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Another Opening on Broadway

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
07/11/2000 -  
Olivier Messiaen: Eclairs sur l’Au-Dela…
New York Philharmonic
Hans Vonk (conductor)

Normally staid Lincoln Center became positively avant-garde last evening as the annual summer festival got under weigh with a kaleidoscope of events on the cutting edge of opera, jazz, theatre and symphonic music. There really seemed to be electricity in the air as I strolled through the crowds of tourists in Hawaiian shirts and concert-goers in all forms of dress from denim to formal wear and stopped to feel the excitement of at least several hundred couples dancing to (very rare in New York) country and western music on the plaza that separates the different celebratory venues. Even the unbelievably garish fiberglass cows which are currently littering the streets of New York didn’t dampen my aesthetic pleasure on this exciting night.

The honoree of this year’s music festival is Olivier Messiaen, a composer with an intimate connection to this particular spot. His From the Canyons to the Stars, which will be presented next week, was commissioned by Alice Tully herself and reflects the particular acoustics of the hall which bears her name. For his 80th birthday, Monsieur was feted by a performance of his Turangalila Symphony at Avery Fisher and out of that experience came a commission from Zubin Mehta for last night’s piece, which was premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 1992, the year of the master’s death.

Illuminations of the Beyond… ("lightning flashes" would actually be a better translation) truly sounds like a valedictory work. It is the piece for full orchestra (L’Ascension is an orchestration and thus doesn’t count) that most completely sounds like organ music, the first and last movements a pair of chorales in the style of Bach. There are of course the requisite familiar sounds of this aural painter, the flute section getting a complex workout imitating various bird songs in a bitonal arrangement that seems to be music from the still distant future, and the huge (128 member) orchestra flexing its klangfarben muscles through a variety of spiritual moods. Particularly busy is the 12-member percussion section, creating the overtonal overhang of the gamelan pavilion with a large assortment of gongs and bells. Herr Vonk has a surprisingly gentle take on the music of Messiaen and seemed very much at home with the idiosyncratic idiomatic language of this unique composer. He has a solid command of the architecture of this particular auditory pagoda and, in an understated manner, presided over a yeomanlike performance by the orchestra, whose white jackets helped to conceal the fact that many of the principals are away for the summer. The trumpet section is featured in this work (one of the sections is called "The 7 Angels with 7 Trumpets"), but unfortunately all of the regular personnel were on hand last evening so one could only guess at what notes were actually in the score.

All in all, a great and promising beginning for the festivities. There are four Messiaen concerts in toto and I will be there to cover them all. Although an island unto himself, his was a major voice of the last century and one that should be heard much more often.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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