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Into The Void

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
07/18/2000 -  
Olivier Messiaen: "Des canyons aux etoiles…"
Peter Serkin (piano)
William Purvis (horn)
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Reinbert de Leeuw (conductor)

Alice Tully is not just a name on a concert venue in New York but was, like Avery Fisher, a major force in the musical life of this greatest of all cities. Lately the civic administration has helped to celebrate Lincoln Center Plaza by naming its surrounding streets after two other vibrant figures in the vital organism that is New York music, Leonard Bernstein and George Balanchine. Ms. Tully commissioned Olivier Messiaen to inaugurate her now famous concert space with a large-scale work designed to fill the intimate setting with as much music as physically possible. Calculating the size of the stage then under construction, the French composer wrote a massive piece for 44 musicians inspired by another space, the cavernous reaches of Bryce Canyon in Utah near Zion National Park (now the home of Mount Messiaen). When the magnificent forces of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presented this work in 1999 they performed it in its original small space but now, under the auspices of the Lincoln Center Festival, have moved to the big hall normally reserved for full-sized symphony orchestras or superstar soloists. The resulting large sound seemed more natural in the reverberating canyons of the parquet and, undoubtedly, in the seats of the eagles of the balconies as well.

As reported last year, this ensemble presents this mammoth work as well as it will ever be performed. Mr. Serkin is totally committed to this music, even gently twisting the arms of his former colleagues in the chamber group Tashi to mount this adventurous production as members of the Chamber Music Society. He himself is extremely impressive in the multitudinous notes that make up each measure of the solo movements. Messiaen wrote these tours-de-force for his wife Yvonne Loriod in much the same loving manner as Bela Bartok wrote his more simple pieces for his bride Ditta Pazstory, except that Messiaen filled his nanoseconds with hemidemisemiquavers befitting the extreme dexterity of both Ms. Loriod’s nimble fingers and exceptional intellect. Serkin, himself a relative of musical greatness, seems right at home in these horizontal clusters, speaking the native tongue of modernism fluently and eager to translate his enthusiasm to an eager public. Likewise William Purvis is an amazing artist, stretching the limits of his most difficult of instruments and producing exotic sounds with unusual crooks, embouchures and positionings (including blowing directly onto the strings of the piano). Add to this a gamelan of a percussion section (with special praise reserved for glockenspiel player Jeffrey Milarsky) and the resulting mix is a splendid recreation of nature’s glory and kaleidoscopic power.

It is hard to imagine a more passionate or experienced conductor for this unique music than Reinbert de Leeuw. His commitment is contagious and he certainly wrings every last drop of emotion from this difficult score. Somehow, however, I have the feeling that Monsieur may have rushed this piece a little and written it primarily for the lucrative fee rather than for the further glory of his Dieu. All of the elements of Messiaenic music are there, but ultimately there is nothing new under this particular star and the requisite birdsongs seem only pale imitations of weightier works such as the Turangalila. But this is music making of a very high order and, as such, stands out as a wonderful evening in the concert hall, suggesting that any space (even, or perhaps especially, the inner one) should always be filled with such abounding and everlasting joy.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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