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Jacaranda goes Extrasensory with Messiaen concert

This was my first time seeing a Jacaranda concert. I always look for an excuse to hear Messiaen and Debussy live, so I jumped at the chance to attend “Extrasensory.” Based on the title, I was expecting a focus on synaesthesia, and probably some multimedia works. After all, in the 21st century, one comes to expect some electroacoustic elements or re-tunings. I was a little surprised that the entire program used acoustic instruments in traditional systems with nary a quartertone or key-slap in sight. It was different to hear 20th-century music that does not rely on the bells and whistles of the modern era.

Only one piece on the program was younger than me, and the oldest isn’t even 20th century. The program notes provided a history lesson in a nutshell. Rather than giving each piece a paragraph or two, Patricia Scott provided an entire essay that tied together all the pieces on the program. She tied together Debussy’s compositions and audience reception to Messiaen’s early works and development, and how he, in turn, trained and inspired the next generation of composers, like Betsy Jolas.

Though the beginning of it all, Debussy was put at the end as the show-stopper. Debussy is often called the father of modern music, and his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) is touted the beginning of the twentieth century. As a flutist, I have a deep-seated adoration of Prélude and Debussy’s flute pieces in general, and it was a great joy to hear the 1920 arrangement for a smaller ensemble plus harmonium. To our 21st-century ears, Prélude can sound tame and a little sappy, but it was an absolute scandal to the 19th-century audience. Think “Victorian woman showing ankles” scandalous. The extended tonality and the unique timbres it built in addition to the erotic source material left listeners either appalled or ecstatic. And thus began the noble tradition of 20th-century music.

Besides the Debussy, the Messiaen was even better than I had hoped. I always enjoy Oiseaux Exotiques (1956), and it was just as good as any other performance or recording I have heard. I have to give Aron Kallay a gold star for his performance, as always. My absolute favorite piece of the night was Messiaen’s La Mort du Nombre (1928). It is an unequivocally stunning lament, and it felt as though the violinist (Jessica Guideri) were drawing her bow across my heartstrings rather than her violin strings.

Andre Jolivet’s Chant de Linos (1944) is a flute piece with accompaniment, in this case, harp and string trio, written for the famous Jean Pierre Rampal. Again, as a flutist, I was in love. Rachel Beetz is a master of Rampal’s French style, and a worthy successor to play this beautiful piece. The story Chant de Linos tells is that of Linus, the son of Apollo (who you all know is the god of music, poetry, art, medicine, the sun, light, and knowledge – so, just a few things). Linus himself is credited with inventing melody and rhythm, the two most fundamental elements of our Western music tradition. The story goes that Heracles killed Linus with his own harp after one too many tutoring sessions gone sour. The flute represents Linus, while the accompanying quartet performed a quasi-recitative part for plot points and mood changes. The trick in the piece is the continuously shifting tempo on top of wild rhythms and intricate melodies. The music flipped on a dime between calm repose and fleeing from an enraged god. It is an astoundingly trying piece, and a beautiful way to start the concert.

Next, Eric Tanguy’s Sonata for Two Violins (1999) was an intellectually stimulating piece. His spectral training shows in the way he treats sound versus music. The violins sawed away without a break, never allowing the audience’s ears to rest. Debussy once said music is the space between the notes, but there wasn’t much space to be had. The music was not so much the quasi-minimalist violin duet, but rather the difference tones that squeezed out between the violins like juice from a lemon.

The remaining piece did its part to fill out the narrative of Debussy’s influence on the twentieth century, but I could take it or leave it. Betsy Jolas’s Quatour III “Nine Etudes” (1973) is the product of several inspirations coming together in her mature period. It stems from her love of Josquin des Prez, Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1915), Messiaen and Milhaud, and finally Boulez’s improvisation and Cage’s aleatoricism. The result is a quilt of nine movements, each with its own identity based on techniques like harmonics and tremolo. The ninth movement, “Summing up,” combines the eight traits into one final etude. I like the concept behind the piece, and the quartet executed the notes well enough. But frankly, it didn’t do much for me. I think it was too many flavors in one pie, so to speak.

It’s great that Jacaranda is able to program less familiar 20th-century composers alongside the 20th-century greats. I love what Jacaranda is doing for the community in this way. I encourage anyone who wants to hear more acoustic 20th century works to check out the rest of Jacaranda’s series. The next concert, titled “Science,” features works by Xenakis, Messiaen, and Barraqué.

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