LENOX, MA - In the summer of 1949, Aaron Copland invited Olivier Messiaen, who at that time was little-known in the U.S., to be a composer-in-residence at Tanglewood, which was just then entering its second decade. During his time in the Berkshires, Messiaen composed, taught the TMC fellows, and worked with Leonard Bernstein on preparations for the premiere of his Turangalîla-Symphonie later that fall. (Lenny's holding the score in this pic, with Messiaen looking on a bit nervously from the left.) Messiaen would return to Tanglewood a second time more than a quarter-century later for another performance of Turangalila, this time with Seiji Ozawa conducting.
Beyond music, it isn't clear what Messiaen did in the Berkshires, though it's likely he spent a fair amount of time watching and listening to birds, as was his lifelong habit. For Messiaen, birds represented a form of purity in music, which at the time was at risk of losing its soul at the hands of total serialism - of which Messiaen himself was an early proponent. It was around that same time that Messiaen had begun to transcribe birdsong and incorporate it into his music, capturing its chirping rhythms and often-brusque timbre more precisely than anyone before him.
Last year, in his final season as artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival, the multi-faceted pianist and educator Pierre-Laurent Aimard designed a unique program in which he performed Messiaen's mammoth Catalogue d'oiseaux (Catalogue of the Birds, 1958) over the course of an entire day, in locations both indoors and out. For Aimard, who was a friend and student of Messiaen's for more than 20 years, this was more than a mere stunt: each of the thirteen pieces, some lasting nearly half-an-hour, were written to capture a bird and its landscape at specific times of the day.
Last week, Aimard brought his concept to Tanglewood, in a slightly less compressed format that began Thursday morning at the Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Lenox, about a ten minute drive north of Tanglewood. Despite the bright and early hour of 7am (!), a rustic barn outfitted with a Steinway grand was packed to capacity, with an overflow crowd seated on the sloping hill outside.
Following welcome remarks by Tanglewood director Tony Fogg, who raised the "tantalizing possibility that Messiaen himself visited Pleasant Valley", Aimard arrived onstage, looking as alert as if it were 7pm. The small barn soon shook with the dissonant chords and thunderous bass of The Black-eared Wheatear, which sounded like the complete opposite of a pastoral landscape. Nevertheless, the crowd was transfixed, clearly captivated by Aimard's deeply engaged performance.For the second piece, The Eurasian Reed-warbler, I moved outside to the lawn where a gentle rain had begun to fall. The music was still loud and clear, but now the resident players of Mass Audubon - the red-eyed vireo, the catbird, the veery - chimed in, responding audibly to Aimard's piano with a chorus of their own. It was like an earth-affirming concerto that Messiaen himself could hardly have imagined.
After the concert, I had a brief conversation with Fogg, who told me that they had worked with Pleasant Valley for about a year in preparation for this event, which included renovating the barn to make it performance ready. (Two additional performances of selections from Catalogues d'oiseaux were held on Friday and Saturday morning by TMC Fellows.)
"We're always looking to try new things here at Tanglewood," Fogg told me.
I then joined two of Pleasant Valley's knowledgeable ornithologists on a guided walk through the sanctuary, where we heard - if not always saw - at least a dozen different birds, reminding me of the birdwalks Mostly Mozart programmed in 2012 as part of their focus on the connection between birds and music. I thought I knew a thing or two then, but up in Lenox, I was clearly among the least knowledgeable participants; one of the guides informed me that "birding" is now the second most popular hobby in America, after gardening. Who knew? (I was directed to the Cornell-curated website Allaboutbirds.org to get a better grip on birds and their various songs, as well as the UK-based blog DIY Garden for tips on how to attract songful birds to your own garden.)
Twelve hours later, Aimard was back onstage, this time at Ozawa Hall for one of his patented concert presentations, combining a wide-range of music with trenchant commentary that mirrored the transparency of his playing. Here, Aimard's focus was on the inspiration composers have found in birds over the centuries, starting with Louis-Claude Daquin's simple, literal replications of the swallow and cuckoo, originally written for harpsichord (1735). Schumann's "The Prophet Bird" (from Waldszenen, 1849) was more moody and symbolic than representational, while Ravel's "Sad Birds" (from Miroirs, 1905) was, according to Aimard, less about birds than man's fear of nature, the music a direct precursor of Messiaen's Oiseaux.
Julian Anderson's"Nuits," part of a suite called Sensations (2016) he wrote for Aimard, was not the peaceful nocturne one might expect, but a dark cacophony of trills and warbles, combining everything from birds and trees, to frogs and toads. Aimard ended the first half with Bartók's extraordinary Out of Doors suite (1926), in which, according to Aimard, he invented a "new kind of music" meant to replace the traditional courtliness of the concert hall with the down-to-earth sounds of everyday people: one hears bagpipes, drums, pipes. Then comes the extraordinary "The night's music", which is insistently repetitive and absolutely spooky, getting under my skin in a way I haven't felt in a very long time. The suite ended with a fast and furious chase, hurtling towards a violent conclusion.
The second half consisted of three more selections from Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux, here focusing on nocturnal birds. "The curlew" was almost insane in its wide-ranging intensity: it went from soft to loud, then back again before exploding with a crushing dissonance. "The tawny owl" made the most of the owl's two-note song, creating an ominous sense of foreboding through serial techniques. "The woodlark" was dark and hushed, cryptically described in the score as "poetic, liquid, unreal." Prior to each, a recording of each of the three birds (recorded by French composer Bernard Fort) was projected into the hall, most of which sounded vastly different from Messiaen's final conception.
As Aimard stood and humbly accepted our standing ovation, you could feel that we were applauding not just an extraordinary performance, but a powerful artistic statement: that music is not just a reflection of the natural world, but wholly inseparable from it. Messiaen, whose grave in the French Alps is crowned with a bird in flight, clearly lived that truth - and in so doing played an outsized role in saving music from its own self-destruction. Experiencing these concerts at Tanglewood, where music coexists with nature like nowhere else, only served to galvanize those of us lucky enough to be there.