It might seem weird to say that one can hear music for the first time and feel lifted by it, but that’s what happened to me during a concert of Olivier Messiaen’s music, which was performed by members of the Fear No Music ensemble on Sunday evening at the Community Music Center. Maybe it was all of the odd chords that Messiaen uses in a mesmerizing blend of mixed formations. Or it could’ve been the wide variety of colors that he creates with his music. In any case, I left the concert feeling better, as if I had been taken to higher ground.
My elevated spirit was due to a great degree to the playing of Jeff Payne, who got more beautiful sounds out of a baby grand piano than anyone could have imagined. Payne performed in each work on the program, and his intelligent and articulate yet emotional playing made each piece sparkle. Of course, Payne was most outstanding in the selections from Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus.” The three solo pieces were “Le basier de l’enfant- Jésus” (“Kiss of the infant Jesus”), “Regard de l’Esprit de Joi” (“Gaze of the Spirit of Joy”), and “Noël” (“Christmas”). The first was slow moving and evoked a mystical, timeless, contemplative atmosphere. The second was more agitated and featured wonderful, cascading chords. At the end of the piece Payne played some notes at either end of the keyboard exquisitely. The third piece (“Noël”) began in a more declamatory fashion but did quiet down and then erupted into a rambunctious sequence before abruptly ending – not the usual kind of number that I would associate with Christmas, yet it made me think of Christmas in a different way.
The three other works on the program were also excellent. Flutist Molly Barth and Payne performed Messiaen’s “Le Merle Noir” (“Blackbird”) with a wonderful combination of precision and grace. Barth’s virtuosic ability created fluttering trills, sudden fortes, and soothing legato lines that were flat out remarkable.
Cellist Heather Blackburn teamed up with Payne for Joan Tower’s “Tres Lent” (“Hommage à Messiaen”), a piece that has long, somber yet beautiful lines for the cello and a dramatic thrust that subsides into an ending that is full of longing. Blackburn and Payne’s performance was superb in every respect. (As a side note, Blackburn told me after the concert that she and Payne played this piece for Tower at the Bloch Festival eight years ago when they were just new to this work. So, it was wonderful for them to play it again.)
The final piece on the concert, “Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus” (“Praise to the Immortality of Jesus”) from Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” was performed by violinist Inés Voglar and Payne. The music was sweet and powerful at the same time. It sort of transported me to a more wonderful place. At the beginning of the piece, Voglar told the audience that she wanted to dedicate the performance of it to her grandmother, who had just passed away. I think she heard it.
Final note: This concert was the third in a series called “Songs of Heaven & Earth” that was dedicated to Olivier Messiaen. I regret missing the second concert, in which organist Tamara Still played Messiaen’s “La Nativite du Seigneur.”
Also, Jeff Payne will play all of Messiaen's "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus" ("Twenty Gazes/Contemplations on the Infant Jesus") on November 2nd at Kaul Auditorium in the next Fear No Music concert.