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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Concert Review: Messiaen-ic Visions

The Philharmonic makes CONTACT! to open Messiaen Week.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Taxi! A still from Esa-Pekka Salonen's commercial for Apple's iPad Air.
Image © 2015 Apple Inc.
This week, the New York Philharmonic begins a week-long celebration of the life and work of Olivier Messiaen, the French composer who combined mysticism and modernism in equal measure to become one of the most important, if occasionally mystifying composers of the 20th century. Billed as Messiaen Week, the series opened Monday night with a CONTACT! concert of chamber music: solos and duets by Messiaen, his pupils and composers that he influenced over a long career.lassical,

The evening, held in the white-walled laboratory-like space of National Sawdust, was both  emceed and carefully curated by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the composer and conductor who is the orchestra's current Composer-in-Residence. Mr. Salonen introduced the unfamiliar works with academic care, peppering the works with the occasional personal anecdote that gave some insight into Messiaen's life, his teaching style and the music of those who (however reluctantly) followed in his path.

The concert opened with Messiaen's Fantasie for Violin and Piano a work from 1933, the the beginning of the composer's career that remained unpublished until 2007. Violinist Yulia Ziskel duetted with pianist Steven Beck, demonstrating the composer's command of French idiom and the influence of Dukas, Debussy and Ravel. Shifting harmonies and a florid piano part hinted at the future of Messiaen's career as a creator of elaborate orchestral and piano works. The players executed the difficult figurations with precision and skill.

The next work was Anthèmes No. 1, written for solo violin by composer (and former Philharmonic music director) Pierre Boulez. Mr. Salonen provided careful guidance here, pointing out the importance of the seconds-long motif that opens the work, a theme that serves as the seed for the entire composition. Violinist Anna Rabinova played the combination of bowed, sawed, scraped and plucked variations, drawing a rapt audience into Boulez' carefully constructed train of thought.

George Benjamin is of a younger generation than Boulez, a British composer who captured the imagination of New York last year with the opera Written on Skin. Here was Viola, Viola, written for two of those instruments, played together and apart as a giant sort of "super-viola" by Philharmonic members Katherine Greene and Peter Kenote. The two violists began with their lines intertwined, moving gradually apart from each other in a "V" as their lines separated, echoed and recombined, culminating in a plucked coda.

Mindy Kaufman than took the stage with pianist Stephen Gosling for Le Merle Noir a 1952 piece for flute and piano that proved to be a watershed for Messiaen. The composer's use of the two instruments to expertly imitate the chattering songs of blackbirds would prove indicative of his subsequent career. The transcribed songs of birds would prove a feature of much of Messiaen's subsequent output. Ms. Kaufman reminded the listeners of why this virtuoso piece is so often played in competition by budding flautists.

Ms. Ziskel and Mr. Beck then returned for Oliver Knussen's Autumnal, a two-movement piece from 1977 written in reflection of the death of composer Benjamin Britten. The players captured Knussen's idiomatic style, further removed from Messiaen but still containing the older composer's influence and musical DNA. The concert concluded with one last blast of early Boulez: the complex and proto-serial Sontatine for Piano and Flute. Here, Robert Langevin displayed his prodigious chops and sure command of this demanding music, expertly accompanied by Mr. Beck through the tumultuous final bars.

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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.