Tag Archives: Olivier Messiaen

Gilbert’s debut at NY Phil bold, promising

Again, apologies for being so long absent on this blog, but everything else is eating up all my time. This seems to be what’s happening to most of the formerly employed journalists I know. We’re all trying to cobble something together from a whole lot of little bits, and too many of these things get too little of our attention.

Mea culpas out of the way, I wanted to say something about Alan Gilbert.

Last night, I tuned in to Gilbert’s debut at the helm of the New York Philharmonic, and I quite enjoyed it. The first half was wonderfully fresh, and the second, while it lacked much of the fire and power of a typical reading of the Symphonie Fantastique, was nevertheless interesting for the sheer polish of the playing. It struck me as an ideal approach for French music; perhaps not for this particular French composer, but ideal nonetheless for a certain kind of writing.

I found it somewhat remarkable that the critical reaction to Gilbert’s debut seems to have been so unfavorable, but to me it looks like everyone was hoping for a comet, a meteor, a blazing presence who would set the world on its ear and inaugurate a new, must-see season for the venerable NY Phil. What they have, just judging by what I saw, is a thoughtful, precise technician who is interested in a smooth, full sound, and has enough courage to start his debut concert with one world premiere by a challenging Finnish modernist and follow it with a song cycle by Messaien, a composer beloved by composers and musicians, but not audiences.

Still, that took guts, and it should be noted that concert programs in the past couple years across the land have started to loosen up and get more daring, and Gilbert brings his attitude of openness to the field at just the right time. I also liked seeing a conductor who has the beat under control and isn’t about to do anything perverse or arbitrary. Lorin Maazel, who is by every account I’ve heard a kind man and a formidable musician, is, it has to be said, a terrible conductor, someone who seems to decide on the spot to throw out the approach he rehearsed and try something else and dare his band to follow him.

I’ll never forget hearing him do very bizarre things with the Mozart Paris Symphony in West Palm Beach a few years back: You could feel the massed tension of the entire orchestra as it tried to figure out what in the heck was going to happen in the next bar. It was a performance that set my teeth on edge.

With Gilbert, however, you got the sense that playing for him was an orchestra happy to be trying new things like the Magnus Lindberg Expo, which is a lousy piece of music, but quite vividly colored and full of good orchestral effects. Yet it was new, and here was a performance by a bunch of great musicians determined to bring it off. I was reminded as I watched that here on stage were people with a tremendous amount of advanced degrees in music, people who in their college years had played pieces like this many times only to have to settle for the canon once they got regular work.  It must have been liberating to tackle a brand-new score, written especially for them by a real composer with real chops.

And the Messaien Poemes pour Mi, too, sung well and passionately by Renee Fleming, particularly Le collier, which to my ears was easily the most accessible of the set. Fleming’s dark voice and palpable engagement with the text made this performance riveting for me, even I don’t find the music all that compelling. It’s decent, perhaps over-indebted to Debussy, but the sheen and luster of the sound that accompanied the singing was exactly what this music calls for.

The Berlioz was less successful because it had so little red blood; each climax and peroration seemed to be over-prepared and over cautious. I’ve never heard an orchestra make quite so much out of that third movement; it seemed to go on and on in a sort of timeless fashion that was in its own way mesmerizing, again because the sound of the orchestra was so glass-like, so unperturbed.

It seems to me that Gilbert likely is naturally an intellectual, and he brought all that to bear on this performance, and probably a little too much of it. But it says great things about him that he began his entire career at the NY Phil with a sweep aside of the current canon, at least in the first half, and that when he did go for an established work in the second half, he chose one that fit admirably with the first two pieces. Brahms, for instance, or Beethoven, would have been all wrong. But choosing Berlioz was the product of deep thinking about the sound world inhabited by the first two pieces, and it was a sharp piece of programming.

On balance, I’m looking forward to more work from Alan Gilbert. His debut might not have been very exciting in sheer bravado and sparkle, but it was tremendously exciting in what it says about the path he is going to set for one of our country’s most important orchestras.  A steady hand on the podium, a deep interest in fresh music, a careful thinker about programming: That’s a pretty good set of qualities to have, and it bodes well for his, and the Phil’s, future music-making.

Messiaen prepares to enter the canon


A friend sends along this article from The Washington Post about Olivier Messiaen, whose 100th birthday celebration ends this week.

Stephen Brookes’ piece makes some good points about the French composer, who’s closer to canonical than most other composers who are relatively recently deceased (Messiaen died in 1992). Certainly the Quartet for the End of Time turns up on chamber music programs with regularity, and there have been several recordings now of his massive piano cycle, the Vingt Regards, which as little as 20 years ago was a novelty on pianists’ programs.

Organists, too, seem to be playing more Messiaen in concert these days, judging by what I’ve heard, and I’ve met several composers over the years who cherish the Turangalila Symphony as a supreme masterwork. In other words, he is probably the next major composer of the past to be considered core repertory; probably Janacek was the most recent addition, a composer whose operas are now frequently done on the stages of the world.

The centennial celebrations have probably moved Messiaen further into the core repertory, thanks at least in part to the kinds of musicians the world is seeing these days: widely versed in all sorts of music, utterly unafraid of any sound combination, extremely accomplished technically. Messaien’s music, stemming from his own formidable techique, seems to require a kind of musician that was in short supply until recently.

What remains to be seen is how much of this music continues to appeal to audiences of succeeding generations. There’s a case to be made that this criterion isn’t important for asssessing the worth of music, but that logic strikes me as alien to the idea of music as communication. I imagine the Quartet will hold up, as will parts of the Vingt Regards, some of the organ pieces, and maybe even an occasional outing for L’Ascension along with the Turangalila.

Personally, and I know this is heresy, I don’t care for his music all that much. His work reminds me at times of Debussy, at others like Bartok, and in his more beatific moments, someone like Alan Hovhaness, with those slow, static, unfolding chords and that atmosphere of intense mysticism. That’s not bad, but while I also find the Vingt Regards quite exciting and often beautiful in small doses, I find it unpersuasive in its jazzier moments and  frequently tedious to listen to. I feel that way about a lot of his music: While I love the eclecticism of his muses, and his devotion to bird sound, there’s something non-integrated about it that leaves me cold.

I’m in no way an expert on Messiaen, and one of the benefits of the centenary celebration for me is that it’s led me to seek out more of his music. I’ve got more listening to do, but so far he seems to me likely to remain an acquired taste.

Here’s the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain doing the fifth movement of the Turangalila. Some very fine playing here: