The People's Opera
A Saint in Three Acts


DSC08385 It will come as little surprise to regular readers that the main motivation for this trip - which has now brought me to Amsterdam, by way of Brussels - is to explore the music of Olivier Messiaen, who lived his entire life in Paris and would have been 100 years old this year. From the moment I left my canal-side hotel room this afternoon, I was confronted with billboards all over town announcing upcoming concerts of his music. The big show in town, however, is at the Musiektheater, where tomorrow afternoon, Messiaen's only opera Saint Francois d'Assise will open. Talk about a jarring contrast with the sex and "coffee" shops of the nearby Red Light district...

DSC08173 My personal journey through Messiaen's music began on Thursday in Paris, where the Church of the Holy Trinity (La Trinite) hosted three separate concerts throughout the day. When I arrived for the first concert around 12:30, the church was less than 1/3 full, which I suppose is understandable for a weekday but still difficult to fathom, given Messiaen's confirmed status as one of the great - if not the great - composers of the 20th Century. And, no place is more important to Messiaen's legacy than La Trinite, where he served as organist for 61 years. It was here that he tested out his musical ideas, here where he developed his spectral, technicolor sound that is so celebrated today. 

DSC08333 The 140 year old church is a beautiful, light-filled edifice, high and narrow. Hanging in the left side of the nave is a large poster of Messiaen, dressed in one of his typical rainbow-colored scarves. It reads: "In Memoriam: Olivier Messiaen 1908-1992." In the rear of the church was another poster showing Messiaen at the organ, advertising the series of concerts Trinite has dubbed "Un arc-en-ciel Theologique" ("A Theological Rainbow"), clearly focusing on the religious aspects of his music. As Messiaen himself would have wanted. 

DSC08195 The day was a celebration of the Feast of the Holy Sacrament, and featured all of the music Messiaen wrote for this important day in the Catholic calendar. In the first concert, organist Loïc Mallié - a former student of Messiaen's at the Paris Conservatory - played Le Banquet Celeste and Offrande au Saint Sacrament - two early works that showed Messiaen at his most meditative. Maille followed it up with an extended improvisation on the plainchant Pange Lingua, which started gently but built into a holy terror of monster chords played at huge volume. His former teacher - who played his own improvisations after every Sunday mass - would have been proud.

DSC08315 After a five hour break, I returned for the short choral work O Sacrum Convivium, performed by voice students invisibly situated up in the high reaches of the nave. On the altar sat a huge monstrance: a shiny brass decoration used to display the blessed sacrament. The rector of the church knelt behind the altar while the students sang the work twice, then held the monstrance aloft for the congregation to witness. Even for a non-believer, it was a powerful and moving spectacle.

DSC08429 The main event was at 8:30, when Mallié returned for a complete performance of Livre du Saint Sacrament, which Messiaen wrote when he was 76 years old, having just spent the previous eight years composing his mammoth opera Saint Francois d'Assise. Each of the 18 pieces that make up the work were introduced by Father Jean-Rodolphe Kars, who was originally a concert pianist specializing in Messiaen. As a result, the performance lasted nearly 2 1/2 hours, without any break. For those DSC08418who aren't familiar with the work, it runs the full spectrum of musical  effects: from near-silent to deafening, from gentle to terrifying. Mallié played it for all he was worth, and was given a warm ovation by the 200 or so who had gathered to hear him. He appeared at the rail with the score, holding it aloft and pointing to the sky. It was, without exaggeration, one of the most overwhelming musical events I have ever experienced.

DSC08592 As if that weren't enough, when I arrived in Brussels yesterday, I stumbled into the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula where an organ concert just happened to be taking place; unfortunately, tourists seemed more interested in snapping pictures than stopping to listen. After a pair of Bach preludes, the organist launched into "Les Anges" and "Dieu Parmi Nous" from La Nativite du Seigneur, which shook the nave to it's core. After he was done, he left the organ loft - suspended fifty feet above the center of the nave - without applause. Well, there might have been one person clapping...

P5300129 Then, last night, I made my way to BOZAR, Brussels' performing arts center, for a performance by the Dresden Staatskapelle with Korean-born Myung-Whun Chung, conducting. These guys are clearly awesome at the German classics - which they offered last night in the form of Beethoven's 5th and Mozart's 20th Piano Concerto (with Lars Vogt). But the opening work on the program, Messiaen's Les Offrandes Oublies, showed them at the height of their range: meditative, tender, enraged. At the end of the ten minute piece, Chung - who worked closely with Messiaen during the last years of his life and made several acclaimed recordings of his work - held his hand aloft for what seemed like a full minute, in silent and powerful tribute to the great master. (The Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam site has a great video of Chung reflecting on his relationship with Messiaen.)


Off now to the Concertgebouw to hear the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra play Mozart and Tchiakovsky: not the sort of fare I normally go for, but the program is less important than the chance to hear a performance in one of the world's great concert halls. Will try to check in once more before I leave on Monday. (More pics after the jump.)