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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Bach and Messiaen: Sheryl Staples, Violin, Sherry Sylar, Oboe, New York Philharmonic, Kent Nagano, Conductor, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, March 26, 2005 (BH)

J.S. Bach: Contrapunctus I, from Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue), BWV 1080 (c. 1742-46; orch. Ichiro Nodaira 2002)
J.S. Bach: Concerto in D minor for Oboe, Violin and Strings, BWV 1060 (ca. 1717-23)
J.S. Bach: Fugue with Three Subjects (fragment), from Die Kunst der Fuge (orch. Ichiro Nodaira 2002)
Messiaen: Éclairs sur l’au-delà...(Illuminations of the Beyond…; 1987-91)


What is it about Olivier Messiaen that seems to galvanize programmers’ inspiration? In October 2003, Christoph Eschenbach paired the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Turangalîla Symphony with a Balinese Gamelan performance in one of the most invigorating evenings of the New York season. Last Saturday night, Kent Nagano and the New York Philharmonic offered what will surely go down as one of the most memorable concerts of the year, with a startling program spanning over two centuries of compositional thought.

Composer Ichiro Nodaira teaches at the University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo, and has arranged Bach’s The Art of the Fugue for an ensemble totaling 29 musicians, of which only a few play in each part, resulting in a distinctive texture for each section. (The “Contrapunctus I” uses eleven players; the “Fugue with Three Subjects” uses fifteen.) Nodaira’s crystalline approach elucidates all the subjects clearly, and is a sensitively imagined solution to the implied challenge of arranging Bach’s keyboard masterpiece. The friend with me (whom I gather does not spend much time with this composer) said, “That was great – who would have thought that I’d say that about Bach!” In between came the Concerto in D Minor, the Philharmonic’s leader, Sheryl Staples, offered joyous playing, beautifully intoned, and her colleague, Sherry Sylar (Associate Principal oboe) also revealed a fine-grained sound – both seemed delighted to be playing this piece. Nagano offered gentle cueing, even graciously lowering his arms to offer the soloists extra leeway on occasion. Then we returned to Nodaira’s thoughts with the fragment from the “Fugue with Three Subjects” and true to its name, it ended with an abrupt halt, Cynthia Phelps’ beautiful viola line left hanging in mid-phrase – a provocative bridge to the second half.

Éclairs sur l’au-delà...(Illuminations of the Beyond) was written in 1992 for the New York Philharmonic, and turned out to be the composer’s final work. It is an intense, demanding experience – one that requires an expert interpreter to bring it to life – and Nagano and the orchestra chiseled a monolith. (Not to mention that it was almost an ideal concert for the Easter season, given its subject matter and the Catholic piety of the composer.) In eleven sections lasting a bit over an hour, the work uses an immense ensemble – indeed, it appeared larger than for some of the orchestra’s Mahler outings – including an outrageous woodwind contingent of six flutes, three piccolos and ten clarinets of various types. (Not all listeners may have been amused, but more on this later.) Each section in the orchestra has its day and not always simultaneously, since Messiaen often gives the strings a high moment, followed by a passage for virtually nothing but brass. From the very beginning, “Appearance of Christ in Glory,” the Philharmonic’s brass section had a precise glow that it sustained over the entire span. (The whole section got whoops from the audience at the end.) As with Bruckner and some other composers, Messiaen’s stark blocks of sound do not reward mistakes, and (not that a concert is one long dash toward perfection) I didn’t hear any. The percussion players are constantly on their toes. Other composers ration sharp sounds for a single moment of drama; Messiaen calls for those same instruments used repeatedly in passages that must cause mild carpal tunnel syndrome. The strings, especially the violins, displayed an ardor perfectly suited to the composer’s heart-on-sleeve reverence, and the woodwinds, often charged with painting indelible portraits such as of the “Superb Lyrebird” (of Australia), seemed to take full advantage of Avery Fisher Hall’s slightly over-bright acoustic. By the end of the work, Nagano was gazing upward during the final dying chords.

Now, not everyone agreed. Indeed, more than any other concert I’ve attended recently, this one – or rather, the second half – seemed to engender the most audience tension, and my gut told me that immediately following the final chord, some “boos” would ring out (though none did). People were tapping feet in impatience, reading programs extensively (and not the notes, either – we’re talking Philharmonic administration and donor lists), coughing in passive opinion-making and dropping coins on the floor. If only a mobile phone had detonated during “To Abide in Love,” the evening would have been bizarrely complete.

Three characteristics of Éclairs might have encouraged such impatience: 1) the use of physically extreme sounds, in particular: the whip (not an actual whip, but a sharp crack made by two wooden slats clapped together), some sizzling cymbals, also used at an irrational length and volume, and a bevy of flutes and piccolos – six of the former and three of the latter – creating a shrill hive of high pitches. I noticed at least five or six of the orchestra’s musicians protecting their ears during “The Seven Angels with the Seven Trumpets,” whose piercing decibel level is now probably on some listeners’ “to avoid” list. Second, the presence of many long pauses between phrases is a Messiaen hallmark, but one whose verticality can totally annihilate the momentum, especially for those expecting the propulsive motion of the Bach pieces. One way to consider these rests is as necessary space – essential breathing room surrounding Messiaen’s column-like blocks of sound, but Nagano’s patience may have lost some potential converts.

Finally, the composer’s sometimes-mad repetitiveness totally flies in the face of the unspoken compositional rule that one must not repeat a musical figure more than twice. (Although I haven’t seen the score, and during the performance I was transported enough to lose count, I would bet that in the aforementioned fifth and longest section, “To Abide in Love,” the thematic figure is repeated dozens of times.) The composer also uses specific timbres much longer than anyone else, such as in the final “Christ, Light of Paradise” with strings again in rapturous high registers, but against a backdrop of burning, shimmering triangle that is present for virtually the entire movement. Perhaps the lesson is that religious ecstasy doesn’t make anything close to perfect sense.

Bruce Hodges



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)