September 25, 2008
Vol. 28 No. 1

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    Ten-concert festival to celebrate visionary composer Messiaen

    By Josh Schonwald
    News Office

    Olivier Messiaen

    For 10 days in October, the University will become one of the centers of the classical music universe, as some of the world’s leading musicians and scholars converge on Hyde Park to honor a composer who is a giant in 20th-century music, yet unfamiliar to some: Olivier Messiaen,

    The 10-concert Messiaen Music Festival, running from Thursday, Oct. 2 through Saturday, Oct. 11 at six Hyde Park and downtown venues, is North America’s largest celebration of the 100th anniversary of Messiaen’s birth,

    A visionary composer who pulled from such disparate inspirations as birdsong, Gregorian chant and Hindu rhythms, the Frenchman created a musical oeuvre that influenced everyone from Pierre Boulez and George Benjamin to the Beatles, Beck and Radiohead,

    “Ecstatic and devotional, absorbing, wildly colorful, spiky, iconoclastic,” said Shulamit Ran, the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor in Music and the College, noting that within this diversity of voices, there is something thoroughly distinctive about Messiaen’s music. “I honestly can’t compare him to anyone else. His music is always personal and special and very beautiful.”

    The University of Chicago Presents festival will showcase the range of the composer’s output—from solo organ and piano works, to orchestral and chamber pieces, to songs and narratives, to his legendary “Quartet for the End of Time.”

    The festival will feature performances by three of the University’s acclaimed ensembles-in-residence—the Pacifica Quartet, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and eighth blackbird. These concerts will include virtuoso solo performances by pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Christopher Taylor, organist Dame Gillian Weir, violinist Cho-Liang Lin, cellist Gary Hoffman and soprano Tony Arnold,

    It will also include the world premiere of “Trois visions de l’arcen-ciel,” which Marta Ptaszynska, the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor of Music, wrote specifically for the festival,

    But perhaps most distinctive, the Messiaen festival will convene an eclectic array of scholars to explore themes related to the composer’s life—from his interest in mysticism, to his French national pride, to his search for novel sounds from Africa and Asia,

    “It’s an enormously exciting event for us,” said Shauna Quill, executive director of the University of Chicago Presents. It’s the first time in the acclaimed concert series’ 65-year history that an individual composer has been celebrated on this scale. “We are fortunate that his anniversary gives us the perfect excuse to do so. Not only are we stretching the scope of programming at Chicago Presents, but we are doing it in partnership with people around the University, the city of Chicago, the U.S. and Europe.”

    The composer’s eclecticism is one of the major reasons that Quill made him the focus of the first-of-its-kind festival,

    Photo by Jason Smith

    Marta Ptaszynska

    “He’s multi-faceted. He’s an organist, composer. There’s his interest in ornithology. He’s a pioneer in introducing birdsong into music. There’s his interest in Catholic mysticism and rhythms from Africa and Asia. And he has such an amazing life story,” Quill said of Messiaen, who composed “Quartet for the End of Time” while being held in the German prison camp Stalag VIII-A during World War II. He later said composing the transcendental work helped him mentally escape the horrors that surrounded him in the camp,

    In brief, Quill explained, Messiaen was ideal for the type of programming she has aspired to present—a festival that would tap into the University’s unique interdisciplinary resources. The festival, distinct among the many Messiaen celebrations this year, will be packed with master classes, symposia and lectures; lectures or conversations will precede many of its concerts,

    Some highlights include:
    The festival’s kickoff performance on Thursday, Oct. 2 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel will feature Dame Gillian Weir, widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest organists, performing Messiaen’s “Messe de la Pentacoste” on the newly restored E.M. Skinner organ. Before Weir’s performance, Robert Fallon, assistant professor of musicology at Bowling Green University, will introduce the festival with an overview of Messiaen’s life and works,

    Painist and Messiaen specialist Pierre-Laurent Aimard will lead The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra on Friday, Oct. 3 in Mandel Hall with a performance of Messiaen’s “Oiseaux exotiques,” one of the cornerstones of the composer’s orchestral repertoire,

    On Saturday, Oct. 4, Contempo, the University’s contemporary music ensemble, whose core members include eighth blackbird and the Pacifica Quartet, will perform “Spheres of Influence,” a program that Ran, who is Contempo’s Artistic Director, will curate. The concert focuses on the work of Messiaen’s students and others inspired by his music, including works by Pierre Boulez, Gerald Levinson, Toru Takemitsu and George Benjamin,

    The Contempo concert also will feature the world premiere of Ptaszynska’s piece “Trois visions de l’arcen-ciel,” inspired by Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” A former student of Messiaen’s, Ptaszynska responds to her mentor’s one regret about the piece—its lack of percussion. Limited by the talent in the camp—a violinist, cellist, clarinetist and himself (a talented pianist)—Messiaen was unable to include percussion. Ptaszynska’s piece, which eighth blackbird will perform, is the first to realize his work as he envisioned it,

    The Tuesday, Oct. 7 concert “Inspired by Love” will feature works that Messiaen composed for his loved ones, including the intimate “Poemes pour Mi,” dedicated to his first wife. David Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, will speak about the influence of Shakespeare throughout the arts, including on Messiaen, whose father was a Shakespeare scholar,

    In a Thursday, Oct. 9 concert at the Alliance Francaise de Chicago, pianist and scholar Peter Hill, editor of The Messiaen Companion, will use sound and images to show how Messiaen translated natural sound into finished compositions,

    For a complete list of concert programs and times, see the Chronicle Calendar or visit the University of Chicago Presents Web site at: http://chicagopresents.uchicago.edu/messiaen. Tickets for individual concerts in the Messiaen Music Festival vary from free to $35. A $150 series pass is good for all concerts, lectures and symposia, while an Opening Weekend pass for events scheduled from Thursday Oct. 2 through Sunday, Oct. 5, may be purchased for $100. Student tickets are $5 for individual events, $16 for an Opening Weekend pass, and $30 for a series pass,

    WFMT (98.7 FM) will broadcast the Oct. 2 and Oct. 3 performances live. Tickets can be purchased by calling the University of Chicago Presents at (773) 702-8068 or by visiting its offices at 5720 S. Woodlawn Ave.