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Desert Songs

New York
Alice Tully Hall
07/12/2000 -  
Ron Ford: Salome Fast (U.S. Premiere)
Edgard Varese: Deserts
Olivier Messiaen: Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine

Naurez Atto (speaker)
Valerie Hartmann-Claverie (ondes-martenot)
Peter Serkin (piano)
Women of the Vox Vocal Ensemble, Asko Ensemble, Schoenberg Ensemble
Reinbert de Leeuw (conductor)

The multifaceted Lincoln Center Festival continued last evening with the first of the "Electronic Evolution" concerts designed to acquaint an adventurous public with the basic progressions of musique concrete and its influences on the music of the present day. Although the festival as a whole is concentrating on the American composer Meredith Monk, the concerts that I am covering are those which feature the work of Olivier Messiaen, whose close association with Ginette Martenot helped to popularize the idea of wave generation as a legitimate element in serious art music. Perhaps because of the other evening’s presentation of Illuminations of the Beyond… I was in a cosmic mood and appreciated this concert of extremely high quality musicianship in an introspective metaphysical state heightened in its essential loneliness by three distinct views of the sounds of the desert.

Ron Ford has emerged from Kansas City as an impressively creative artist, combining elements of theatre and music to produce a haunting piece of performance art evoking a spectral remembrance of the bloody death of John the Baptist as wisps of Aramaic sound bouncing around the vast parabola of the Levantine desert and electronically transformed into snippets of tone reverberating in the imagination like the life achievements of Ozymandias. Naurez Atto dramatically spoke her native Syrian as the cry of a banshee and blended this electronically altered poetry skillfully with the daringly emotional orchestral performance. Her character’s voiceprints seem to still exist somewhere in the sands of time.

Even more powerful was the execution of the Varese, one of the truly pioneering works in the genre. Hearing a live performance intermingled with the tape realized by the composer himself produced an eerie feeling of actually hearing Varese performing in a contemporary setting, like playing a recording of Rachmaninoff at the piano accompanied by a live orchestra. The essential feeling of desertion and loneliness was painfully exquisite in the hands of such an accomplished conductor as de Leeuw and his highly professional Dutch ensembles. They are able to handle this extremely complex music seemingly effortlessly, allowing us to immerse ourselves in the sumptuous moment. When the inevitable cell phone rang in the audience, I thought that it might have been old Edgard himself on the line.

If anyone could ever make me believe in a supreme being, it would be Messiaen. Spectacularly gorgeous and ethereal, this performance of the Trois Petites is as good as it gets. Peter Serkin was a little tentative at first but soon hit his stride and Ms. Hartmann-Claverie (are there any ondes-martenot players in the world who haven’t studied with Jeanne Loriod?) sent those waves of sound out with such love and vibrato as to chill the blood and melt the heart at the same time. The text speaks of the "desert of love" that is our relationship to God and fills us all with pantheistic wonder. The unnamed vocal soloist and all of her mates sang like angels (recalling the "hymn to the sun" from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder) and recited like Greek choristers (recalling Moses und Aron). This night I was really moved by Messiaen’s unique blending of nature and spirituality and this experience made me rethink some earlier performances that I had assumed were satisfactory but perhaps missed the essential proselytizing point. In true festival atmosphere it was delightful to see Hans Vonk in the audience, spending his night off from the Philharmonic basking in the glow of such deep musical radiance. Messiaen inspires this sort of communal feeling in his dedicated followers and, at least on this night, everyone at Alice Tully was a believer.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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