Mozart and Mes­si­aen


Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - James M. Keller The New Mex­i­can

Alan Gil­bert con­ducts

Dur­ing the fi­nal week­end of the Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val’s sea­son, con­duc­tor Alan Gil­bert will lead the fes­ti­val’s mu­si­cians in two very dif­fer­ent con­certs on con­sec­u­tive days, both at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter. In each case, the pro­gram con­sists of a sin­gle ma­jor work. On Satur­day, Aug. 22, he pre­sides over Mozart’s Ser­e­nade in B-flat ma­jor (K. 361/370a), for 12 winds and dou­ble bass. The fol­low­ing evening, he con­ducts an en­sem­ble of 44 in­stru­men­tal­ists, a mam­moth as­sem­blage by fes­ti­val stan­dards, in Olivier Mes­si­aen’s 90-minute-long Des canyons aux étoiles ... (From the Canyons to the Stars ... ).

The Ser­e­nade in B-flat ma­jor is deeply loved by Mozart afi­ciona­dos and pos­i­tively revered by wind play­ers. Ser­e­nades and re­lated pieces — di­ver­ti­men­tos, not­turnos, and so on — were es­sen­tially en­ter­tain­ment mu­sic, crafted for in­door or out­door use; it may add to our ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Mozart’s con­tri­bu­tions to imag­ine them waft­ing through the air of an 18th-cen­tury evening in Salzburg or Vi­enna. The ori­gins of this par­tic­u­lar piece re­main ob­scure. The pa­per on which Mozart wrote it is of a type he used prin­ci­pally in 1782, but a num­ber of mu­si­cal de­tails align in­stead to turns of phrase more char­ac­ter­is­tic of late 1783 and early 1784. That may be a slight dif­fer­ence in terms of years, but it be­comes sig­nif­i­cant in light of how quickly Mozart’s bril­liance was evolv­ing just then. Four of its seven move­ments were ap­par­ently pre­miered on March 23 of that lat­ter year, by Mozart’s clar­inetist-friend An­ton Stadler and a group of his col­leagues from the Na­tional Court The­ater Or­ches­tra in Vi­enna. An Aus­trian arts lover named Jo­hann Friedrich Schink re­ported in his mem­oirs that he had at­tended that per­for­mance: “At each in­stru­ment sat a mas­ter — oh, what an ef­fect it made — glo­ri­ous and grand, ex­cel­lent and sublime!”

The gen­e­sis of Des canyons aux étoiles ... is, in con­trast, well doc­u­mented in­deed. Alice Tully com­mis­sioned it in 1971 from Mes­si­aen, who ex­pressed a de­sire to seek in­spi­ra­tion in some of America’s most im­pos­ing land­scapes. In May 1972, he and his wife headed for Utah, where their 10-day visit af­forded vis­its to two na­tional parks — Bryce Canyon and Zion — as well as Cedar Breaks Na­tional Mon­u­ment. Mes­si­aen doc­u­mented his im­pres­sions in his di­ary, tak­ing care to no­tate the calls of the birds he en­coun­tered, bird­songs be­ing one of his par­tic­u­lar pas­sions. The work was fi­nally un­veiled at Miss Tully’s name­sake hall at Lin­coln Cen­ter by an en­sem­ble she largely fi­nanced, the Mu­sica Aeterna Or­ches­tra. The work, in which ev­ery in­stru­ment plays an in­de­pen­dent line, scored a great suc­cess, and au­di­ences were swept up in its col­or­ful, 12-move­ment fu­sion of tone paint­ing and the­o­log­i­cal mys­ti­cism. As was his wont, Mes­si­aen at­tached an ex­tended com­men­tary that be­gins in char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally ef­fu­sive fash­ion: “From the canyons to the stars ... that is, an as­cent from the canyons to the stars — and be­yond to the res­ur­rected souls in Heaven — to share with God the eter­nal state of Creation: the beauty of the earth, its rocks, its bird­song; the beauty of the phys­i­cal sky and the beauty of heaven.”

Gil­bert, who since 2009 has been mu­sic di­rec­tor of the New York Phil­har­monic and is now re­turn­ing for his sec­ond stint as the Santa Fe Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val’s artist-in-res­i­dence, dis­cussed his up­com­ing ap­pear­ances with Pasatiempo.

Pasatiempo: Although you are a na­tive New Yorker, you have spent a lot of time in the Amer­i­can West, in­clud­ing your an­nual res­i­den­cies con­duct­ing the New York Phil­har­monic at the Bravo! Vail fes­ti­val in Colorado and your sev­eral years as mu­sic di­rec­tor of Santa Fe Opera. Do you feel a strong at­tach­ment to the West? Alan Gil­bert: Santa Fe was a part of my life from the be­gin­ning. My fa­ther was con­cert­mas­ter of the Santa Fe Opera Or­ches­tra for many years, and my mom played in the or­ches­tra, too. Even­tu­ally, so did I. My sis­ter, who is two years younger than me, was born in Santa Fe. As it hap­pened, many years later, when I was mu­sic di­rec­tor of the Opera, my son was born in St. Vin­cent’s Hos­pi­tal, so the city has a real pull on all of us. I have con­tin­ued to have a lot to do with the Cham­ber Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, and this sum­mer we’ll all be there. My sis­ter, Jen­nifer Gil­bert, is a vi­o­lin­ist with the fes­ti­val, as is her hus­band, Har­vey de Souza. They will both be play­ing in the Mes­si­aen en­sem­ble, and so will my wife, Ka­jsa Wil­liam-Ols­son, who is a cel­list. Pasa: Have you vis­ited the places Mes­si­aen ref­er­ences in Des canyons aux étoiles ...? Gil­bert: I am fa­mil­iar with it in a gen­eral way. I have driven the loop from Santa Fe up to Utah, but I’ve never ac­tu­ally been to Bryce Canyon. Pasa: You will be con­duct­ing a large group of mu­si­cians, many of whom haven’t worked with you or with one another be­fore, and most of whom have prob­a­bly never played this Mes­si­aen piece. How much re­hearsal time do you have sched­uled? Gil­bert: A lot. A very am­ple amount. The in­di­vid­ual parts are chal­leng­ing, but the mu­si­cians can only prac­tice up to a cer­tain point. They have a lot of rests, rather than play­ing straight through mea­sure af­ter mea­sure, so the hard­est part is how ev­ery­thing fits in. Fol­low­ing the beat, the tempo pat­tern, the re­la­tion of tempo — this all has to be sorted out in re­hearsal. For the in­di­vid­ual mu­si­cians, it’s like they’re only given a lit­tle piece of the jig­saw puz­zle, and they don’t know what the whole pic­ture will look like un­til it’s all worked out in situ. This is new for me, too. It’s the first time I have con­ducted this piece. Pasa: Do you, as the con­duc­tor, have a lot of lee­way about how ev­ery­thing co­or­di­nates in this work? Gil­bert: Mes­si­aen is very spe­cific about tem­pos, about metronome mark­ings. Some­times it can be pretty hard to fig­ure out just how ev­ery­thing has to come to­gether, but you can re­ally trust Mes­si­aen’s mark­ings. Pasa: Many lis­ten­ers think of Mes­si­aen first and fore­most as a colorist. Are there some ap­proaches to sonor­ity that you find par­tic­u­larly ex­cit­ing in this score? Gil­bert: It’s such a dis­tinc­tive sound. One mark of a great com­poser is how the sound is rec­og­niz­able even through a short snip­pet of mu­sic. All the great com­posers have that, and Mes­si­aen ab­so­lutely does. There is some­thing in­stantly rec­og­niz­able about his har­monies, his in­stru­men­tal voic­ings, his bal­ance of sounds. That’s part of the fun of such a piece for a con­duc­tor: sort­ing out the im­por­tant notes in a chord, bal­anc­ing the dif­fer­ent voices so the right har­monies emerge and re­cede in a cer­tain way. Pasa: Mes­si­aen of­ten cites col­ors in his de­scrip­tions of this and other pieces. In fact, he was en­dowed with synes­the­sia, a men­tal sen­sa­tion that cor­re­lates spe­cific sounds to spe­cific col­ors. Do you some­times find your­self “hear­ing col­ors” in a piece like this? Gil­bert: I can’t say that I do, as I don’t share that at­tribute of synes­the­sia. But there are def­i­nite emo­tions that he evokes. There’s noth­ing ran­dom in his mu­sic. He does try to cre­ate an emo­tional sto­ry­board — at least that’s how it seems to me. I try to bring real feel­ings to any piece, and Mes­si­aen, for his part, brings me to a very pow­er­ful, evoca­tive place. Pasa: The two works you’re con­duct­ing here are as dif­fer­ent as can be, with the Mes­si­aen em­ploy­ing a huge va­ri­ety of re­sources and the Mozart Ser­e­nade be­ing son­i­cally cen­tered on the winds. Gil­bert: What is amaz­ing to me is how Mozart keeps that wind sonor­ity so in­ter­est­ing that long. It is ge­nius to sus­tain that tonal in­ter­est for that long, but he does it. And the piece is much more than that. It is a pro­found piece, def­i­nitely a mas­ter­piece. Pasa: Wind play­ers all know it well. Is your task for this es­sen­tially one of re­fine­ment? Gil­bert: Yes, we all know it quite well. I have done it here at the fes­ti­val be­fore. This is an amaz­ing group of play­ers that I’ll be con­duct­ing in the Mozart. I think I know all of them per­son­ally, and I love work­ing with them. But there is al­ways stuff to work out.

ON MOZART What is amaz­ing to me is how Mozart keeps that wind sonor­ity so in­ter­est­ing that long. It is ge­nius to sus­tain that tonal in­ter­est for that long, but he does it.

ON MES­SI­AEN There is some­thing in­stantly rec­og­niz­able about his har­monies, his in­stru­men­tal voic­ings, his bal­ance of sounds.

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