Thursday, December 20, 2007

Meditating on the Nine Meditations

The most surprising aspect of the life and work of French composer Olivier Messiaen is how such groundbreaking music poured forth from an essentially conservative Catholic man. Messiaen was arguably the most religiously devout composer of our times, and his writing was an intensely personal outpouring of his deep faith. The musical idiom that he fashioned to express his innermost sentiments and beliefs, however, was far from conservative. In the twentieth century he ranks high as one of the most important names in Western music.

This afternoon I heard for the first time Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur, a series of nine meditations on the birth of Christ. At the organ at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue was John Scott, now in his third year as organist and Director of Music at this famous church.

Many thoughts go through the mind while listening to the music of Messiaen, so many that it is hard to put them all into perspective. At first, there is that xenophobic twitch when we enter an undiscovered country. Messiaen's music is not for those who prefer or demand easily digested harmonies. Influenced by Eastern music, by birdsong and by a myriad of styles that basically dispose of traditional Western modes, Messiaen's music is an avant-garde mosaic that rips through any beliefs we might have of what music should be, and forces us to confront our fears, prejudices, and ultimately our own beliefs, secular and otherwise. In performance, at the hands of a virtuoso organist, these meditations have a way of creeping into our inner core because they themselves come from the inner core of a true believer. But make no mistake: Messiaen's music is never dogmatic. The true faith that comes through is his complete belief in the everlasting power of music. In this sense, it is his immense spirituality rather than any rigid adherence to faith that draws us into his difficult compositions. And although the nine meditations are carefully programmed to specific events in the story of the Nativity of Jesus, the general spiritual approach is what the listener takes away from a performance of this work.

Another aspect that impresses us greatly is the sheer difficulty of Messiaen's writing, and the super-human technical virtuosity that an organist must possess in order to play his music. By all accounts, Messiaen himself was a wondrous organist, and this afternoon the composer spoke through John Scott's titanic performance. The mighty sonorities of the church's organ were put to the test time and again. In particular, the last meditation, called "God Among Us" is unusually fiendish, and Mr. Scott sounded secure and inspired as he culminated the work in an exultant resolved E major chord that assured us that the living faith is very much alive this holiday season.

Monday, December 10, 2007

La Scala opens with a new "Tristan und Isolde"

Here is the Associated Press review of Opening Night of La Scala, Milan.

Daniel Barenboim
made a triumphant debut Friday night as principal guest conductor at La Scala's gala premiere of "Tristan und Isolde," receiving 20 minutes of applause, a shower of roses and shouts of "bravi."

The performance dispelled labor tensions that have hung over the famed Milanese opera house, as musicians and management alike sought to keep the melodrama strictly on the stage.

The spare production was directed by Patrice Chereau, whose sparse choreography amid industrial sets of slate walls, gave the tragic love story a realistic background void of overt symbolism.

German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier, a Wagner veteran who carried the evening, starred as "Isolde" to British tenor Ian Storey's "Tristan."

The production was the realization of Barenboim's long-held and twice-failed desire to stage the opera with Chereau. It was the first time in nearly two decades that Wagner opened the season at the theater better associated with Verdi and the first time in 29 years the orchestra played Tristan.

"I think they played marvelously," Barenboim told reporters after the premiere. "It is not an easy opera and they played like they have been playing it their whole lives. I was confident, I knew they knew everything there was to know."

While Barenboim reckoned he has conducted "Tristan" more than any other opera, he said the collaboration with Chereau "breathed new life" into the production admired even by those who find the German conductor too heavy.

"In Chereau, I found my ideal partner," he said.

After recent walkouts by workers blocked Barenboim twice from conducting Verdi's "Requiem," everyone from the audience to musicians to management sought to focus on the premier and not on the still unresolved labor dispute.

The contract for La Scala's 800 employees expired four years ago and there is still no agreement on a new one. But musicians said they were putting labor issues aside in order to give the performance their fullest.

General manager Stephane Lissner thanked the workers for putting the season-opener, a key cultural event in Milan, ahead of the labor tensions.

"It's an emotional night for me, because we achieved this success after all of the difficulties of the last weeks," Lissner said after the show.

La Scala's traditional Dec. 7 season opening, held on the day honoring Milan's patron saint Ambrose, puts Italy's financial and fashion capital in the international spotlight. Foreign heads of state regularly attend and this year Italian President Giorgio Napolitano was joined by the presidents of Austria, Germany and Greece as well as the emir of Qatar.

Admission runs up to $2,900, while the infamous opera buffs who frequent the upper tiers of La Scala's balconies, the "loggionisti," wait in line to pay $73 for standing-room tickets.

With "Tristan," Barenboim assumes his new role as "Maestro of La Scala," an honorific title created for the Argentine-born conductor after the acrimonious 2005 departure of music director Riccardo Muti.

While no music director has been named per se, Barenboim, who is also music director of the Staatsoper in Berlin, will be chief among guest conductors who also include also Daniele Gatti and Riccardo Chailly.