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Messiaen Accomplished

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, LIncoln Center
09/16/2009 -  
Magnus Lindberg: EXPO
Olivier Messiaen: Poèmes pour Mi
Hector Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Opus 14

Renée Fleming (Soprano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Musical Director and Conductor)

Renée Fleming (© Decca/Andrew Accles)

Opening Night for the New York Philharmonic. Its new Musical Director and Composer-in-Residence should have been radiant by itself. The baskets of flowers on three sides of the stage wafted celebration, the Star-Spangled Banner blazed patriotically, and the lack of first-night speechifyin’ showed unusual good taste.

But when Renée Fleming strolled on stage in a luminous jewel-glowing gown, the full house of the Mighty, the Rich and the Mighty Rich were visually relegated into a pauper’s grave. Whether Ms. Fleming had chosen to sing Traviata or Flyin’ Home with her original accompanist, Illinois Jacquet, it would have exceeded satisfaction.

Instead, Ms. Fleming essayed something even more extraordinary, Olivier Messiaen’s novenary tribute to his wife, Poèmes pour Mi. While an early piece, nothing here smacks of any previous French composer. This is tough singing, in both senses of the word, and only the toughest singer can essay its modal passion, its stress, clarity and even horror.

Ms. Fleming has never been a “pretty” singer, and here, she gave the emotion where it was most needed. She could offer the Medieval plainsong of the first song, as well as its repeated “Allelujah”’s. The simplicity of the second song was belied with the utmost coloring. The two horror songs were that of a witch, and Ms. Fleming was never afraid to grunt and groan out Messiaen’s own lines.

Yet a piece like this cannot live without listening to the words. One can hear these poems as declamations of feelings, both religious and carnal. But when Ms. Fleming enunciates each word with the same passion as her soprano can belt out the lines, then the singular strength, and undoubted passion is proven once and for all.

One could conceive Poèmes pour Mi sung by a Wagnerian soprano, a Brunnhilde of sorts. Perhaps Renée Fleming was closer to Ravel’s Sheherezade in sensitivity. Either way, the words and music have a magnificence which glowed with a starry luminosity.

It would be unfair to compare the Messiaen with the Phil’s opening work by their two-year composer-in-residence, Magnus Lindberg for one reason. The Messiaen, both for piano and orchestra with singer, was composed as a labor of love. Mr. Lindberg, one of the most technically accomplished composers alive, wrote a blatant pièce d’occasion for the orchestra, a 12-minute tour de force of quick mood changes, tempo changes, fast modulations, and all the orchestral magic for which the Phil is famed.

Magnus Lindberg (© Hanya Chlala Arena)

EXPO (yes, with caps) started with whirlwind cascades for the strings, continued with some wild brass dance rhythms, a few moody sections and ending with a great bang. If Lindberg wanted to prove himself to his audience and his orchestra, he did a satisfactory job.

The third luminary, conductor Alan Gilbert, took a work more difficult than both Lindberg and Messiaen. Anybody can make the final two movements of the Symphonie Fantastique give off the right fireworks. But holding the first three movements together is not easy. Mr. Gilbert cleverly held back in the first movement, so by the time he came to the grand opium-induced ball, he found the rhythm and kept to it.

He showed great courage for programming three such strenuous works for opening night, but he is obviously a forceful personality. One hopes that the force and courage will stay with him.

Harry Rolnick



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