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More Messiaen in a worshipful setting

As the composer's centennial year begins, Jacaranda focuses on his influences and acolytes.

December 11, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Monday was the 99th anniversary of Olivier Messiaen's birth. An important centenary celebration has begun, a year of the hugely influential French composer, who died in 1992. And in the Southland this season and next, Messiaen Central is, curiously and not curiously, the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica.

Curiously, because Messiaen was, in his music and his life, an ecstatic, sensual, unwavering Catholic. And not curiously because First Presbyterian is home to the new music series Jacaranda.

For Jacaranda, Messiaen is a universal musical god, and the series has set out to prove it, with its two-year imaginative examination of "The OM Century," which began in September and which will put the composer in context of his time and ours. On Sunday afternoon, the third program was devoted to composers of Messiaen's youth and some examples of his own first pieces and a couple of works of his followers.

Messiaen could seem a melange of contradictions. He devoutly played organ for Sunday-morning services in Paris while at the same time composing erotically explicit music.

He had a fondness for harmonies so lush they could be just this side of Hollywood, yet he also led the charge of the postwar European avant-garde in the late '40s and early '50s, both as a musical innovator of mathematically advanced serial music and as a hugely influential teacher of Boulez and Stockhausen. He could cast a mystical spell by mimicking the racket of an aviary.

But as Sunday's program for piano and cello, performed by Steven Vanhauwaert and Timothy Loo, nicely illustrated, Messiaen's roots were not that unusual. He was drawn to what was new and important in the Paris of his youth, namely Debussy and Ravel.

Messiaen's first published score -- Eight Preludes, written when he was 19 -- showed him entranced by the colors of Ravel's piano music and the dazzling technique of Debussy's. Vanhauwaert, a Belgian pianist who is in the graduate program at USC, played four of the preludes after having floated through three glittery numbers from Ravel's "Mirrors" and three of Debussy's technically arresting Etudes. Lineages were further revealed by including Liszt's "Fountains of the Villa d'Este," since this flamboyantly watery 19th century piano writing led pretty directly to Ravel.

Still, for all he learned from the examples of Debussy and Ravel, Messiaen's personality was already unmistakable in the teenage Preludes. His infatuation with birds is present in "The Dove." "Ecstatic Song in a Sad Landscape" was the start of a career of ecstatic songs, though more typically in happy heaven. "The Implacable Sounds of a Dream" was the beginning of a Romantic dreaminess that never left him no matter how advanced his music became. "A Reflection in the Wind" is Debussyan but also the music of an implacable naturalist.

Vanhauwaert is a cool customer at the keyboard. First Presbyterian doesn't have quite as good or large a piano as he needed for music of such vibrant sonorities, but his impressive clarity and sense of structure -- to say nothing of a monster technique -- provided an often startling immediacy to all his sure fingers touched.

A more rapturous player and cellist of the Denali String Quartet, Loo joined Vanhauwaert for Debussy's neo-classical Cello Sonata and an early short, sweet Vocalise-Etude, its melody a taffy confection. The fire and ice of cello and piano seemed just about right.

Where all Messiaen's influences led to, and what it meant for his followers, was the program's tease. Vanhauwaert ended with the first of Messiaen's Rhythmic Etudes, "Island of Fire I," from 1950, the work in which the French composer began experimenting with new ways of structuring music that inspired Boulez and Stockhausen.

At the opposite end of the afternoon and the opposite extreme, Vanhauwaert began the program with "Step by Step," a strange piece from 1985 by a Belgian student of Messiaen, Karel Goeyvaerts. The harmonies here had a Messiaen tinge, but the structure reflected the process of rhythmic additions and subtractions common in the early work of Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Toru Takemitsu's "Litany" -- written in 1950, lost, and then written anew in 1989 -- was the other example of Messiaen's wide influence. His French harmony and color could be equally at home in Japan. "The OM Century" was really the OM world.

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