Wednesday, March 9, 2016

CONTACT! at National Sawdust - The Messiaen Connection - 03/07/16

Olivier Messiaen: Fantaisie for violin and piano
Pierre Boulez: Anthèmes I for solo violin
George Benjamin: Viola, Viola, for two violas
Olivier Messiaen: Le merle noir, for flute and piano
Oliver Knussen: Autumnal, for violin and piano, Op. 14
Pierre Boulez: Sonatine for flute and piano

Whenever E.P. Salonen shows up, so do I, if at all possible, especially if the event has to do with French composer extraordinaire Olivier Messiaen. Therefore, on Monday night I did not hesitate to get off the island and venture into the gentrified hipsterland that is Williamsburg nowadays, not oblivious to the ironic fact that it was taking the epitome of genuine cool to bring some pretty cool music to a pretty cool space in what has become a haven of forced cool.
The sold-out concert was part of The New York Philharmonic's CONTACT! series, which has been offering intimate performances of contemporary music in various venues such as the 92Y, SubCulture and now National Sawdust, circling ever widely in the search for the next perfect spot. On Monday night "The Messiaen Connection" had one more time attracted a fiercely dedicated audience to an exciting program to be performed sans intermission (Yeah!) by some of The New York Philharmonic's finest members.
The orchestra’s current Composer-in-Residence Esa-Pekka Salonen being not only a composer and a conductor of the highest caliber, but also an accomplished curator and delightful host, we got to enjoy his vast wealth of knowledge and deadpan sense of humor as he introduced each piece with valuable general information and insightful pointed anecdotes.

The first work on the program was fairly enough by Messiaen himself, going back all the way to the beginning of his career. Violinist Yulia Ziskel and pianist Steven Beck had the privilege to tackle Fantaisie for violin and piano, which they did with sustained energy and impeccable precision, always in tune with the composition's inherent complexities, but also making sure to keep it accessible and appealing.
It was followed by Anthèmes I for solo violin, a tricky but unquestionably compelling piece by Messiaen’s rebellious student Pierre Boulez. It was played with intense virtuosity by violinist Anna Rabinova, all the way to the whimsical ending.
George Benjamin's Viola, Viola, for two violas turned out to be my highlight of the evening, maybe because of my predilection for the viola, the indispensable but sorely neglected middle child between the violin and the cello, surely because of the fascinating composition, which slowly, almost hypnotically, pulled violists Katherine Green and Peter Kenote musically and physically apart.
Messiaen's memorable nugget Le merle noir was next and gave us the opportunity to marvel at the seamless symbiosis between flutist Mindy Kaufman and pianist Stephen Gosling, who treated us to a brightly colored, irresistibly uplifting tribute to birds, Messiaen's bottomless source of inspiration, everywhere.
Then we went on to Oliver Knussen's deeply atmospheric, occasionally moody Autumnal, for violin and piano, which the composer dedicated to Benjamin Britten, who happened to die while Knussen was working on it. It was brilliantly interpreted by violinist Yulia Ziskel and pianist Steven Beck, who let the work beautifully unfold and breathe.
The concert concluded with Boulez's Sonatine for flute and piano, a dense yet light-hearted effort from his early years. Flutist Robert Langevin and pianist Steven Beck handled the ever-changing melodies, sharp contrasts and non-stop energy with poise and exactness.

My evening in Williamsburg ended less successfully then it had started with a cellist playing less than skillfully in the Bedford subway station, which brought me down to earth rather abruptly. But never mind, I do have another promising date with E.P. and Messiaen later this week in the more traditional, and closer to home, environment of the David Geffen Hall, and I am already counting the hours.

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