Santa Monica Pilgrimage

Messiaen, Dutilleux and Gubaidulina – all on the same program! Hard to pass up. So I pointed the old white Mazda up the 5, the 73, the 405 and the 10 to Santa Monica Saturday night for my first experience with the wonderful Jacaranda concert series at the First Presbyterian Church.

The first half was comprised of three Messiaen organ works – the second and fifth movements of Meditations sur le mystere du Sainte Trinite and the concluding “Dieu parmi nous” from La Nativete du Seigneur. I’ve been listening to Messiaen for 35 years or so, my knowledge of his organ output confined to recordings of La Nativete, L’Ascension and Livre du Saint Sacrement. Though I’ve always had mixed feelings about him as a composer, I looked forward to an overdue first live helping of the organ music – one of the most striking slices of his oeuvre.

The soloist, Jacaranda co-founder Mark Alan Hilt, did not disappoint. He played brilliantly, displaying a fine feel for Messiaen’s singular sonic universe and infusing as much dynamics as the music allows. The organ pipes at First Pres are spread across an unusually wide physical space, an ideal setup for exploring the possibilities of stereo spatiality in the music. Hilt had clearly spent much time on the registrations and it paid off for the audience, providing a maximum palette for Messiaen’s color-inspired effusions and his obsessional expropriation of birdsong. A stunning performance.

Yet, for all the rapturous descriptions written over the years of this composer’s “multi-hued sound world,” “innovative rhythmic structures,” devotional characteristics placing his organ works “halfway between heaven and earth,” and the like, I was left somewhat cold. Messiaen is incontestably one of the most original figures of modern music. In both his organ and orchestral music, however, the same devices are heard over and over – the extraterrestrial-but-faintly-saccharine-sounding harmonies, the all-the-subtlety-of-a-sledgehammer “elbow” chords, the delightful birdsong (whose relevance to the compositional whole I sometimes wonder about), the computer-like dynamics and – most annoyingly for me, his predilection for resolving highly complex harmonic movement into bone-simple triads. Messiaen gave the world something unique, without question. But I feel that his style of writing is so hyper-organized and, at times, grandiose, that it often precludes any sense of spontaneity and ambiguity, qualities that count for a lot with me in musical expression.

A stark comparison was afforded by Hilt’s magical second-half performance of Sofia Gubaidulina’s only solo organ work, Light and Darkness, a 1976 piece of about eight minutes. I’m still gathering my impressions of the 80-year-old composer from the Tatar Republic, but Light and Darkness struck me as clearly outdistancing the Messiaen works in terms of expression – in a fraction of the duration. Recordings have shown Gubaidulina’s virtuosity in ensemble writing to be on a lofty level; this gift was transferred here to a single instrument in such a way as to convincingly suggest more than one player without needing to lean unduly on the organ’s considerable multitimbral capacity. I would have to hear Light and Darkness again to give a detailed description of the music. It was mysterious, spare, devoid of rhetoric – and utterly spellbinding. Above all, the piece left the impression of a consummate artist working by intuition, both refined and raw, wherever it may lead — rather than a system.

Equally breathtaking was Henri Dutilleux’s Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher, a solo cello piece masterfully played by Timothy Loo. Dutilleux, now 96, remains little known to the American public, but I consider him in the very top rank of living composers. An unmatched craftsman of both sound and architecture, his relatively modest output includes two superb symphonies, several concertos, a number of standalone orchestral works, a solo piano catalogue and a string quartet. Trois Strophes is of the same high quality, managing to be both deeply thoughtful and a display piece in the best possible way. Dutilleux deploys all the standard articulations – from arco to pizzicato, harmonics, tremolo sul ponticello, strumming and plucking open strings while playing a figure on others – so seamlessly and in such an organic-sounding fashion that the listener can almost accept the notion of this four-stringed instrument as an orchestra unto itself. Yet the poetic element is never absent; Dutilleux has always had a lot of technique in his quiver but it is invariably placed in the service of the music. I can only surmise that the fabulously talented Loo had a ball learning and playing this piece. It’s a cellist’s dream.

The evening ended with something of a head scratcher: Gubaidulina’s intermittently raucous Risonanza, scored for these curious forces – organ, three trumpets, four trombones and six strings. The piece begins with an ear-piercing shriek from a piccolo trumpet and proceeds on a journey dominated by the brass, with the organ often providing a suffusing sonic underpinning. Risonanza has a consciously avant-garde flavor to it, though Gubaidulina provides plenty of substance along the way. On first listening, I had trouble discerning the arc of the piece. The thought “What was the point of that?” took hold after the concert, but I would certainly give Risonanza another listen. It is clearly a piece of virtuosic writing making virtuosic demands on the brass players, who acquitted themselves marvelously.

I left kicking myself for not having learned about the Jacaranda series earlier. The stellar musicianship and interesting, penetrating repertoire are to be treasured. I’ll be back.

— April 23, 2012


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