solos and small concertino groups–a single bassoon, then three horns, then viola, and later oboe and ‘cello, then a solo violin–provide a grounding structure, which along with an extraordinarily compelling harmonic trajectory, give a clear and sure progress through the span of the piece. It is striking that, while Janne, which very strongly evokes Sibelus’s language and methodology, is in a number of ways a much more conventional work, and much more conventionally skillful, dazzlingly so, than one might expect from Finnissy, it is at the same time completely personal and identifiable as the work of its composer, in its evoking and estranging of its elements, and it’s starkly contrasting “plain and more ornate, even conflicted, surfaces”. It is wonderfully convincing and satisfying, and it is just beautiful.
All of these concerts are available for listening on the BBC iplayer (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007v097/episodes/player) . The Finnissy is also available separately in a special section of new music on the Proms (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02pcr1d).
As well as being one of the major figures in the music of the second half of the twentieth century, Pierre Boulez has had a long and important relationship with the BBC and with the Proms, so it is not surprising that the celebration of his 90th birthday would be one of the prominent strands of the programming of this year’s Proms season. The Proms concerts on August 12 and 13 presented the first performance at the Proms of a major orchestral work of Boulez’s and placed it in a context of musical and orchestral tradition in which it stands.
Figures-Doubles-Prismes, written in 1957-8, and revised in the later 1960s, is a product of the heyday of post World War II European zero-hour modernism, but it is also, more personally, Boulez’s response to Stockhausen’s Gruppen, whose first performance he had participated in as one of the three conductors. Like Gruppen, Boulez’s work is for three orchestral groups, but deployed on one platform rather than spatially around the audience. As its title implies, the work’s constructive methodology involves a series of ideas of varying lengths which are presented (figure), varied (double), and extended and refracted in various ways (prisme), whose various statements and progresses are cross cut and proliferate over and through the three instrumental units. The result is a kaleidoscopic succession of textures of greatly varying densities and a wide array of different orchestral sonorities, many of which are strikingly and beautifully calculated, presented in a state of harmonic stasis. The command of all these elements and the brilliance of the orchestral writing is fearsome and impressive. The performance by The BBC Symmphony, which looked very cramped on the stage of the Albert Hall, conducted by François-Xavier Roth. was a model of clarity and probably got the right combination of beauty of sound and emotional coolness.
The August 12 concert made the connection between Boulez’s music and that of the second generation before him, Stravinsky and Ravel, which, if it wasn’t important to his compositional career (and I think it was), was certainly a major aspect of his career as a conductor. The most explicit connection was represented by Boulez’s orchestration of Ravel’s Frontisipice, a very short (two minute long) piece which Ravel wrote in 1918 as a frontispiece to the publication of an extract of S. P. 503: Le poème du Vardar by the Italian poet Ricciotto Canudo which concerned the author’s experiences during the First World War (S. P. 503 was the postal code of Canudo’s unit). Ravel’s score of the work is on five staves; it seems to have been intended for two pianos, five hands, or possibly for pianola. Boulez, in one of his Domaine Musical concerts in 1954, presented what is thought to be the first public performance of the piece; he later orchestrated it for a small orchestra in 1987, and then for full orchestra twenty years later. This concert also included Ravel’s Concerto for Left Hand, played with enormous brilliance and beauty by Marc-André Hamelin (he also played very beautifully, with both hands, as an encore Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau). The concert ended with the complete Firebird ballet of Stravinsky. As a whole The Firebird has a good number of stretches of brilliant orchestration of not much of musical interest, but in the bits that ended up in the suites there’s a lot of power, and certain places, most especially the beginning of the finale, are down right thrilling. This performance realized all of its virtues.
The Proms of August 13, presented by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Juanjo Mena, included a major work of Boulez’s teacher Olivier Messiaen, The Taurangalîla Symphony. It’s hard to know where to start in describing or discussing Taurangalîla. It’s excessive and completely over the top and it’s brilliant in its orchestral writing and it’s quite long (75 minutes, according to the program) and it has a lot of the vigor and liveliness of complete tastelessness (although taste is not any kind of valid standard for judging it) and it’s very complex rhythmically and musically inventive. It’s also very static harmonically (once again, no valid standard–it’s probably part of its appeal). It’s one of those pieces that convinces me that Messiaen had no sense of humor whatsoever. The performance of this ecstatically excessive piece was completely go for broke and it was very effective, although somehow less fun that I’ve found other performances of the piece I’ve heard to be. The playing of the pianist, Steven Osbourne, was always gorgeous–with lots of color and always with very very beautiful sound. From where I was sitting, since her back was to me, and the speakers of the instrument faced in some other direction, I don’t think I every heard much of Valérie Hartmann-Claverie, who played the Ondes Martinot, ostensibly the other solo instrument. I did seem to notice (or at least get the impression), though, that everything the OndesMartenot does is doubled somewhere in the orchestra.
This program began with John FouldsThree Mantras. There was, of course, no connection between Foulds and Boulez, but it was connected thematically with Sanskit/Hindu elements of the Messiaen. Foulds lived from 1880 to 1939, making him part of the same generation as Holst (who also had a lot of interest in Hindu religious philosophy) and Vaughan Williams. The Mantras, apparently part of an unrealized projected ‘Sanskrit opera’, Avatara, were written between 1919 and 1930. They call for a large orchestra, including a wordless female chorus, and sound a little something like parts of The Planets. Iin terms of the orchestral writing, the Mantras are pretty impressive. Although it was less interesting, at least to me, than Holst’s music usually is, it was still not at all uninteresting or unpleasant to listen to, and I was glad to have run across them, even if I probably won’t go out of my way to hear them more.
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LSO Live is (are, if you’re English) releasing Sir Peter Maxwell Davies Symphony No 10 and Panufnik Symphony No 10, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra on August 28. You can get a 10% discount by pre-ordering before the release.
Here’s an interview with Maxwell Davis about his tenth symphony.
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RighteousGIRLS will be celebrating their new disc gathering blue with a release party at Joe’s Pub at 7 P.M. this Friday, August 7th. Flutist Gina Izzo and pianist Erika Dohi will, of course, be there to throw down with their exciting and inventive program and they will be joined by Kendrick Scott & Andy Akiho as well!
RighteousGIRLS collected an exceptional collection of genre-blending works using flute, piano, electronics, guest performers, improvisation, and all the things that make today’s contemporary music engaging and exciting.
A video of Pascal Le Boeuf’s piece GIRLS as well as audio of Andy Akiho’s KARakurENAI can all be found on the gathering blue site.
JenniferHigdon’s first opera, Cold Mountain, premieres at The Santa Fe Opera on August 1, 2015 and runs until August 24. The August 24 performance was added due to interest leading to a sold-out run. Opera Philadelphia will give the East Coast premiere of Cold Mountain and a recording on Pentatone will be released in the 2015-16 season.
Cold Mountain takes an American story as its subject—the desertion of Confederate soldier W.P. Inman to return to his love in the mountains of North Carolina during the Civil War. Based on Charles Frazier’s best-selling novel, which was turned into an award-winning movie, it features a libretto by Gene Scheer (Moby-Dick; An American Tragedy), recounting Inman’s dangerous odyssey, trekking across North Carolina back to Cold Mountain. This Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and Minnesota Opera co-commission stars Nathan Gunn as the soldier Inman, Isabel Leonard as his lover, Ada, and Jay Hunter Morris as the villainous Teague in both Santa Fe and Philadelphia.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto and one of America’s most-performed composers, JenniferHigdon taught herself the flute at the age of 15 and began to compose at 21. Of the 50 recordings of her work, Percussion Concerto, Higdon: Concerto for Orchestra/City Scape, Strange Imaginary Animals, and Transmigrationhave all won Grammy Awards. Her work blue cathedral has been performed more than 500 times since its premiere in 2000. Higdon also teaches composition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
“I didn’t realize that I would be carrying these characters in my head and heart for about two and a half years,” Higdon told NPR Music. “But in many ways, living inside the opera, which it felt like I did, was not like anything I’ve ever experienced before. The entire group stayed with me day and night. I’ve been pretty absent from the present-day world for quite some time. That type of concentrated creativity has been amazing to experience.”
“I think Cold Mountain is going to be the great American operatic work,” said Gunn. “The music is beautiful and amazingly dramatic in scope.”
“Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain is a beautiful story filled with history, love, fear, and courage,” said Leonard. “JenniferHigdon and Gene Scheer have now turned that story into an incredible musical journey and I cannot wait to share it with the people of Santa Fe and Philadelphia.”
“The greatest moments, for me, are when I get to sing new music,” said Hunter Morris. “I love stepping into the character and stepping into the voice for the first time.”
Saturday, July 25, 2015 at Boston Court, People Inside Electronics presented Man on a Wire, a concert of new music featuring pianist Aron Kallay. A capacity crowd filled the Branson performance space to hear eight pieces incorporating electronics, piano, keyboards and acoustic instruments.
The first piece was Four Roses (1997) by Annie Gosfield and this was written for cello and de-tuned keyboard. Aron Kallay played the electronic keyboard and Maggie Parkins, cello. According to the program notes “Three of the cello strings are tuned conventionally, and the ‘A’ string is tuned 80 cents flat (just short of a semitone). This scordatura creates microtonal intervals between the open ‘A’ string and the normally tuned strings. The keyboards use prepared piano and piano samples, tuned to a scale that is 32 notes per octave.” This opened with stark, scratchy sounds from the cello that soon coalesced into a pleasing pizzicato groove while the keyboard added short, metallic notes that provided a good contrast. This order was then reversed, with long, sustained tones coming from the cello while the keyboard fashioned a melody from riffs of 8th notes that worked nicely against the smooth background. The cello then embarked on a slow, dreamy solo and when the keyboard entered again there was an added sense of tension that persisted through a brief revisiting of the opening theme. A sudden ending concluded the piece. Four Roses ably incorporates unconventional tuning into an engagingly listenable piece that was artfully performed.
Get Rich Quick (2009) by Ian Dicke followed. This piece is for piano and fixed media and was performed during the May, 2014 People Inside Electronics concert in Santa Monica. A new video by Katherine Guillen was commissioned for this latest performance. Get Rich Quick was written shortly after the 2008 market crash and is a playful look at the fragility of our financial system. It begins with sounds of the frenetic bidding of a trading floor and the ringing sound of a coin spinning. A loud, scary piano crash follows, and a chilling melody is heard while a shower of falling coins is seen in the video. The dark melody builds in volume and tension as fragments from 1960’s-era commercials are seen extolling the virtues of consumer debt and stock market speculation. Phrases like “Debt is part of American life!” and “Investing is easy!” are heard while visions of conspicuous consumption are seen. Images of charts and currency tables are especially vivid in parts of this new video, with movement and bright colors that dazzle the eye. The music becomes increasingly ominous as the video narration turns suddenly righteous – “Pay those bills!”, “There’s no free lunch!”, and finally “Get out of Debt.” The video concludes with more falling coins and a music box melody of Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Get Rich Quick has lost none of its relevance and the playing of Aron Kallay perfectly fit both the video and the musical message.
The next piece was The Alchemy of Everyday Things (2015) by Jason Heath and this was for piano, violin and live electronics. Originally written specifically for the Villa Aurora performance space with five channels of audio, this Boston Court version was realized in stereo. Aron Kallay was at the piano and Shalini Vijayan played violin. The piece began with a lovely sustained tone from the amplified violin that was unusually deep and rich. The piano entered, but in an unexpected way. Aron Kallay was seen to be drawing a length of fishing line – or perhaps some thin wire – across one of the lower piano strings. The sound this produced was both exotic and profound, like some ancient Asian stringed instrument. When combined with the violin, the result was calm, soothing and meditative – a wash of warm tones without need of rhythm. A high, soaring violin line added a brightness and color and this was joined by several piano notes, struck now from the keyboard, breaking the spell. The violin became more active and piano chords added a new energy and movement to this middle section. At length the sounds of water lapping at a lake shore and a soft whispering were heard, adding an element of mystery. The violin played a soft solo of low, sustained tones and soon the piano joined with more notes bowed with the wire line, returning to the serenity of the opening. The Alchemy of Everyday Things is a beautifully transcendent piece that draws a surprising elegance from very simple sounds. The playing in this performance was equal to the task, delivering a delicate, introspective quality that precisely matched the music.
Friday night July 17 and Boston Court in Pasadena was the venue for a concert titled Music From Text presented by Synchromy, the Los Angeles-based composers collective. Brightwork newmusic was the featured performing group and a sell-out crowd gathered for an evening of contemporary music based on the spoken word.
Breathe by John Frantzen began the concert and this performance was the world premiere. Breathe is based on a poem written by composer’s brother about the trials, hardships and relationships as experienced in military life. In the program notes John Frantzen states that the music “strives to frame these words of support, honor and camaraderie in a journey of love, loss and enlightenment.” The piece began with a short section of the text spoken by a narrator followed by high-pitched bird calls and some bowing of the strings that suggested a lonely breeze in a far away place. The sound of a distant snare drum effectively evoked the military setting. The soprano voice of Justine Aronson was heard and the generally unsettled character of the passages in the strings hinted at the stress and confusion that is present in wartime. This was also portrayed by two actors on the stage whose movements intentionally suggested the strong bonds shared by soldiers in the field. At length the music gave way to a slow, dirge-like unison that was very beautiful. More dramatic action followed, ending in a sudden silence and the spoken word ‘breathe’. The viola and cello again took up the sorrowful theme and this was especially moving, even as the snare drum recalled the military context of what was fundamentally a story about relationships. Frantzen was able to draw a surprising amount of emotion out of the small musical forces in this piece. Breathe is a powerful work that captures both the anxiety and deep emotional attachments that are the essential elements of a soldiers life lived in harm’s way.
The next two pieces on the program were both based on text by Tao Lin and were played consecutively. The text of the first of these was taken from the poem I will learn to love a person and the music by Christopher Cerrone bore the somewhat expansive title I will learn to love a person and then I will teach you and then we will know. This began with spoken text followed by gentle tones in the vibraphone and clarinet. The entrance of Ms. Aronson’s lyrical soprano voice added to the delicate, airy texture and carried the melody forward by weaving in and around the vibraphone line. The dynamics here were carefully observed, adding an extra element of vividness to the realization. This piece agreeably reflects the calm character of the poetry and, as Christopher Cerrone states, “In writing these pieces, my hope is to create a work that reflects the strange and beautiful experience of growing up at the turn of the (21st) century – and will continue to have meaning after that moment passes.”
A declarative sentence whose message is that we must try harder by Jason Barabba followed the Cerrone piece without pause. This was played by a viola, cello and contrabass trio and started with a high pizzicato in the viola and some fast dissonant passages in the lower strings. There was tapping on the wooden parts of the instruments and this added to the feeling of a distant uncertainty as the anxiety mounted in a series of running phrases in the bass, viola and cello. Rapid running of the fingers up and down the strings produced a series of soft, unworldly screeches that added to the tension. This music is also based on the poetry of Tao Lin, but provided a fine contrast with the serenity of the previous piece. Jason Barabba writes that “Because this work is a reaction to a complex and provocative poem, I’ve chosen to take advantage of some of the more unusual techniques that have been introduced for these instruments.” These were deployed with good effect and the string players managed everything quite smoothly. The piece briefly turned warm and dark, but held to the tension of the preceding sections. The fast and turbulent finish was fittingly taut and mysterious. The playing of a declarative sentence whose message is that we must try harder was well matched to the writing of the music and these combined to persuasively express the composer’s intentions.
At the risk of sounding like an Internet meme, one does not simply perform Olivier Messiaen. A performer must take certain risks, and prepare for the very real possibility that the performance may not show the mysteries of the piece. Minnesota-based pianist Matthew McCright, a member of the piano faculty at Carleton College and pianist for the new music group Ensemble 61, has proven to be an intrepid explorer of new music, and knows where to go to find the inner machinery of Messiaen’s works. In his fifth CD release, Contemplations: The Music of Olivier Messiaen (available from Albany Records), McCright tackles six of the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty contemplations of the infant Jesus), as well as the eight Préludes from Messiaen’s early output.
The six Regards chosen by McCright work well as a sub-unit of the full collection (which would take nearly two hours). McCright opens the CD with the ten-minute “Regard du Père” (“Contemplation of the Father”). This piece, the first of the Vingt Regards, requires a deft, sustainable touch, and McCright proves equal to the task, never letting the sound overwhelm the listener. This is Messiaen at his most introspective, and McCright lets the music breathe and meditate. McCright does get a chance to show off impressive technique with the sixth track, “Noël” (“Christmas Day”), which depicts the joy of the Nativity and the sounding of bells throughout all Christendom. The pianist has done his homework throughout the Vingt Regards, bringing Messiaen’s many leitmotivs to the listener’s attention without being pedantic.
In the Préludes of 1929, Messiaen is paying tribute to Debussy, but goes beyond Debussy’s vocabulary to lay the foundation for the language and mysticism we find in the later Vingt Regards. The backwards chronological focus of the CD provides a nice contrast to the “this happened then this happened then this happened” path that many performers have taken in the past with recordings of these works. McCright approaches the Préludes in a manner that is both appropriately athletic and musical; this is most obvious in the final section of the third movement, “Le nombre léger” (“A light number”). McCright proves that for Messiaen, “light” need not mean “insubstantial.”
McCright gets Messiaen, and that is no small feat.
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It used to be that you could pick up the phone and call someone, and they would answer. And so it was perhaps a decade ago that I called Gunther Schuller’s Manhattan publicist John Gingrich innumerable times to see if Schuller was available for a date with the San Francisco branch of The Duke Ellington Society, which I headed at that time. John was forever patient–he told me he’d noted all the times I’d called– as he went over Gunther’s schedule to see when he’d be free, and after many calls we arrived at a date when Gunther could talk to our little band of Ellingtonians.
A date was set, a room rented, and an upright piano arrived, tuned, for, if memory serves, a Friday evening appearance by Gunther at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center. And he arrived, enormously tall and utterly charming. He told us things about Ellington. How this fiercely private man wept when he said that “they”– the whites and the musical establishment– wouldn’t let him compose and premiere his opera Boo- La, which eventually became his Black Brown and Beige , which caused such a stir and negative slurs when it premiered at New York’s Carnegie Hall., though of course now it’s a classic.
Gunther held the audience in the palm of his hand, and the only thing he did with our rented upright was play an augmented fifth as his hair went dramatically up.
My friend Peter Bodge and I drove Gunther to his favorite San Francisco restaurant Fleurs de Lys where Gunther’s very presence seemed to produce the most delicate desserts out of thin air almost.
” San Francisco is the only place I know where you have to go up one street to come back the same way.”
Which may have been metaphoric–probably yes– but here we are, and Gunther’s gone.
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