Organist gives Messiaen works a vibrant turn

The Baltimore Sun

So far, it doesn't look like Baltimore will hear the massive, hair-raising Turangal?la Symphony or some other big orchestral work by Olivier Messiaen to mark the 2008 centennial of the French composer's birth, but, thanks to organist Jonathan William Moyer, we're getting the next best thing.

Messiaen poured out some of his most inventive, not to mention most spiritual, ideas into his music for the organ, an instrument that allowed him to create immense and overwhelming, as well as amazingly intimate, worlds of sound. Moyer, a teacher at the Baltimore School for the Arts and a doctoral degree student at the Peabody Conservatory, is performing the complete Messiaen organ works in a series of recitals at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen over several months.

The series had its second installment Sunday evening, devoted to two works: Les Corps Glorieux from 1939 and Messe de la Pentec?te from 1950. The remaining recitals promise to be just as riveting. And the performances are all free, making Moyer's gesture of appreciation for Messiaen an even greater gift.

No composer of the 20th century was more out-on-a-limb than this one: Messiaen jotted down all the bird songs he ever heard, using them to create myriad melodic and rhythmic motives.

When bird songs emerge in his music, as Moyer helped them do so beautifully from within the complex aural fabric of the Offertoire and Communion movements of Messe de la Pentec?te, the effect is invariably magical and touching. You hear not so much Messiaen's delight in the world around him (he's hardly the only composer to employ the calls of birds), as his belief that these sounds provide little entry points into the realm of God.

Avian references are just part of Messiaen's language. Everything about his use of harmony and coloristic nuance reveals startling originality; no one used thick dissonance more expressively or, yes, beautifully. If we didn't know anything about the man's religiosity - Messiaen's devout Catholicism informs all of his music - we would still sense his striving for something beyond our physical and mental grasp.

Moyer revealed the composer's musical genius as vividly as his spiritual richness, taking full advantage of the cathedral's Shantz organ.

The densely constructed finale of Messe de la Pentec?te (Messiaen's vision of "the rushing wind of the Spirit") and the complex, blazing Joie movement of Les Corps Glorieux provided the organist with opportunities to demonstrate his virtuosity. Passages of rapt reflection were shaped with a keen sense of import.

Moyer requested that there be no applause for his music-making. Otherwise, the ovation would surely have been long and loud.

BSO's baroque bash

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra devoted lots of attention to baroque music last weekend. In addition to the Bach program featuring one lively chamber-sized group of players led by concertmaster Jonathan Carney, there was a hearty sampling of Vivaldi, Handel and Biber featuring another led by associate concertmaster Madeline Adkins. The latter did the lion's share of solo playing during the Casual Concert Saturday morning at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Adkins soared through Vivaldi's La tempesta de mare in bravura fashion and enjoyed smooth, spirited rapport with Rebecca Nichols, Ivan Stefanovic and James Umber in the composer's Concerto for Four Violins in B minor. His Concerto for Two Horns in F major found Phil Munds and Beth Graham bravely and deftly meeting the score's challenges on a pair of natural, valve-less instruments.

Biber's Battalia, with its daring dissonance and vivid descriptions of combat, received a colorful performance. So did Handel's Concerto Grosso, Op. 3, No. 2, with elegant solo efforts from Adkins, Stefanovic and oboist Jane Marvine. Cellist Chang Woo Lee did shining work all morning.

The BSO seems to relish these conductor-less baroque ventures, and so do audiences. It's too bad none are scheduled next season. Seems to me they could be a successful annual feature.

Pianist Barry Douglas

Barry Douglas, the fine Irish pianist, returns to the BSO this week to perform one of the great war horses in the repertoire, Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 with Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard. The pianist's 1993 recording of this work and the Concerto No. 1, with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra led by Evgeny Svetlanov, has just been released.

The recording is available through iTunes. A CD is slated for release later.

The Third Concerto receives a strong performance that gets to the heart of the matter in vivid style. There is much to savor as well in the Concerto No. 1. Svetlanov is a sturdy partner who gets plenty of fire from the orchestra in both.

Douglas, winner of the 1986 Tchaikovsky Competition, is just as appealing in his recent cycle of the Beethoven concertos, serving as soloist and conductor with Camerata Ireland, the chamber orchestra he founded in 1999. These recordings offer unfussy virtuosity and expressive character.

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