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Sense and Sensuality

Extrasensory, Jacaranda February 24, 2018—
Andre Jolivet, Eric Tanguy, Olivier Messiaen, Betsy Jolas and Claude Debussy

Midway through its 15th season, Jacaranda presented an updated interpretation of it’s two season 2007-2009 celebration of the centenary works of Olivier Messiaen and the 20th century French music informed by and that paid homage to the great composer. Entitled Extrasensory, the concert began with works by younger composers who were students of or influenced by Messiaen; it ended with a seminal work by Claude Debussy, historically the starting point for the kind of impressionistic “sound painting” heard throughout the evening. Jacaranda’s creative decisions—from the choice of composers and musicians to the order in which selections are played—were introduced by Artistic Director Patrick Scott, whose informative and prolific program notes provide a solid and intimate context for all concerts. Music Director Mark Alan Hilt conducts all sizeable ensembles at Jacaranda and, in his usual crisp fashion, led the two major pieces at this event.

Beginning the evening was a piece by Messiaen’s close friend Andre Jolivet (1905-1974), a composer whose output of incidental gems, symphonies, choral work and chamber music ought to be a far more prominent feature on the musical landscape. His Chant de Linos (1944) sounded like late Debussy or Ravel with the added, urgent influence of one of Jolivet’s modern teachers, Edgar Varese. It was performed by Rachel Beetz, flute; Alison Bjorkedal, harp, Alyssa Park, violin, Luke Maurer, viola, and Timothy Loo, cello.

The thrilling, difficult flute sections, early stepping stones in the career of Jean Pierre Rampal, were played with panache and verve by Beetz; the other four musicians gave full support in what is essentially a flute showcase. Empowering the other players with his solid foundation was the excellent cellist, Timothy Loo, a Jacaranda regular. Although described as a “funerary lamentation, an expression of grief”, to my ears the brief “Chant de Linos”, full of joie de vivre , was the ideal first course in a feast of very French music.

Alyssa Park returned for the night’s second selection in the company of fellow violinist Shalini Vijayan. Sonata for Two Violins (1999) by Eric Tanguy, continued the circular nature of this concert: the composer, who turned fifty that day, was a student of another Messiaen colleague, Betsy Jolas, whose music we would hear performed later in the concert. In the first of three short movements, Park and Vijayan seemed momentarily tentative, but quickly and surely bowed their violins through the tricky, twittering rondo. The middle section, sinuous and exotic, wrapped around itself beautifully then made way for the finale—a “chase”, reminiscent of the opening section, but faster and more furious, resulting in much-deserved applause.

The evening’s centerpiece was Messiaen’s Oiseaux Exotiques (1956). An energetic Mark Alan Hilt conducted 18 musicians, a third of them percussionists, in a seminal composition by one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was a devout Catholic, an organist for six decades, a lover of nature, an expert on all manner of birdsong, a prisoner of war for two years, and a longtime professor at the Paris Conservatory, beginning in the early 1940s. Some of his students, like ultra-modernists Stockhausen and Xenakis, would become world famous composers. It is difficult to overstate Messiaen’s importance in virtually all aspects of music.

The acoustics in the First Presbyterian Church, the site of this Jacaranda concert, are all-encompassing and allowed Messiaen’s bright bursts of unusual sounds to linger in the air. An inner current of horns, three clarinets, bassoon and flute was surrounded by the delicate, fleeting notes played by pianist Aron Kallay. Startling percussion effects—glockenspiel, xylophone, drums and gongs—added color to the mysterious music. Messiaen spent a great deal of time listening to birds and then transcribing their varied songs, cries and peckings into unique compositions. His interest in Indian music and use of strange rhythms and irregular meters only adds to the allure of his work.

The concert continued with an early Messiaen work, “Le Mort du Nombre” (1928), which is scored for violin, piano and two voices. The plaintive lyrics, according to Scott’s notes, “represent a dialogue between two souls experiencing separation” and were performed by vocalists Suzanne Waters and Timothy Gonzales. They were accompanied by the admirable violinist, Jessica Guideri, concertmaster of the Santa Barbara Symphony, and pianist Jack Dettling, who skillfully handled this haunting poem set to music.

Betsy Jolas, born in 1926 to artistic, cultured parents, has divided her life between France and the United States. She counted both Darius Milhaud and Messaien as teachers and would eventually take over the latter’s chair at the Paris Conservatory. Her brief, Debussy-inspired piece, Quartet lll, Nine Etudes (1973) was performed by the Lyris Quartet. Jolas explains: “I have attempted… to present a contemporary view of some characteristic elements of string technique in the form of nine etudes, each of which, following Debussy’s example, deals with one particular aspect of this technique: pizzicato, harmonics, aleatory…vibrato, etc.” 

The finale of Jacaranda’s concert featured one of music’s most famous and beloved compositions, Prelude to the Afternoon of a FaunClaude Debussy (1862-1918) based this exquisite orchestral piece, on a poem by Stephane Mallarme. When it premiered in December, 1894, public reaction was divided: audiences and many fellow composers loved it but some critics damned the piece, finding it formless and erratic. Nevertheless, this work and others by Debussy ushered a new kind of music into the new century; a generation later, “Afternoon of a Faun” seemed tame compared to Stravinsky or Bartok. About six months after Debussy died of cancer in 1918, Arnold Schoenberg founded The Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna. The group, which lasted three years, hosted weekly concerts at which music “from Mahler to the present” was studied and performed, usually in new arrangements for a reduced number of players. One of the Society members, Benno Sachs, wrote an unusual adaptation of “Afternoon of a Faun” in 1920. It is this arrangement, for about a dozen instruments, that concluded “Extrasensory”.

The lack of the fifty additional musicians normally heard in Debussy’s original orchestration didn’t sink in until conductor Hilt returned with his small chamber group. But as soon as the familiar opening notes of the piece were played, it was apparent that this compact gang of polished musicians were creating a worthy rendition of “Faun”. The “string section” had only two violins along with a single viola, cello and bass. But combined with piano and harmonium—respectively, Jack Dettling and Aron Kallay again—the sound ripened at moments into something powerful. Hilt’s finesse and control of his musicians, Jennifer Cullinan’s rich oboe, Donald Foster’s effective clarinet and the ensemble’s teamwork helped make this performance memorable.

Finally, one of Messaien’s most talented students, composer Pierre Boulez, thought that “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” was the absolute starting point of modern music. He said: “the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music”. The breath of Sara Andon’s flute brought an added elegance to the opening notes and several passages in “Faun” and her artistry is worth singling out. She can be heard on classical CD’s, on movie soundtracks, at jazz gigs and teaching in classrooms. Last fall, she excelled on three difficult solos at a concert honoring Lalo Schifrin.  She made the iconic music of Debussy as well as Messiaen’s “Oiseaux Exotiques” an intense experience at this outstanding concert.


  1. Mona Houghton says:

    Bravo Sean. You captured the essence of the evening.

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