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Friday, July 17, 2015

Concert Review: The Birds are the Word

The Cleveland Orchestra plays Messiaen and Dvořák.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Franz Welser-Möst conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.
Photo by Stephanie Berger © 2015 Lincoln Center Festival.
At first glance, there is no existing connection between the music of French twentieth century mystic Olivier Messiaen and the nineteenth century Bohemian rhapsodies of Antonín Dvořák. But, as was so ably demonstrated Thursday night by the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of music director Franz Welser-Möst, the music of these two very different men has a number of common points.

The program, performed at Avery Fisher Hall as part of the Orchestra’s summer residency at the Lincoln Center Festival opened with two very difficult and very different works by Messiaen. Hymne (originally Hymne au Saint Sacrement) was a meditation on the Catholic liturgy by this most religious composer. From the opening bars, the orchestra took on some of the sound qualities of the pipe organ at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité,  the Paris church where Messiaen served as organist for 61 years.

An effort from 1932, this is a stunning example of Messiaen's early period. The work was lost in 1943 during the liberation of  Paris from the Nazis and  rewritten from memory by its creator in 1946. Its meditations included a glorious slow movement evoking the mystery of the Mass and the Eucharist played by the first violins  in antiphonal with the first chair of the second violins and a long stair-like ascent to enlightenment and bliss.

Chronochromie ("Time-color") is from 1960. It is a complex and highly mathematical construct, that alternates musical ideas and sometimes juxtaposes sounds that at first glance would not make logical sense. The piece opened with jubilant twittering and warbling in the woodwinds, xylophone and higher brass, a celebration of the composer’s love of birdsong.) When not composing or playing the organ, Messiaen was a crack amateur ornithologist, and he would transcribe the songs of birds onto notation paper and incorporate these musical ideas into many of his works.

Here, his use of tonal color and shade shines light on a dazzling array of sounds. This aviary of orchestral effect that alternated with huge slabs of brass, percussion and bass. These huge tone clusters eventually rearranged themselves into a monolithic Dies Irae. Even in this secular and almost serialist work, Messiaen’s religious influence was never far away. Throughout, the Cleveland players executed this knotty music with great precision and obvious affection for the work, with Mr. Welser-Möst serving as a sort of guide to the colorful songs and themes caught within the pages of this score.

The second half of the program featured Dvořák's Symphony No. 5, a pivotal work in that composer’s development, as the first Dvořák symphony to be accepted into the general concert repertory. (It used to be known as the Symphony No. 1 in the years before Dvořák's four earliest symphonic efforts came to light.) As this work opened in an upward swoop of clarinet and flute, the connection between it and Messiaen became apparent: bird song. Dvořák did not transcribe birds as Messiaen did--he used the sound and aesthetic of their voices to evoke nature in his wind writing, heard very clearly in the pastoral opening of this symphony's first movement.

The birds return in the second and third movement. The andante had the right combination of melancholy and introspection, with the Cleveland players supplying the music with warm and burnished tone. The scherzo shifted into a light-footed, almost Viennese waltz in the trio section before returning with new found energy and purpose. The final movement left the bird songs far behind for an ambitious but amiable Miable argument between a slow and fast the,r with Horne latter triumphing as the work gap ounces to an exhilarating finish,

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.