I'm a bit too young to have met Olivier Messiaen while he was still alive, but the Messiaen Discovery Concert in Weill Recital Hall Sunday afternoon brought the man many consider to be the greatest composer of the 20th Century pretty close to life. When I arrived - late, as usual - British pianist and Messiaen scholar Peter Hill was speaking about the time he first met Messiaen at his Paris apartment in 1986. Messiaen showed him a small, antique chair, which collapsed underneath Hill the moment he sat in it. "A rather awkward beginning," Hill said.
Hill went on to become good friends with Messiaen over the last five years of his life, indulging his love of English poetry and bringing him coffee table books of birds. He played a recording of one of Messiaen's recessional improvisations at La Trinité Church in Paris, which sounded more conventional than his composed works for organ but sufficiently captivated the audience to keep them in their seats till the end.
Hill concluded by saying that Messiaen's final work, Eclairs sur l'au Dela was, "without question his orchestral masterpiece." He made note of the fact that it was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, but was surprised not to see it on the calendar for either this season or next.
"If the New York Phil isn't performing it this year," Hill said, "you should all immediately besiege them with requests to do so."
Amen to that. (I cast my lot via the NY Phil's customer service line last night.)
Following was a screening of Olivier Mille's documentary The Crystal Liturgy, which assembled archival footage of Messiaen and his students. It was the first time I'd ever seen a moving image of Messiaen, and I was floored by his warmth, his down-to-earth charm and charisma. He was also a gifted and natural teacher, the unassuming sort who plays Debussy in class, rather than his own works. (Apparently, he memorized all four hours of Pelleas et Melisande, and would play the score in his head during his long captivity in WWII.)
The film also focused on his fascination with birds, following him out into the field where he would transcribe birdsong into musical notation, much of which would eventually find its way into his compositions.
"It is very challenging," he said. "I need to remember the first phrase while listening to the second. The bird doesn't wait for me."
This fascination with birdsong also revealed Messiaen's more eccentric side, showing him whooping and crowing like some kind of madman. His wife, Yvonne Loriod, looked on admiringly, plucking out the notes and rhythms on their home piano.
After a break, Messiaen's one-time student Pierre Boulez was joined onstage by Carnegie Hall Artistic Advisor Jeremy Geffen. Geffen was clearly nervous interviewing the 82 year old Boulez, a celebrated conductor and composer and, by some measure, the most notorious musical gadfly of the 20th century. Listen to what Messiaen had to say about him in 1944:
"When he first entered class, (Boulez) was very nice. But soon he became angry with the whole world. He thought everything was wrong with music...He was like a lion that had been flayed alive, he was terrible!"
Boulez eventually abandoned Messiaen's classes, publicly ridiculing his sporadic tonality as retrograde, and his use of birdsong as just plain silly. In conversation with Geffen, however, Boulez was his usual charming self, preferring to tell anecdotes about his student days, and how much he enjoyed conducting Messiaen's thornier works, such as Chronochromie or Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. But, just when I was convinced Geffen was going to treat him with kid gloves, he broached the subject ever-so-delicately:
"So, for your generation of composers that came of age after World War II, how yould you evaluate Messiaen's music now?"
"Well, I can only speak for myself," Boulez said. "I cannot speak for Berio, for Stockhausen: they are no longer with us. But, I will admit that I don't like everything Messiaen did. I do not care for his use of bird calls. I don't care for much of his harmonics. I prefer Poemes Pour Mi to, say, Turangalia-Symphonie. But, that is a purely personal point of view. Music should navigate between order and chaos, and with Messiaen, I feel that gap is never bridged."
"Well, I think that's a lovely way to leave our conversation," Geffen said.
Lovely? More like someone left a pile of manure onstage.
Fortunately, there was music to end the day: an epic performance of Visions de l'amen for two pianos, which Messiaen wrote for himself and Loriod shortly after she became his student in 1943. Curiously, the gender roles were switched, with Michael Mizrahi playing Loriod's part (by far the more harmonically and rhythmically complex of the two) and Elizabeth Joy Roe playing the part Messiaen's wrote for himself. They gave a captivating and passionate performance, with the duel Steinways filling the compact hall with a huge, almost deafening sound that conveyed Messiaen's uniquely personal vision of religious ecstasy. Or, as he put it:
"a chorale of glory, a ceaseless carillion of chords and brilliant, scintillating rhythms...the whole rainbow of precious stones mentioned in the Apocalypse: sounding, jarring, dancing, coloring, and perfuming the light of eternal life."
Mizrahi and Roe received a well-deserved ovation, sending everyone out onto 57th Street with a trance-like glaze in their eyes. Boulez said that Messiaen often lamented there would be noone to take up his sui generis mantle after he passed. I hope that won't forever be the case: we could stand to hear more of his wide-eyed wonder.
P.S. As incredible as last month's LA Philharmonic performance of From the Canyons to the Stars...was, I spent most of it sitting on the edge of my seat, wondering whether or not I was going to make my redeye out of LAX. Fortunately, I'll have the chance to hear it again tonight, as performed by Juilliard's Axiom Ensemble at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on 65th Street. And, oh yeah, tickets are free.