Philharmonic leads off Messiaen Week with music for small ensembles

Tue Mar 08, 2016 at 1:53 pm
The New York Philharmonic opened its Messiaen Week Monday night at National Sawdust.

The New York Philharmonic opened its Messiaen Week Monday night at National Sawdust.

French it is, but the connection the New York Philharmonic is making this week is specifically Messiaen-ic: the Phil’s Messiaen Week, opened Monday night with a CONTACT! series concert at National Sawdust.

Hosted and curated by composer-in-residence Esa-Pekka Salonen (who will be conducting performances of Turangalîla-symphonie starting Thursday), the concer, titled “The Messiaen Connection” presented both Messiaen and music from students and/or younger contemporaries: Pierre Boulez, George Benjamin, and Oliver Knussen.

The turnout was perhaps one of the finest over the years for this series, such to make one hope that Messiaen might be a compelling draw. With Boulez’s recent death, the concert was a bit of a celebration of his work as well.

The program was chamber music; one solo work and five duos. Messiaen was represented by the early Fantaisie for Violin and Piano (1933), and his well-know flute and piano work, Le Merle noir, from 1952. The latter was written for flute students at the Paris Conservatoire, and, at just over five minutes, is the shortest work in the composer’s catalogue.

Violinist Yulia Ziskel and pianist Steven Beck opened with the Fantaisie. Ziskel’s singing tone and conversational phrasing, and Beck’s precision and strength, made an ideal ensemble. The music already has Messiaen’s trademark rhythmic energy and a dramatic rising and falling shape, features that would characterize  his work for decades. But the touch of cafe sentiment, and the straightforward feeling make it also sound like a forgotten work of Les Six, his generational peers.

Le Merle noir was realized through an excellent partnership between flutist Mindy Kaufman and pianist Stephen Gosling. Gosling’s name is welcome on any program, as he is one of the finest and most versatile pianists in New York. The flute part is a grab bag of challenging techniques parsed through bird song and stitched together by a plangent melody—Kaufman dispatched the former with ease and played the latter with sensitive musicality.

Sandwiched between Messiaen were Boulez’s solo violin Anthémes I, played with quiet agility by Anna Rabinova, and Benjamin’s Viola, Viola, for two violas. Rabinova captured a meaningful introspective quality in the solo piece.

Katherine Greene and Peter Kenote were less successful with the duo. Benjamin, a Messiaen student, tends toward a hermetic quality, and Viola, Viola indulges that. Starting with the same, simple material, the violists slowly work away from each other musically, and with the adjoining stands arrayed in a V, they physically part in parallel. Greene and Kenote played with a lovely, vocalized sound, and dexterity, but could not find the center of music that itself can’t decide wether the two parts are antagonists or protagonists.

Knussen’s evocative Autumnal, played by Ziskel and Beck is a superior piece. The two parts, “Nocturne” and “Serenade,” end abruptly, and each time one realizes how entrancing the music has been. Ziskel and Beck captured this beautifully.

For the finale, flutist Robert Langevin and Beck played Boulez’a Sonatine, a 1946 work that marks an early maturity. The writing is superb, making the most out of both instruments with agile leaps, quick shifts in dynamics, and extended stretches of flutter tonguing and long tones for the flute. Both Langevin and Beck played with precision and flourish.

As host, Salonen talked about ideas of form, tossed off anecdotes, and went on too long, the interesting information lost in the vagaries of what essentially were conversations with himself. His programming is fine and his presence is welcome, but the point of it all is the music.

Messiaen Week continues with a piano recital from Eric Huebner, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., First Presbyterian Church. Salonen conducts Turangalîla with Yuja Wang, opening Thursday, 7:30 p.m., at David Geffen Hall

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