Messiaen: Éclairs sur l’au-delà


Messiaen: Éclairs sur l’au-delà
(Illuminations of the Beyond)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
NZSO National Youth Orchestra

Friday 8 July 2016, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs

Sir Andrew Davis, conductor


Éclairs sur l’au-delà (Illuminations of the Beyond) – Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)


The ‘short version’

I applaud the NZSO for programming this concert. It was extraordinary. The playing was magnificent and Messiaen’s visionary concept was acknowledged. I can’t imagine anyone would mount this concert. The combination of the NZSO and the NZSO NYO was inspired and, even if the orchestra were actually audience members for most of the piece, it was an experience for those young players.


My ‘review’ blog has two purposes: one inward and the other outward. Intrinsic and extrinsic. Introvert and extrovert.

This blog is therapy for me. When I had a stroke in January 2015, I couldn’t read more than two sentences and they had to be straightforward. I couldn’t write at all – not  comprehensively. I had a daily blog that enabled  me to extend my writing skills again. Now, this blog is helping to regain my writing and critical thinking about a subject that is close to my heart – live music.

On the other hand, I want to write about the amazing concerts and events that I have seen. I wanted to write about them as a living, visceral, organic experience. I wanted to write about them primarily from the sensory and sensual experience of being an audience member. I was not concerned about other concerts, recordings, other performers, soloists or conductors. No comparisons or assessments about other performances– just the perception of music.

It is not easy. Sometimes the biographical experience of soloist or a performer can inform the audience of a special context or a special relationship to the music. Sometimes, if they aware of it, the state or the cognisance of the composer relays a special meaning to the audience. I was a cellist, a tenor, a Musical and Choir Director, an Orchestral Manager, an Opera Education Manager and an Event Coordinator – and I have many anecdotes about my experiences with performers, composers and conductors.

For example, I know that Messiaen considered himself as an ornithologist first and composer second – his compositions are strewn with transcriptions and transformations of bird songs. He was a Christian visionary and was gifted with a strong sense of ‘synaesthesia’, hearing in colors. That he inspired many New Zealand performers and composers – for example Jenny McLeod. The conductor for this programme, Sir Andrew Davis, spoke to the audience about Messiaen’s music, and revealed ‘trade secrets’ about his method of keeping the performers in time when the score had no time signature or even a meter. And I was conscious that the English text for the first movement, I: Appearance of Christ in Glory, mentioned that “In his right hand he held seven stars” – June/July in Aotearoa – Matariki!

It is not easy to ignore connections to my life and own experience.
So, following my reasons for my blog, for this concert, I have to break up this review in two parts: the ‘singularity’ of Messiaen’s Sound World, and the Bureaucratic Dilemma of the Orchestral Manager.

Messiaen’s Sound World
The sound world of Olivier Messiaen was singular. He wanted specific sounds and timbres from his orchestra – a rich and sumptuous sound world that was (apology for the cliché) quite out of the world. As the programme says, and Sir Andrew Davis amplified, Messiaen’s music was ‘beyond’ – something spiritual, noble, almost quixotic. He wanted extensive forces beyond the typical symphony orchestra, so that NZSO were joined by the young players of the NZSO National Youth Orchestra.

So, the strings swelled across the stage, there were 10 flutes and piccolos and 10 clarinets (including two Eflat, one bass and one contrabass clarinets). There were 11 percussionist AND no tympani. Instead, at various times, there were lots of gongs and tam tams, two sets of tubular bells, three xylophones, three triangle players, a whip – even a wind machine!

From so many players, I anticipated that the dynamic level could be deafening, but that was not so. Messiaen used the instruments subtly, picking out particular sounds: brass and woodwind choirs in the first movement; tubular bells, gongs and cellos in the close of the second; strings only in the fifth movement…  The only loud movements were the ‘birdsong’ movements: the gaudy, derisive quality in the III: The Lyrebird and the Bridal City; the woodwind went off like 24 cuckoo clocks all striking the midnight as different moments of IV: The Chosen Ones Marked With A Seal ; and the cacophony of the un-metered IX: Various Birds in the Trees of Life. The actual LOUD bit in the whole piece was the climax of VII: The Stars and the Glory when the whole orchestra, the whole ensemble of the 127 players, were in octaves singing: “Glory to God in the highest!

My favourite sections were the first, the last and the fifth movements: the first [I: Appearance of Christ in Glory] because it established the Messiaen sound world and the post-impressionistic way of his expression; the fifth [V: To Abide in Love] because it was strings only and it was a love song – agape, the tender love of a parent for his/her children; and the last movement [XI: Christ, Light of Paradise] because it was so luminous, incandescent, transcendent – a glimpse of the eternal.

The playing was brilliant and subtle, balanced and judicious – a professional response to Sir Andrew Davis conducting style from the performers, experienced and youthful players. The horn section, the trombones, the flutes and clarinets, the percussion and the string were marvellous in their sections that demanded them.

Bureaucratic Dilemma of the Orchestral Manager
It was like the colloquial typical behaviour of a Ministry of Works team: eight people working – two digging the trench and six looking on.

The work, one and a quarter hours of it, consisted by eleven movements with titles and quotations from the Bible, the composer and the writer Dom. Jean de Montléon. The double basses didn’t play until the eighth movement, and only plucking, sul tasto. They have another few bars in the tenth movement. Maybe they have 25 bars in the whole piece.

The strings were just under-utilised too. In the third, fifth and the last movement, the second violins and viola and cellos had only three desks of players (in the last movement the cellos had only one desk playing) – that was about a third of the orchestra. [I was left on the balcony so I couldn’t see what the violins 1 were doing.] I think, for the majority of the orchestra, they had only 30-40 bars for the whole piece.

Sure – the percussion and the woodwind (the flutes and single-reed instruments at least) had a lot to do. But what I couldn’t understand why Messiaen didn’t add to the orchestral texture when he wanted some more volume. For example, in the fifth movement, V: To Abide in Love, the strings were quiet in the beginning, but they had a steady crescendo throughout. The aria rose up – plaintive, pleading – and blossomed with tender, ardent melody, fortissimo. The second violins, violas and cellos had only three desks playing. The second violins, violas had 10 desks, the cellos eight desks.  Why couldn’t they play – a textured dynamic like Baroque orchestras.

I get that Messiaen had the totality of his music to express and he carefully selected the instrumental timbres he would require – but if I were convincing players to programme this work, or justifying the payment of the players to the bean-counters and bureaucrats –  I have to say that most of the orchestra were actually audience members for most of the piece.

My conclusion. 
I applaud the NZSO for programming this concert. It was extraordinary. The playing was magnificent and Messiaen’s visionary concept was acknowledged. I can’t imagine anyone would mount this concert. The combination of the NZSO and the NZSO NYO was inspired and, even if the orchestra were actually audience members for most of the piece, it was an experience for those young players.



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