Today is the 100th anniversary of  the birth of Olivier Messiaen. Three days ago at Saint James Cathedral in Seattle WA I witnessed a performance  of his La Nativité du Seigneur .  Saint James Cathedral, n conjunction with Saint Marks Cathedral, staged a complete cycle of Messianen’s Organ work and last night, mere days before the composers birthday, was the final night. La Nativité du Seigneur was not Messiaen’s final composition for organ, but considering the subject matter and the time of year, perhaps appropriate to place it this time of year.  

Organ at St. James
The Rosales Organ at Saint James        

Saint James has two main organs(1) one at each end of the primary hall, each beautifully set into the space provided at each end of the cathedral. Tonight’s concert took place upon the Rosales Organ whose 48 pipes are set between magnificent stained glass in the east apse. Though it incorporates the pipes of the original 1926 organ this is a modern instrument with a console that can store stops electronically and change them a the touch of a button. It also allows control of the 1906 Hutchings-Votey organ in the west gallery, which was certainly used in this performance. The sound in the cathedral was very good; excellent depth and reverberation but not as echoy or as sharp as smaller halls can be, nor dry and clean as a too large a space. In essence you can tell the the cathedral was designed with an organ in mind and it as a sounding chamber for the organ it is quite successful.     


Messiaen was a church organist himself and the organ that he performed on throughout his life was constructed in 1869 but extensively remodeled, adding additional stops and new technology multiple times.  By the end of his career the organ was not too far from what this organ was – it had pneumatic bellows, modern windchests and electronic keys and stop action. Like this organ Messiaen had insisted that the key facets of the original organ remain thus giving it the sound of the original yet the benefit of current technology for the performer(2).

The consoleThe Cathedral Organst at St. James, Joseph Adam(3) was the organist for tonight’s recital and I have to say he played the piece impeccably. He certainly is an accomplished organist having received numerous prizes and accolades from the organ establishment and having been the Cathedral organist for 15 years. He often performs abroad and locally and apparently regularly on the Watjen Concert Organ Seattle Symphony’s Benaroya Hall. Having failed to experience the Watjen so far I’m going to keep my eyes open for his next appearance there. I only have one recording of this piece, but it is by Messiaen himself and hence is in my mind definitive. Adam’s reading was a little slower I think, but perhaps it was simply the pauses he added in between the nine movements, which I’m sure Messiaen would also incorporate in performance, but could be edited out of a recording.  Also with the limitations of recording in 1956 he may have altered aspects of the piece to fit, but there is no mention of this in the liner notes so, just speculation. But this is my benchmark and how I judged this performance.

La Nativité du Seigneur apparently is the most frequently performed of Messiaen’s organ works which is interesting in that it is both highly modern (for 1935 when it was composed) utilizing numerous techniques of 20th Century composition, but also following in the romantic tradition of trying to paint pictures with music, to directly illustrate the story of the birth of christ.  It is explained in the program thus:

La Nativité du Seigneur was the first of Messiaen’s great organ cycles to combine the various compositional techniques the composer had been developing — almost all are present, including the use of modes of limited transposition, Hindu rhythms, the inspiration of plain-chant and birdsong, added rhythmic values, and the representation of the suspension of time; the only principal means of expression missing are monody and serial techniques. In addition, the cycle is Messiaen at his most picturesque, utilizing musical means to illustrate not only theology, but the momentous events and scenes of the birth of Christ” – Joesph Adams (3)

The piece is in nine parts and there is quite a bit of difference between the parts. At times I felt I could map some of the sections to the traditional story of the nativity but other parts seemed highly abstract with traces of dissonance and parts that seemed darker then you’d expect (not that there aren’t dark parts surrounding the birth christ mythos). Once one considers that for some of the nine meditations he is illustrating theological ideas musically this is a lot more clear. The excellent program notes go through each of these and explain what Messiaens goal in each was.  I hadn’t read this pior to the concert but they have certainly helped with my later understanding. This piece would have these odd little melodies which would be repeated and subtly undercut but pedal work or contrasted against on a different manual. There were  movements with closely arrayed tones that’d clash and beat against each other in a way that would make your inner ear vibrate.  Certain parts were very pastoral, trying to paint the traditional imagery of the nativity in your mind, others were huge cataclysmic wrath of God level, dark brooding abstractions.  One great section used high and mid-range pipes from the other organ in the far end of the cathedral in the most amazing “surround sound” experience.  The nine movements kept it interesting, always shifting and constantly changing. Over the course of a bit more then an hour each meditation is able to develop and explore its idea but never becomes stale or overwrought.

A closer view of some of the pipes 

I try to catch a couple of organ concerts every year, (always the annual All-Bach at Saint Marks) and this would be the first concert of 20th Century music I’ve heard. The church organ hasn’t really been of much interest to modern composers, many of whom have little interest in the church. A life long catholic and church organist himself Messiaen was an exception to this but he also was exceptional in that he avoided the dogmatism of many modern composers.  He constantly utilized and invented new techniques but always integrating them into his style. He never gave himself over entirely to a single system ala the serialists, but would mix serialism in with the transposition of modes, or transcribed birdsong or what have you.  This gives his music quite a different flavor and while I don’t like all of his compositions there is plenty in his ouevre of interest. So while his music doesn’t have the exploratory or experimental nature of my favorite 20th Century works, Messiaen is a unique figure and one whose music I find well worth exploring. The organ works, even with the heavy religious components, are probably my favorite of his and I was impressed to see the two churches putting on this complete transversal of these pieces.  Alas this was the only one that I was able to attend, but I hope that the series was popular (this one sure was) enough for the church to play his compositions more regularly.

1) Saint James Cathedral Organ webpages (St. James Cathedral, 2008)
2) Messian Å’uvres pour Orgue liner notes (EMI, 1957/1992)
3) La Nativité du Seigneur concert program (St. James Cathedral, 2008)

For the last three years I’ve been attending the annual All Bach Concert at Saint Marks Cathedral in the Capital Hill neighborhood of Seattle.  They have a beautiful pipe organ and wonderful acoustics there and they do a series of organ recitals every year. The final concert of the series is always the All Bach concert which is as the name denotes a concert of works soley by Johann Sebastian Bach.  I really should start attending more of the concert series but making just the Bach concert has been quite rewarding. It appears that next year in celebration of Messiaen’s 100th anniversary that they will be doing two concerts devoted to his works which personally I love, so I’m going to try to make those. But for this year it was only the All Bach show I made and this year it was performance of the Goldberg variations.

This year the featured organist was Daniel Sullivan playing his own arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Normally at these recitals I get to hear a number of pieces from Bach’s vast oeuvre that I’m unfamiliar with. Anyway with even a passing interest in Bach, or for that matter classical music in general has heard the Goldberg variations.  A piece that I’ve loved since childhood I have actually been reengaged with it of late thanks to Richard Egarr’s fantastic historically informed harpshichord recording. Considering the ubiquity of this piece I really can’t imagine that anyone who reads this not being at least of passing familiarity of it. So I’m not going to go into much detail or background on the piece, the incredibly thorough Wikipedia page is recommended for those who want more information in that regard.

The concert began at 7:30pm so as usual I was hard pressed to leave work at a normal hour and still make it there. Shockingly I made it across the notoriously choked with traffic 520 bridge and to the church in a mere 20 minutes from my home arrive 15 minutes early.  I definitely prefer to have a bit of time to relax and read the program before a concert so this was ideal circumstance. I’ve been making a point of picking up a CD from each of the All-Bach organists so I took this chance to acquire Sullivan’s recently released recording of the Goldbergs.

Soon enough Daniel Sullivan was introduced and the concert began.  When transcribing a piece from one instrument to the other there are a lot of choice to be made. Going from the harpsichord to the organ provides quite the panoply of choices when you consider its vast dynamic range, the huge number of stops and voices.  The temptation certainly exists to go to one extreme or the other: minimalist in trying to emulate the harpsichords sound and range, or in the opposite direction fully utilizing that range and all those stops.  I’m happy to report that Sullivan took the wise middle ground. He stuck more or less within the range of the piece only using the immense power of the organs low end for emphases on some of the more dramatic variations. He kept to a set of stops that seemed almost thin for the organ, yet much richer then the harpsichord. At times he’d pull out some stops that I’d certainly not heard before but always in a very tasteful way. In general he’d do this to emphasize the kaleidoscopic nature of the counterpoint on some of the variations. At times these almost clashed which provides something akin to the frisson of a touch of dissonance in an otherwise harmonically straight piece.  All in all the choice of sounds and dynamics was restrained, yet interesting always adding to the piece and never descending into showy gimmickry.

While I don’t think that organ transcriptions of this piece will replace the harpsichord for me I have to say I greatly enjoyed this. The resonance of the church and all the variety and range of the organ are why I love to go to these performances. The maze like qualities of Bach compositions is wholly engaging and a piece like the Goldbergs pushes that to the limits.  Another great All-Bach recital which merely strengthens my resolve to continue my tradition of attendance.

As I’ve mentioned previously this has really been a good year for 20th Century Composition in the Pacific Northwest. The string of great performances continued on with a rare visit of Stephan Drury to Seattle thanks to the Washington Composers Forums Transport Series. What with the Feldman Marathon and Frederic Rzewski’s recent performance, his selection of works from those composers seemed almost a continuation of those events. The concert had been listed on the Chapel’s blog for a while but with just the Rzewski piece listed. As this is such a great piece I had already planned to attend and when with a late update to the listing the Feldman piece was added it was just gravy.  Alas at the same time they also changed the concert start time to 7:30 which means I’d have to leave work early to make it. Compounding this situation was an incredibly rare mid-April snowstorm. Luckily things are a bit slack for me at work this week and I was able to leave early enough that I made it to the show a few minutes before start time. What with the foul weather they ended up starting around 7:45 so it wasn’t quite as tight as I feared.

I: Palais de Mari (c. Morton Felman)
I’m quite familiar with this piece having heard several recordings of it and having seen Ivan Sokolov perform it earlier this year as part of the Seattle Chamber Player’s Feldman Marathon so this would be an interesting comparison. Drury gave us a brief introduction to the piece mainly mentioning that this was Feldman’s final solo piano piece and that like the bulk of his works was instructed to be played softly. He also mentioned that one of Feldman’s primary concerns in his late works was patterns often constructed from repetitions of short segments inspired somewhat by oriental rugs. This is something that is definitely present in Palais de Mari, which prominently features short little arpeggios and broken chords that seem to slowly iterate though a self similar pattern.  Every so often in the piece there is a discordant chord in the lower register which hangs in the air until it mostly fades away. This always makes me think of how in an oriental rug there is always a ldeliberate flaw so as not to be an affront to Allah.

Drury’s performance was very well paced taking around twenty-five minutes to transverse the piece and his touch was light but sure.  I thought that one of those aforementioned chords was out of place at one point toward the end but it is hard to say, as they are irregularly spaced and I wouldn’t claim to know the piece that well.  As promised the dynamics were uniformly soft, though those discordant moments provided a nice contrast.  The excellent acoustics of the chapel allowed even the faintist of sounds to be heard with a crystalline clarity. Ambient sounds would leak in from time to time, though always at an even softer volume, a dopplering siren at one point being particularly nice.  In comparing the two recent performances I’ve witnessed I would say I found Drury’s superior to Sokolovs. Sokolov I thought rushed through the piece a bit, which isn’t all that surprising as it was the last piece of a nearly four hour concert that prominently featured his playing.  While I think that Drury’s performance is excellent I would say that I still prefer my recording of John Tilbury playing it.

Interval SeriesGhost Light Trio (c. Matt Sargent, film by Mike Gibisser)
Apparently part of each of Washington Composers Forum’s Transport series is a short film made to the music of a local composer. This film is shown at the end of intermission before the second half of the concert.  The film we saw tonight was Ghost Light Trio which overall I wasn’t that impressed by.  There seemed to be odd technical difficulties, which as it was just a DVD playing through a projector seemed a bit odd – it could be they were part of the piece, which if so was wholly uninteresting.  The music was made up of three sounds, each heavily processed at times. These sounds were recordings of water, traffic and bells.  The film was two images with dividing line as if there was two projectors. The film began with the sound of surf and corresponding imagery of blurry ocean. The chimes came in, often overlayed and at times quite dense. The imagery was blurred windows, a mostly empty room and water. The music was uniformly ambient with the bells being the most dramatic aspect. It wasn’t very interesting music and the filmmaker seemed to have responded likewise. There was two overwhelmingly loud blasts of sound that came across as a technical error but again its hard to see how that could happen. Additionally there was a bit where it looked like the video signal went down which is certainly possible but as it was just a DVD again seems unlikely. Especially as one of these times half of the video went to a “no input” screen but considering that there wasn’t two inputs seems like it was staged. If so this was visually and conceptually uninteresting and didn’t redeem the overall tepid affair.

II: The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (c. Frederic Rzewski)
Shortly after the film, Drury again took the stage and again began with some explanatory remarks. This piece, which is thirty-six variations on the Chilean song ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún, takes nearly an hour to perform. So Drury explained he wanted to give us a roadmap as it were to the piece.  The organization of the piece is nicely laid out in its Wikipedia page but he explained several features to the structure of the variations that I wasn’t aware of.  The piece is 36 variations which are organized in sets of 6. Each set of 6 is 5 unique variations with the 6th being constructed of the previous 5. This principle continues one level high in that the 6th set of variations is made up of the corresponding sets of the unique variations. That is to say that variation 31 would be made up of variation 1, 7, 13, 20 and 27. Variation 32 would be made up of variation 2, 8, 14, 21 and 28 and so on through variation 35. Variation 36, following the structure, then is made up of the previous 5 which being constructed from the preceding 30 means that it is a microcosm, a reflection of the entire piece.

The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is a rousing piece based on a catchy theme that one can completely understand being used as a revolutionary anthem. As I walked out from the show I overheard at least three different individuals independently humming the theme.  The variations, as variations do, present this theme in myriad ways, but in classic 20th Century style it deconstructs it further and further to the point that some variations would only be recognizable as derived from it via analysis of the notes themselves. Yet it always maintains the propulsive energy of the piece even in the softer, slower sections.  Drury performed the piece from memory which I found quite impressive. Variations do make aspects of memorization easier, but at the same time their self-similarity can make it easy to get lost. Especially at that great a number of variations over such a length of time.  Having seen Rzewski perform just a couple of months ago I can say that Drury captured his energy and the strength of his attacks quite well. The piece while having a fairly romantic feel to it, does incorporate a variety of extended techniques, including whistling along with his playing and one point slamming the lid down over the keys.  Another part I liked quite a bit was a sequence of vigorous one finger oscillationg playing way up in the upper register. This was done at great force with his hands as fists with just the pointer finger extended hammering at the keys. This created layers of overtones and reverberations that reminded me of nothing so much as the techniques I’d seen used in the Lachenmann performance a couple of weeks back.  In fact the very concept of using a popular melody and exploring, exploiting and deconstructing it in this way was a connection between these two, one that I have to assume Lachenmann is doing after Rzewski.

It was a bravura performance as powerful and as well executed as the recordings I’ve heard of this piece. After pounding out the thirty-six variations Drury delivered on the optional improvisation with a short bit of reference to the them and them of course the rousing reprise. At the conclusion he lept away from the piano and received a well deserved standing ovation at the conclusion.

Helmut LachnemannSaturday March 29th, 2008 | 8pm
Helmut Lachenmann

UBC School of Music Recital Hall

This has been a pretty great year for composed music in the Pacific NW, with performances of Feldman, Rzewelski and now Helmut Lachenmann.  Apparently Lachenmann is doing a year residency at Harvard and has taken the opportunity while he is in the States to visit a number of colleges and present some of his music.Vancouver New Music along with the UBC School of Music and the University of Victoria managed to have him come up for a week or so and present programs at both colleges. I of course jumped at the chance to not only see rarely preformed works of a modern composer, but the composer himself.

It’s been odd weather here this last week, where it would go from 65 (f) one weekend to snowing the next. Snow in late March is very rare in this region and the fact that it was doing so the day before I had to make the three hour drive north was a bit worrisome.  Luckily the weather was fine here, the snow hadn’t lasted, but as I made my way further north there was a lot more evidence of this weather.  The border also proved to be a challenge causing me to wait an hour to get through. Combine that with a bit of wandering to find the campus and then the recital hall I made it in around 7:20pm. Just as I walked in they finished introducing Helmut Lachenmann who was going to do a little pre-concert Q&A with a UBC faculty member.

The Q&A was pretty interesting, basically Lachenmann was asked about the style of his music, the critical reaction to it and then some details on the pieces that were to be performed that night. Lachenmann apparently refers to his music as Musique Concrète Instrumentale, by which he means he tries to approximate the sound world that was explored in Musique Concrète via electronic means with traditional acoustic instruments.  He talked of industrial sounds, the noises of the everyday and how he wanted to uses those as materials. Thus he worked with such extended techniques, extremes in pitch and unorthodox methods of playing. This he said often brought a negative critical reaction, which he implied came from people seeing something they loved used in such a way. He gave the example of a ‘cello, and how if you loved the ‘cello seeing how it was abused in Pression, would bring about that negative reaction.

After a bit of a break Giorgio Magnanensi of Vancouver New Music came out to introduce the performance and note a program change.  He said that Lachnemann had agreed to perform one of his pieces and that was added to the beginning of the second half. So with that the show began with the one non-Lachnemann piece.

Post-Prae-Ludium per Donau, composed by Luigi Nono
performed by Max Murray on Tuba and Daniel Peter Biro, Randy Jones and Kirk McNally on live electronics.

Luigio Nono was Helmut Lachenmann’s teacher in the late ’50s so it was appropriate that the concert began with this tip of the hat to his old mentor.  This piece was for solo tuba and live electronics.  The soloist sat on stage with just his head and the tuba peeking up behind two music stands. Three electronicians sat in the midst of the audience with a table full of laptops and electronic effects.  The piece began with this dry gasps and burbles of air through the tuba with a pretty good separate in time.  The electronics kicked in with rather lower level echos, stereo panning and what seemed to be very distant murmuring voices. The tuba’s sounds became increasingly more longer, continuous tones to which the electronics echo would merge and create shifting patterns. The murmur went away about half way through and it just seemed to be shifting layers of delay. The end was very beautiful with this wash of sound as the tuba played a continuous tone that was echoed and interfered with by the electronics.

Serynade, composed by Helmut Lachenmann
performed by Jee Yeon Ryu, piano

This was a solo piano piece and was in a pretty stark contrast to the Nono piece that preceded it. Massive attacks on the piano, from huge two handed chords to an entire arm crashing down on the keys began the piece. Usually these would played with massive force and seperated in space. Not lengthy gaps but enough to really focus on the resonances of the piano. This seemed to be a major aspect of what Lachenmann is exploring, how the piano resonance can be setup, altered and worked with. The sustain pedal was used a lot, often coming in or cutting out post the sound event to modulate and alter this resonance. Other components of the piece included quick arpeggios and glissando’s that again seemed to be done for the resonance that remained afterwards or layered above a lingering roar from one of those smashed chords. The piece concluded with single notes hammered with a lot of force fully spaced out to allow their sound to die out.

Franklin Cox

Pression, composed by Helmut Lachenmann
performed by Franklin Cox

This solo ‘cello piece had been moved out of the second half to allow for the added Lachenmann piano performance. This piece is a full exploration of all the varieties of sound that can be eked out of a ‘cello. It began with this dry half scrape of the bow across the strings and then continued with two fingers rubbing up a set of strings in an ascending whining sound. The body of the ‘cello was rubbed and then the bow itself which was still motionless across the strings. The bow then came into play underneath the strings, generating dry crackling, sounds as it was rubbed against them. Then more percussive sounds as it was slapped against the strings. Some staccato bowing beneath the bridge created with staggering guttural sound before the strings themselves were bowed in the normal position but with his hand muting the strings just above the bridge. A bit of slow bowed strings, dry and with no vibrato faded in and out in the last couple of minutes. This was a really great piece and I really enjoyed the vast soundworld that was revealed by the instrument.

Helmut Lachenmann
Helmut Lachenmann

Ein Kinderspiel, composed and performed by Helmut Lachenmann

There was a short intermission after and then Helmut Lachnenmann walked on stage and took a seat at the piano. He began to play this jaunty little melody way high in the upper register.  After he had gone through this tune he stopped and turned to the audience and said that he should give us the titles of the pieces. This piece is made up of seven German children tunes and he gave us all the titles and then said he would begin again. So again with the nearly one fingered tune eked out in the upper register with the sustain pedal down. The next little tune was similar but midrange on the piano. Then a super short one also about in the midrange followed by one that he played with one hand crossed over the the other. This seemed to be the melody played in both hands clashing with each other. The next piece seemed to take this a step further and was just chords by the overlapping hands in this dense wall of sound where I could pick out no melody. The sixth little tune was back to the simple one finger melody but this time way down in the lower register. The final part began in the low end but quickly moved to the extreme upper register where those dry tones with little resonance eked out the simple melody a note at a time.  An odd piece, I think the point was how these simple melodies could generate the same odd colliding resonances on the piano as his extreme and more abstract pieces. It was good fun overall and neat to see Lachnemann playing his own compositions.

Jee Yeon Ryu, AK Coope and Franklin Cox

Allegro Sostenuto, composed by Helmut Lachenmann
performed by Jee Yeon Ryu on piano, AK Coope on clarinets and Franklin Cox on ‘cello.

The final piece of the even was a trio for clarinet/bass clarinet, ‘cello and piano.  This was the longest piece of the evening and the only real ensemble piece.  Each of the three instruments seemed to work through a bunch of different sounds and techniques with only the most oblique reference to each other. The piano was most sounds seperated in space, short chords and runs, mallett work on the strings and body of the piano and some inside/outside playing. The ‘cello explored a lot of the extended techniques and sounds that we had heard in Pression, with quite a bit of very dry bowing.  The clarinet mostly did short little sustained tones and little runs. At several points she would stand up and emit a blast into the pianos cavity. About half way through the piece the clarinetist switched to bass clarinet and began generated wispy breathy sounds through it. After a bit of this she again transition to short continuous tones.  The group interaction was hard to determine, it really seemed like three simultaneous explorations of sound. However at several points they stopped completely for nice little silences that demonstrated them working together very well. This piece in many ways sounded the most like stereotyped twentieth century composed music, with this myriad short passages, wide variety of sounds and that feeling of disconnectedness. It was though a nice contrast to all the solo pieces and constantly engaging.

Another really well put together event from Vancouver New Music and a really rare opportunity that I’m glad I got to experience.

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