Here's a slightly expanded version of my Monday, October 6, 2008 Chicago Sun-Times piece on the first four days of The University of Chicago Messiaen 100 Festival.
At U. of C., Messiaen in a bottle
Fest does its best trying to contain composer to 10 days
The visionary French composer and teacher Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) had such a varied output and made so many contributions to modern music that a comprehensive tribute to the 100th anniversary of his birth would take at least a year and would require a major opera house as well as numerous orchestral, chamber, and vocal evenings to pull off.
Shauna Quill, executive director of the various University of Chicago Presents music series, has come up with a briefer and brilliant solution: a concentrated 10-day festival that features such well-known works as the haunting Quartet for the End of Time and rare performances of organ works and songs by international stars of the classical world and outstanding Chicago-based individuals and ensembles. With the first four days down, there's no doubt that Quill's project is a triumph.
Large-scale organ music can be forbidding for those not raised in the Roman Catholic or Lutheran traditions. When you add Messiaen's personal brand of Catholic mysticism and his fascination with birdsong, you have works that demand almost total surrender by the listener. Thus far the U. of C. Festival has scored two terrific successes with this side of the composer, who for 60 years had a "day job" as organist at the Church of La Trinité in Paris. Thursday's opening night was a rare evening with Dame Gillian Weir, the British queen of the multi-console instrument, performing on the recently and lavishly restored 1928 E.M. Skinner organ at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. By interspersing movements of Messiaen's 1949-50 Messe de la Pentecôte with 18th-century works by Bach and Couperin, Weir created an experience that was both in keeping with Messiaen's religious goals and sonically explosive.
Saturday morning at Ida Noyes Hall, young San Francisco filmmaker and musician Paul Festa, presented the Chicago première of his stunning experimental documentary Apparition of the Eternal Church, a completely innovative way of exploring a difficult work of organ music through the experiences of a very diverse set of listeners. [More on this amazing film -- including additional Chicago showings this week -- to come -- aP]
Friday night at Mandel Hall, the remarkable French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, one of several Messiaen students participating in the festival, made his Midwest conducting debut with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in a program that included both an exquisite performance of the 1956 Oiseaux exotiques ("Exotic Birds") for piano (Aimard disciple Tamara Stefanovich) and wind, brass, and percussion orchestra, and also a fiery reading by Aimard of Beethoven's usually more lyrical Fourth Piano Concerto in G Major, Op. 58. Clearly clarity and power were two of many things that Aimard took away from his teacher. His breathtaking performance of Beethoven's alternate first cadenza also could have been a hat tip to Messiaen's urge always to take a different path.
The university's Contempo new music collective, which draws on Chicago's eighth blackbird and Pacifica Quartet, stepped up Saturday night at Mandel Hall with a rarely played late and brief work by Messiaen -- the 1991 piano quintet -- and works by five of his prominent students, including a world premiere by U. of C. prof Marta Ptaszynska. As prepared or led by Cliff Colnot, all were given exceptional performances with Toro Takemitsu's haunting 1982 Ame no jumon ("Rain Spell"), the seminal 1984 Pierre Boulez Derive I, and the 1997 virtuosic George Benjamin duo Viola/Viola standing out.
Ptaszynska's just-completed Trois visions de l'arc-en-ciel ("Three Visions on a Rainbow") for five players was gripping, moving, and a rare accomplishment -- an homage to a teacher who presented originality to and demanded individuality from his best students. The Polish composer and percussionist (left), now 65, took ideas and colors from her teacher and ran them through rhythmic and aural fantasy worlds all her own. Surely the master would have been pleased.
The festival continues through Saturday at Hyde Park and downtown locations.