Leonard Bernstein, the story goes, once described Olivier Messiaen as ”God‘s cocktail pianist.“ Cute and to the point, I guess, but I wonder how many of His bar patrons would hang out, ordering refills, with Messiaen at the keyboard walloping away on his Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jesus. One or two of these ”contemplations“ at a time, more-earthly pianists have found, can go a long way. At Pasadena‘s Neighborhood Church, where Mark Robson played the entire 20 as the latest program in the excellent ”Piano Spheres“ series, there were empty seats after intermission, and the fault was surely not Robson’s. The concert ran close to two and a half hours; it was a heroic, distinguished event.

I seem to be undergoing an epiphany of my own with Messiaen. His opera on St. Francis, which I had squirmed through in bafflement and boredom at the 1983 Paris premiere, turns out thrilling on the DG recording under Kent Nagano, as noted here a while back. And after expending some effort over the years dodging the Vingt Regards in live performance or disc, I found last week‘s hearing enthralling — exasperating, yes; hilarious at times, yes; monumentally overextended, yes beyond doubt — yet irresistible. There is some kind of human essence here, making itself known only after a journey beset by extreme and perilous torture.

Stirred though I am by the sheer impact of this music, I could not, of course, imagine myself or anyone else being converted to Messiaen’s exuberant Catholic piety just from hearing it, even as the composer draws the curtain back 20 separate times on the full repertory of the miracles of faith. He doesn‘t offer the personal shivers that we get all the way through the Bach Passions or in the last moments of Parsifal. He skips all the good storytelling in the Bible and takes us directly to Revelation, which he doesn’t so much explain as paint over its outlines with a full, wet brush.

The music‘s ancestry is easy to fathom: Liszt at his most flamboyant, Scriabin at his most crazed, the ecstatic visions of the much-undervalued Szymanowski. Add to this Messiaen’s apparent fascination with high-class trash: the parallel ninths and added-sixth chords of a particularly greasy jazz style itself descended from Ravel; some Gershwin (but not enough). What is truly great in this music, and it was enough to sustain quite a few people in Pasadena that night, is the range of color, resonance and sonority — that, and the act of faith and pure physical strength that the music demands from anyone foolhardy enough to take it on. I don‘t know whether I was made to care about Messiaen himself any more after the performance than I usually do; it was the process of turning his certifiably mad visions into dazzling piano music that made the evening memorable.

In their way, Mozart’s piano concertos are also visionary works; they offer as much proof as anyone needs of the existence of Higher Powers. Every so often the clouds part — at the end of the slow movement of K. 482, in the clarinet duet in the slow movement of K. 488 or the F-major episode in the finale of K. 503 — and God smiles down in joyous amazement. I had missed the Hollywood Bowl debut of the young Korean pianist Seung-Un Ha in 1998; her performance of K. 503 with Jeffrey Kahane and his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall last Friday bore eloquence and promise. Tall in stature and long of arm, with hair nearly as long as Kahane is tall, she writhed her way prettily through the work‘s majestic measures, reacting beautifully to the expressive high points, seconded by Kahane’s properly large-scale shaping of this extraordinary — if still too little-known — masterwork from Mozart‘s maturity.

Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge was further adornment to a lively program, music we usually greet with an ”Oh no, not that again“ and then don‘t really listen. I listened this time; LACO’s gleaming string tone made it pleasurable. It‘s an exceptional work, Britten at 23, twisting his old teacher’s quite ordinary tune into a complex, fascinating compositional adventure: not merely ”variations“ in the classic sense but a whole series of twitchings and tweakings and, toward the end, rhapsodic excursions of piercing beauty. Arvo Part‘s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, 10 or so minutes of a single held breath, and Witold Lutoslawski’s early Dance Preludes, trivial against his later achievements but nicely tootled by LACO‘s clarinetist Gary Gray, rounded out the evening.

To end the third orchestral program in the Philharmonic’s admirable Stravinsky cycle, Esa-Pekka Salonen brilliantly delivered his by-now-familiar wingding version of the complete Firebird. As in the past, however, he did not convince me that the entire 44-minute span — with quite a lot of time-marking music running on and on, with, to be sure, gorgeous fairy-tale orchestration before the big numbers hit — is the right way to transplant this score from the dance stage to the concert hall. The prevailing belief — that the greater the stature of a composer, the more precious every note of the music — is threatened by historical realities; it would not surprise me someday to find the first 25 minutes of The Firebird in the same discard pile with, say, Beethoven‘s Variations on ”God Save the King“ and Wagner’s C-major Symphony.

Olli Mustonen was the alert soloist in Stravinsky‘s three works for piano and orchestra, his fingers kept so busy-busy in all three that he had less time than usual for the arm-windmill antics that make his playing hard to watch. Of these works, the two from the neoclassical 1920s — the Concerto for Piano and Winds, a masterpiece, and the Capriccio, modest and bubbly — were worth the effort. The third, the 1959 Movements, is short but awful, Stravinsky keeping up with the guys (Boulez and Berio, mostly), affecting the air of modernism that ends up as gross parody. Stravinsky biographer Stephen Walsh made a nice point in his pre-concert talk. The greatest dread of the modernist, he said, is that people won’t think you‘re modern enough. It certainly applies to the tatters that survive from Stravinsky’s pathetic last years. Movements put me in mind of a movie I once saw, with the senile Picasso quickly daubing his signature on small porcelain plates and handing them off to be sold. How sad.

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