Thursday, January 24, 2008

Messiaen, Mahler and Myung-Whun Chung

The San Francisco Symphony unveiled this week's program at a Thursday matinee, and it was a beauty. The first half was dedicated to an early (1933) Messiaen orchestral piece called "L'Ascension" (as in Jesus ascending to Heaven) which was a perfect warmup for the longer second half devoted to Gustav Mahler's First Symphony.

The guest conductor was one of Korea's most treasured citizens, Myung-Whun Chung, who has spent most of the last thirty years conducting in Europe, including a controversial stint at the Bastille Opera in Paris, and it's been 25 years since he's conducted the San Francisco Symphony. The performance today was an almost complete triumph.

I have to confess that I don't get Olivier Messiaen's music. I've heard the "Turangalila Symphony" live twice, and both times it gave me a headache. I only made it halfway through his five-hour "Saint Francoise d'Assisi" opera, and about an hour through a recital of his complete organ works at Grace Cathedral. He was a Catholic mystic who adored birds and their warbling, and since many people whose taste I respect love his music, I figure my lack of enthusiasm is my fault. In any case, "L'Ascension" was Beginner's Messiaen in that it was short, about 30 minutes, and quite beautiful, with a first movement consisting of brass and woodwinds, two lively middle movements for the entire orchestra, and a long final movement for strings.

My only complaint is that Davies Symphony Hall was sounding like a tuberculosis ward this afternoon. Tickets are admittedly expensive but if you're sick, please stay home in bed. And why is it that the coughers always pick the quietest moments in the music to hack away?

Mahler's First Symphony is a deeply eccentric work, if only for the third movement which features a funeral march to the tune of Frere Jacques that keeps being interrupted by what sounds like a klezmer band. Myung-Whun Chung brought out every bit of strangeness in the piece, and made it sound brand new. It was an absolutely extraordinary performance. Also fun was a miscue at the finale of the first movement where the players didn't come in correctly, either because he forgot to give them a signal or some other mixup. Myung-Whun Chung turned to the audience and made a face, we laughed, he talked to the orchestra, and he replayed the final ten seconds so they got it right. It was very cool.


The Opera Tattler said...

I may consider going to this, as Myung-Whun Chung sounds very cool.

I don't get Messiaen either, though I did force myself to stay the 5 hours in standing room for St. Francoise. Once I had a terrible giggling fit at La Nativité du Seigneur, but I think I might have matured since then. At least slightly, anyway.

Civic Center said...

Dear Opera Tattler: Five hours of St. Francoise in Standing Room? You are certainly a stronger, more serious person than myself.

I've also had giggling fits at the symphony (infrequently) and the opera (more frequently than I like to admit, once while I was even onstage). They are definitely holy moments, so let's hope you haven't matured too completely.

janinsanfran said...

That City Hall of ours sure is photogenic (if mostly useless). Your first picture here is great!

sfwillie said...

Great photos of Chung.

Unknown said...

I wouldn't start with L'Ascension or Saint Francois, maybe the organ music...but still not sure on that. Check out Un sourire and Et expecto, then dive into the Vingt Regards. Messiaen's a taste worth acquiring.

rchrd said...

Mike: Don't take it so hard. Messiaen's not to everyone's liking. But there are many riches to be found in his music. For one thing, listen to the recordings first. Much of his music is lengthy, and concert-hall listening only makes it harder. (I get very nervous in concert halls these days. I can't wait to get in, and then once I'm there I can't wait to get out. All those people make me nervous.)

Be that as it may, you might enjoy a live performance on Sunday at 3 of Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus .. a truly virtuoso and gigantic piano cycle that will be performed by a truly phenomenal pianist, Christopher Taylor. (Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley, Sunday Jan 27 3pm).

Not all Messiaen's music works. A lot is embarrassingly bombastic. The rest is ecstatic and oceanic.

The wonderful thing about music is that you can completely ignore the religious intentions of the composer and still be totally engaged. Once you get into it, it's very powerful stuff.

Two of my favorite pieces have no religious overtones at all: Oiseaux Exotiques and Chronochromie are orchestral works of great complexity and energy totally lacking the bombastic associated with a lot of the religious works. The first deals with bird song and the other sound colors based on Messiaen's synesthetic approach to music. And, they are minor masterpieces.

rchrd said...

By the way, I should mention that our two parrots, Carlos and Percy, love Messiaen's bird-song pieces. That must prove something ... not quite sure what, tho.

Civic Center said...

Okay, Marc and Richard, if Carlos and Percy love Messiaen's bird-song pieces, I'm giving him another try. Looking forward to seeing you at the Other Minds Music Festival.