The Juilliard Does Messiaen

February 27, 2008


After Sunday’s Messiaen experience at Carnegie Hall, it was invigorating to know that there was another toothsome evening of his music coming up tonight at St. Bartholomew’s on Park Avenue, including another belated New York premiere. Unfortunately, in a sort of situation that a New Yorker may be inclined both to mourn and to brag about, there was to be something equally rare going on at the same time in the Juilliard School’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater: a complete performance of a work that Messiaen composed for New York, Des canyons aux étoiles… 

The students of the School’s newest new-music group, Axiom Ensemble, seemed to have a sense that this was in fact a rare occasion. And that was only one of the senses in which they “knew what they were doing,” for the technical skill on display in these young people was astonishing. No doubt the crucial requisite for the success of the evening was their remarkable mentor in such repertory. Jeffrey Milarsky is fast becoming, if he hasn’t already become, the doyen of 20th- and 21st-century music’s performance in New York. He’s certainly one of our busiest musicians. He pops up everywhere, bearing musical scores of the most daunting complexity, which he brings off with all appearance of ease and a musicality that seems to have no bounds at all. 

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Carnegie Does Messiaen

February 24, 2008

om1a1.jpg Soon after he was released from a Nazi prison camp, where he had famously composed and performed the Quatour pour la fin du temps, Olivier Messiaen was appointed to teach harmony at the Paris Conservatory. The young teacher took a novel approach to his first class. Walking in without addressing or even acknowledging the assembled group, he sat down at the piano, opened the orchestral score of Debussy’s Prélude à laprès-midi d’un faune, played the work through flawlessly, closed the score and took it with him from the room. The class was irretrievably in love with him.

Nowadays the students might probably report such an event to the front office, and the teacher would be at least officially warned. In a film, La Liturgie de cristal, a much later Conservatory class taught by Messiaen is shown. He is again sitting at the piano, students are gathered in seats behind him, and he is again playing — this time from a work that he claimed dominated his life, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. He is not just playing the orchestral part but singing the vocal lines. (“I sing like a composer,” he unnecessarily apologizes for what is in fact accurate and expressive singing.) He is pointing up and asking students about aspects of the text setting (the repeated word loin receiving illuminating attention as expressing how far from normal reality Mélisande — and, by implication, her music — is).

Though he is one of the most respected composers of his century, most of us think of Messiaen simply as the creator of his own highly characteristic works. Or, if we know a little more, we remember him as a master organist-pianist and teacher of other major composers. But the centenary of Messiaen’s birth, involving celebrations in many countries, may fill out the picture for many.
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homepage_final_newest2.jpg Vastness of output is not always a reliable gage of a classical composer’s success. Max Reger reached an opus 106 before he died at 43, and many of his opus numbers contain many compositions within them — sometimes 60 or so. On the other end of the statistical chart, however, is someone like Maurice Duruflé, whose catalogue gets to only opus 14 in his 84 years. But because of the extreme popularity of some of his works (the Requiem, his Suite, etc.), Duruflé’s slender list probably gets more performances than the far richer catalogue of Reger.

It’s a cheering fact that we have composers in this century who are both prolific and constantly performed. Tonight (on his 47th birthday) Lowell Liebermann‘s new String Quartet No. 4 was performed at the Mannes College concert hall by the Orion String Quartet. That it is already opus 103 in a catalogue that features operas, symphonies, and concertos is an earnest of Mr. Liebermann’s industry. That he is performed with great regularity around the world is a sign of something even happier. (And it is an illustration of the restraint of the current large list of performances on his Web site that even tonight’s important concert is absent.)
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February 19, 2008

hp_image.jpg Vladimir Nabokov would not have been the ideal reader of this site: “Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds … The concert piano and all wind instruments bore me in smaller doses and flay me in larger ones.” But there are a lot of other varieties of musical experience, and you’ve probably been hearing a lot about Oliver Sacks’s latest book on the subject. If you haven’t read it, this review will probably make you want to.

Blythe Spirit

February 14, 2008

z_blythe.jpg The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has launched an admirable new sally into “American Voices,” chamber music throughout United States history. As doesn’t always happen in such series, full attention is being paid to the human voice as a chamber medium.

As part of this Winter Festival, one of the truly distinguished singers of the moment, the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, was announced to give a master class on American art songs, and a happy few of us filled the Rose Studio on Valentine’s Day. Apart from the context-providing exception of Stephen Foster, all the compositions were from living American composers: Bruce Adolphe, William Bolcom, Lowell Liebermann, Ned Rorem, and Stephen Sondheim.
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Delights of the Chamber

February 13, 2008

formal.jpg The Miller Theatre at Columbia University, under the régime of George Steel, consistently shows an unusually enlightened approach to producing concerts. Instead of just relying on repertory and performers to do all the work, they show an intelligent awareness of the component that place plays in a musical event.

They have been producing, besides their showcases of new music (like the stunning all-Salonen evening) and standard repertory in the Theatre itself, other performances on the campus and off. There are smaller concerts in the chapel of St. Bartholomew’s on Park Avenue and Casa Italiana at Columbia, large choral works at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin (like an exquisite Robert Parsons evening in December), and the resourceful use of other venues, either repeated or one-off. They are in the vanguard of experiments with the old Park Avenue Armory as a mega-concert space, which Gérard Mortier has said he hopes to use for Messiaen’s St-François d’Assis. We owe them a lot for all this.

Miller is currently presenting the multi-award-winning Pacifica Quartet in the complete quartets of Beethoven. The programs are presented during the lunch hour in a visually nondescript but dignified room that rejoices in the imposing name of Philosophy Hall. The space has lively salon-like acoustics, Siamese prayer panels on the walls and a random Lachaise-like sculpture, among the usual computers and files. In other words, it’s a perfectly normal academic environment where people are encouraged to bring their lunches. The only thing I saw being consumed was Shakespeare’s food of love, but there were plenty of other evidences of the comfort people felt in being so close to what was, in the event, superior music-making. The chairs were in the form of a square C, with only four rows of them, but with standing-room to the full extent that floor-space allowed. The players were seated on a platform at one of the long walls of the rectangle.
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February 12, 2008

Art is good for you.


Leontyne Price singing in the 1960s on The Bell Telephone Hour:

Leontyne Price singing at The Pierre in 2008:

Gifted youngsters, observe and take heart!

Vita may be comparatively brevis, but ars longa when you take care of your voice as she has.

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