Messiaen Festival Off to a Rousing Start
October 6, 2008
By John von Rhein, Tribune Critic
Olivier Messiaen would have been overjoyed by the opening weekend of the University of Chicago ‘s Messiaen Festival in Mandel Hall, a 10-day feast of concerts honoring the centenary of the great French composer and modernist mystic.
Messiaen himself was represented by two minor scores—his birdsong-derived “Oiseaux Exotiques” and his concise, pungent Piece for Piano and String Quartet, written shortly before his death in 1992. The masterpieces will follow later in the festival week.
Saturday’s Contempo concert, organized by artistic director Shulamit Ran and played by eighth blackbird, the Pacifica Quartet and guests, traced the master’s influence on his pupils Gerald Levinson, Pierre Boulez, George Benjamin and Marta Ptaszynska, as well as on Toru Takemitsu, who considered Messiaen his spiritual mentor.
U. of C. professor Ptaszynska’s “Trois Visions de l’Arc-en-Ciel,” commissioned for the festival, had its world premiere. The 20-minute quintet for strings, clarinet, percussion and piano ingeniously filters elements of Messiaen’s harmonic and timbral language through her own eclectic idiom, ending with a rousing original folk dance, Eastern European in flavor.
Like many Messiaen scores, Levinson’s “Time and the Bell ” draws on Balinese gamelan sounds and the rhythms of Indian raga, to pungent effect. Benjamin’s “Viola/Viola” gave violists Masumi Per Rostad and Sibbi Bernhardsson a sonorous bravura workout.
To every score the performers, including pianist Stephen Gosling and conductor Cliff Colnot in the Levinson piece, brought a dedication, virtuosity and intensity of feeling new music needs but doesn’t often receive.