New York Philharmonic explores complex great Messiaen
New York (AFP)
Among the great modern composers, Olivier Messiaen wrote from an especially intense worldview -- he was a devout Catholic, found inspiration in the songs of birds and perceived colors in musical harmonies.
The New York Philharmonic is looking to explore the range of the French master, from his celebrated works to the more obscure, with a week of Messiaen that opened Monday.
While there is no obvious anniversary for Messiaen, who lived from 1908 to 1992, the Philharmonic's outgoing music director Alan Gilbert has described the composer as a personal hero for his ability to reach a spiritual dimension.
Gilbert will swap his conductor's baton for the violin to perform Messiaen's emblematic "Quartet for the End of Time" on Sunday.
Composed in 1940, when Messiaen was a German prisoner of war, the eight-movement piece evokes the apocalypse as predicted in the Book of Revelation.
Yet in contrast to many artists who were driven by World War II to question their faith, Messiaen's work, which opens to the sound of birds, builds into a rousing affirmation of God.
Complementing the other-worldly nature of the work, the Philharmonic's performance will take place in the Temple of Dendur, the Roman-era Egyptian shrine transported to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The temple brings "this feeling of being very aware of time but also completely unaware -- being beyond time -- and I think that is what the piece is about," said pianist Inon Barnatan, who will play in the quartet.
The increasingly prominent pianist, who is in a three-year residency as the Philharmonic's first artist-in-association, said he was moved by Messiaen's own experience as he wrote "Quartet for the End of Time."
"However, I do think that music, like all other art, should stand on its own without the back story. You should be able to look at a painting and somehow be affected by it without reading the plaque," Barnatan told AFP.
"The spirituality translated itself to the music. So it's not linked to any religion as such; it's more the idea that religion is trying to channel a feeling of something bigger," he said.
- 'Floats in its own sphere' -
"Quartet for the End of Time" was written for piano, violin, cello and clarinet -- the four instruments available to Messiaen at the sprawling Stalag VIII-A prison camp in eastern Germany.
Carter Brey, the principal cellist of the Philharmonic, said that Messiaen mastered a way to communicate "a kind of passion that is completely non-sexual" and showed his striking originality.
"It's a very weird piece of music. It is like nothing else that came before or after. It seems to float in its own sphere," Brey said.
He said that the Temple of Dendur carried a special musical significance due to its proximity to Central Park -- within earshot of birds, whose singing Messiaen so meticulously studied.
The full Philharmonic will on Thursday put on another of Messiaen's signature pieces, "Turangalila-symphonie," a landmark in the development of modern music.
With touches from classical Indian ragas and use of the ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument, "Turangalila-symphonie" broke away from traditional Western rhythmic structure and helped set the course for the post-World War II serialism movement.
The symphony premiered in 1949 at the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Bernstein, who later came to the New York Philharmonic.
Messiaen was also a mentor to Pierre Boulez, another musical giant who would lead the Philharmonic. In a very different direction, Messiaen gave lessons in Paris to Quincy Jones -- best known as the producer behind Michael Jackson.
The guest conductor for "Turangalila-symphonie" will be Esa-Pekka Salonen, a leading contemporary composer.
Salonen said he spent time with the French composer shortly before his death and found in his apartment no music other than Messiaen's own and no book other than the Bible.
"His music sounds like that," Salonen said in a statement. "It appears out of nowhere and doesn't follow any established laws of composition."
© 2016 AFP