Friday, December 12, 2008

Un automne avec Messiaen

With Messiaen's centenary having come and gone, the Automne Messiaen festival in Montreal is finally winding to a close. I caught only three of the events - St. François in concert at the OSM, the complete organ works at Notre Dame, and Louise Bessette's traversal of the Vingt Regards.

First, though, the obligatory Canadian ritual of complaining about the weather. Our party of Messiaen enthusiasts set out first thing in the morning, predicting that we'd arrive in Montreal a few hours after lunchtime. Instead, we arrived at the Place des Arts at 7:30 - having missed the first act of St. François completely. What made the difference? A freak snowstorm that raged throughout the entire day. By the time we had arrived in Montreal, enough snow had fallen to reduce traffic to a standstill - meaning that it took almost two hours to traverse the five-kilometer stretch of road from the highway to the Place des Arts. The Montreal drivers - already known nationwide for their resistance to such practices as signalling and obeying traffic signs - became even more cutthroat than usual. At the time, the ride was terrifying, although later we realized that the impact of a collision at less than 5 km/h would have been negligible.

By the time the concert was finished, the snow had turned to freezing rain, and we found our car covered in a layer of ice almost an inch thick. But the cruelest cut of all was not discovered until a day later, when I opened my satchel of Messiaen organ scores to find that almost all of them had gotten soaked with water while they were lying on the floor of the car. Most of the larger scores are undamaged (if anything had happened to my Livre du Saint-Sacrement, which took eight months to arrive from France at a cost of almost $100, I would have killed someone), but my copies of Les corps glorieux and La nativité du Seigneur are likely permanently ruined. As a souvenir of the trip, I am left with seven volumes of paper pulp with an Alphonse Leduc signature on the front.

Enough of this whining. How were the actual performances?

The main attraction of the trip was a chance to hear a live performance of the rarely-done opera St. François d'Assise. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to catch any of the first act, but there were plenty of wonderful moments in Acts II and III; the angel's viol music in scene 5, the "Sermon to the Birds" sequence in scene 6, the apotheosis of Messiaen's birdsong style; the chorus speaking as the voice of God in scene 7, first terrifying and then infinitely gentle; the final glorious blaze of C major that closes the opera. The performances were uniformly excellent, with a particularly impressive showing from Aline Kutan as the angel. Kent Nagano presided over it all authoritatively, beating through a labyrinthine series of meter changes with no apparent effort.

I had heard the opera before on recordings, but hearing such a spellbinding live reading was a different experience entirely. The stage setup was intimidating in itself (seven flutes! three tubas! three ondists! at least ten percussionists!) but most astounding was seeing the whole orchestra in action: the wind machine spinning around, the piccolos executing the most complicated figuration in perfect unison, the xylophonists performing minor feats of acrobatics in order to play their parts, and the pure tones of the ondes soaring above it all. To compensate for the lack of staging, the OSM created a video installation portraying scenes from the opera, and far from being a mere gimmick, this device made it much easier to follow: we saw close-ups of the singers' faces, scenes from the countryside near Assisi, and flying birds, all overlaid with a constantly changing rainbow of colour. The colours used bore no resemblance to any of Messiaen's descriptions of his own synaesthesia, of course, but the effect seemed to me precisely what the composer would have wanted: dancing patterns of pure light, almost too dazzling to look at directly.

It was a shame that the weather seemed to have scared off so many potential attendees: the auditorium couldn't have been more than two-thirds full. It would be a tragedy if the OSM lost money on this production; they deserved a great success. Although small in numbers, the audience was enthusiastic, and as with so many Messiaen performances I've attended, the final standing ovation seemed genuine rather than forced.

Messiaen's actual birthday commenced with a traversal of the complete organ works (from 9 to 5 pm at Notre Dame). I heard almost everything - I left to have lunch during the Meditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité - and had somewhat mixed feelings. The performances themselves ranged from adequate to superb. Jean-Willy Kunz's performance of the Livre de Saint-Sacrement (with two other organists contributing movements) was a particular highlight, with impressive virtuosity and, I thought, perfectly judged tempi. Patrick Wedd, who is in the middle of his own cycle of the complete organ works, ended up being the one to play most of the more obscure and arcane works (Livre d'orgue, anyone?) but was in fine form throughout. Wedd ripped through the duo section of "L'ange aux parfums", for my money one of the hardest things in all of Messiaen, with complete control and without missing a note - and despite the fact that he was subbing in for another organist who was supposed to play Les corps glorieux and couldn't make it. The other performances were generally very fine, although I found that most performers took excessively slow tempi - exhibiting a tendency towards "careful", inhibited playing which so often mars performances of contemporary music. Still, the sheer power of Messiaen's music was enough to overcome all difficulties. The programming was completely non-chronological, with the result that the essential unity of the music was emphasized; when you heard the Messe de la Pentecôte alongside "Diptyque", the differences between them became less important than the over-arching personality of the composer.

By 7:00 I had no energy left whatsoever, and was worried I'd fall asleep during Louise Bessette's performance of the Vingt Regards. I shouldn't have worried - the reading was absolutely superb. Bessette, a student of Yvonne Loriod, has a natural affinity for Messiaen's music and managed to embrace all the complexities and contradictions of the work without a problem. Not even this performance could quite convince me that the twentieth movement, banging out major chords again and again, is at the same level as the rest of the work, but flawed as it is, the cycle is one of the best things in the twentieth-century piano repertoire.

Hearing so much of the same kind of music is often irritating - I often come home from organ conventions wanting to hear anything except organ music - but upon returning home yesterday I wanted to learn more Messiaen, and to get to know his music even better. That his music stood up so well under such close scrutiny is, I think, another testament to his greatness as a composer.


Hallaig said...

I was a chorister in St. Francois. I can tell you it looked to be sold out for the previous performance, and on the Tuesday when you went I imagine it was close to sold out too, because the empty seats were dotted all over the hall. When not all the tickets have been sold, the empty seats are in the back and around the edges. Nagano is still on his honeymoon in Montreal and concerts are usually sold out. The chorus was offered some slightly cut-rate tickets for the Tuesday though, so not completely sold out.
I am sure the orchestra must have lost some money on this. Apart from having seven soloists, some of whom were local, at least two percussionists and two of the three ondists were brought over from Europe for the concert.
Speaking of Patrick Wedd, he was our rehearsal pianist when we had one, and was phenomenal. The score for acts 2 and 3 was handwritten and I have no idea how he managed to read it, let alone play it.
Thanks for writing about it. Good to hear that the audience enjoyed it.

cnb said...

I debated for a long time over whether to make the trip for the Saint Francois concert, and in the end I decided not to go. I've regretted that decision frequently since. It was good to read your account of it. Sorry about the bad weather.