Last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) presented the third program in its 25th anniversary season. The title of the program was Visions de l’Amen, which was also the title of the major work on the program, a large-scale composition for two pianos, which Olivier Messiaen wrote not long after his release from the Stalag VIII-A prisoner-of-war camp in what was then called Görlitz. (It is now in Poland, where it is called Zgorzelec.) This was where, during his imprisonment, Messiaen composed his “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time), which LCCE performed almost exactly three years ago at the same SFCM venue.
“Visions de l’Amen” was one of the first pieces that Messiaen wrote for Yvonne Loriod, who was not yet his wife at the time. He scored it for two pianos and took the performance of the second piano for himself. As organist at Sainte-Trinité in Paris, Messiaen had already composed music of intense Christian devotion for the organ; and his approach to scoring “Visions de l’Amen” suggests that he was seeking to translate his “organ rhetoric” over to piano sonorities. However, achieving that rhetoric required more than one keyboard.
Nevertheless, his scoring seems to have gone to great lengths to create the impression of a single instrument. At a syntactic level, however, the two keyboards assume decidedly different roles. Messiaen structured the music that he would play around his basic lexicon of thematic material, while the music for Loriod involved more elaborate virtuoso passages that would provide the “divine context” in which that lexicon was declaimed. Last night Loriod’s part was taken by LCCE pianist Eric Zivian, and visiting pianist Sarah Cahill played the music that Messiaen wrote for himself. Nevertheless, even with this sorting-out of different “roles,” the resulting sonorities suggested a single supernatural instrument, just as there is a unity to the best examples of organ music, no matter how many different ranks of pipes are involved and how remotely they may be dispersed across the performance space.
Scott Foglesong’s note for the program book did not go into any great depth in addressing the seven movements, each of which names a different context for which “Amen” serves as an acknowledgement. Since I am not well-versed in any of those contexts, I have never felt that my lack of knowledge impeded my listening experience. Far more important is an awareness of how Messiaen could bring clarity to prodigiously thick blocks of chords, a rhetorical approach that he would subsequently apply to natural phenomena, rather than reflections on the Divine. He was also sensitive the the monodic traditions behind all church music and could use parallel octaves to declaim latter-day incantation with all the solemnity of Gregorian rite.
Last night Cahill did an impressive job of accounting for the full extent of the “musical lexicon” that Messiaen had originally written for his own role as expositor. If those “utterances” could be described as straightforward subject-verb-object “sentences,” then Zivian was responsible for all the adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. For the most part the duo performance resulted in “fully coherent sentences.” From my vantage point it seemed as if Cahill was always sharply attuned to Zivian’s actions, allowing his embellishments free rein while she saw to the clarity of the basic “sentence structure.” On the whole this approach to a duo relationship tended to work well, even when Zivian tended to go over the top with his tendency to underscore high-impact musical gestures with corresponding physical ones.
I should explain that my “vantage point” was in the balcony. When I heard Thomas Adès and Gloria Cheng play this piece for San Francisco Performances in October of 2015, I had my usual orchestra level seating in Herbst Theatre; and there were times when I felt that the combined sonorities of the two pianos were muddled. Listening “from above” afforded the advantage that a clear view of all the strings entailed more clarity in listening to them all vibrate and resonate. That ability to “sort out the sources” gets more and more significant as Messiaen’s textures get thicker and thicker. (On an organ he could rely on differences in timbre across different ranks of pipes to sort out the fabric, but the piano is much more limited in this capacity.) Hopefully, this photograph will at least suggest the merits of this “vertical” approach to listening:
Eric Zivian and Sarah Cahill performing Messiaen last night (photograph by Lena Zentall, courtesy of LCCE)
Two short pieces, both being given world premiere performances, served to “introduce” “Visions de l’Amen.” Both pieces were written as reflections on Messiaen’s composition. Of the two the more successful seems to have been Phil Acimovic’s “Reverent Murmurs.” His title could almost stand as a description of the opening measures of Messiaen’s piece; but, to the composer’s advantage, any explicit suggestion of Messiaen was purely coincidental.
More interesting (to me at least) was the fact that Acimovic is actively involved with the performance of traditional Javanese music. Those familiar with the field will recognize my use of the adjective “Javanese,” rather than a more general term, such as “gamelan.” My personal time in Java was relatively short, but the musical experiences were highly memorable.
Ironically, my strongest memory was that I could never figure out when a performance began. I would see an empty stage on which the performers would sit. However, I never managed to see them start to play! At one moment there were only ambient sounds; and then, without realizing it, I found that the performers were busy at their instruments. “Reverent Murmurs” seems to have picked up on that Javanese practice of an “insinuated presence,” a rhetorical stance that aligns smoothly with the mystical-religious connotations of Messiaen’s music.
Chris Castro’s new piece was entitled “IV - I,” basically the notation of the plagal cadence. This is often called the “Amen Cadence,” since the subdominant-tonic progression sets the word “Amen” at the conclusion of the singing of a hymn. Unfortunately, that “Amen connection” never really emerged over the course of Castro’s composition, nor did any sense that “Visions de l’Amen” had inspired the music. Ultimately, the evening belonged entirely to Messiaen; and his memory could not have been better served by presenting “Visions de l’Amen” as the focal point of the experience.