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21st Century Consort

Synesthesia was a pretty big topic in Blogville a few months ago, with mentions from Terry, Fred, Byzantium's Shores, and probably others. Actually, the discussion was more about associating emotions or abstract ideas with specific keys than about synesthesia, which is a clinical condition that involves the confusion of stimuli between different senses. Most famously, some composers—Messiaen and Scriabin, to name two—have had it and perceived colors visually along with sounds that they heard (and, I presume, vice versa).

So, color was on everyone's mind at Washington National Cathedral last night, and what a natural place to think about color. Synesthete Olivier Messiaen was profoundly influenced by a visit he made with his parents, when he was a teenager, to La Sainte-Chapelle in his native Paris. The late Gothic builders of the Sainte-Chapelle removed the supporting function of the wall to its maximum, leaving most of the elevation to be filled with stained glass windows. The effect, especially on a sunny morning or afternoon, can be hallucinatory. The windows shown here, in the nave wall by the tomb of President Woodrow Wilson in the National Cathedral, could probably have induced some strange chords in Messiaen's eyes/ears.

In his introduction, the cathedral's director of music, Michael McCarthy, reminded us that the 21st Century Consort has a history at the cathedral, where they have played before as part of the annual Summer Music Festival, which I plugged in my weekly column for DCist this week, because there's good music to hear and it's free. The group formerly known as the 20th Century Consort has dedicated itself for many years to the performance of contemporary music, in their concert series at their home institution, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. They were seated at the midpoint of the nave, with us facing them backward, that is, toward the narthex rather than the apse of the cathedral.

Just as Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) is, in many ways, the first real 20th-century opera, Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, premiered in 1890, could be considered one of the foundation works of modern symphonic music. The consort performed it first, in a chamber arrangement made for the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances), founded by Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna as a place for modern music to be heard by an open-minded audience, from which the conservative reviewers of the time were excluded. If you know the piece, you would have appreciated the radiant, ambery tone of flutist Sara Stern on the famous chromatic opening theme that permeates the work. At one point, her oboe colleague, Wes Nichols, seated next to her, nodded appreciatively at her slinky performance. Conductor Christopher Kendall kept the entire performance at a very hushed level, so that even in the fifth row, I strained to hear at times (I don't know how much the impressively large crowd could have heard towards the rear).

The first half concluded with Anton Webern's 1925 chamber arrangement of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, op. 9, first performed in 1906. By comparison to the Debussy, this work seemed sadly unimaginative and somewhat gray. The density of Schoenberg's writing, of course, is muddled further by the cathedral's acoustic, which tends to swallow sound. The Adagio section has some lush, fluorescent sounds, in which Schoenberg flirts with major tonalities and then destroys them. The ascending motive in perfect 4ths (think of the main theme of Star Trek) seems so unlike Schoenberg, as we know him in later works.

We were told to allow a longer interval before the concert's second half, to allow darkness to descend over the cathedral. Erik Suter, who had performed the harmonium part in the Debussy on the small portative organ in the nave, went to the main organ in the choir for two pieces by Olivier Messiaen. Both were expertly played and well registered, so that we could hear the vermilion/cyan sounds behind us. The Transports de joie movement from L'Ascension was an ecstatic series of ejaculatory statements, and Le Banquet Céleste was a surreal evocation of the mystery of the Eucharist, which I thought was particularly funny considering the location. The final pedal note of the muted Le Banquet Céleste evoked a rumbling jet plane taking off in the distance.

The concert concluded with a premiere of a new work, Out of Darkness, by the group's managing director, Christopher Patton. It was intended to bring the concert into connection with the exhibit at the Hirshhorn right now, Visual Music (through September 11, when Norwegian pianist Håkon Austbø will perform a concert of color music by Scriabin and Messiaen). According to the composer's notes, it "takes its structure in part from the Cathedral itself," especially Rowan LeCompte's western rose window, based on the words "Let there be light" from the book of Genesis. Combining music with light (designed by Daniel MacLean Wagner, who taught theater at the cathedral school, and Justin Thomas, a student there) and movement (percussionists who strode through the side aisles with various rattles and then ran into the central space at the end), the piece seemed at times to transport me back to the 1960s or 70s, and not in a good way. As you can see in the picture here, the lighting effects were pretty, but it seemed to me that the work offered little beyond cute gimmicks. Treble Charlotte Woolley gave a moving performance (mostly on the words "Lumen de lumine," or light from light, in the Nicene Creed), first from above us in the west gallery and then in the nave with the other musicians (she was amplified in both locations). Think John Rutter, and you will get the idea.

The free concerts in the cathedral's Summer Music Festival 2005 continue for the rest of July.

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