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DVD: Olivier Messiaen, Not for the Birds

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Olivier Messiaen: La liturgie de cristal (2002), directed by Olivier Mille
(released November 20, 2007)
Olivier Messiaen would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year, on December 10. Conferences and special concerts will mark the centennial year in many cities around the world, and we hope to hear Messiaen's music in concert at some point this year (or at least see a screening of Paul Festa's movie Apparition of the Eternal Church). This DVD, another in the JuxtaPositions series from Idéale Audience International (which also features the Pierre Henry DVD recently under review), will have to do until then. [UPDATE: Dawn Upshaw will sing some of Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi at her Terrace Theater recital on January 23.] Olivier Mille's documentary, made for Arte in 2002, examines the influences that make Messiaen's music stand out among composers in the 20th century.

There are lots of beautiful images of the American landscapes that so inspired Messiaen, in Turangalîla-Symphonie and Des Canyons aux étoiles. We see Messiaen at the organ of the church of La Trinité in Paris, where he was organist from 1931 to 1992 (!), staying even though many other churches, including Notre-Dame de Paris, tried to hire him away. In perhaps the most important centennial event of the Messiaen year, La Trinité is hosting a series of 18 concerts, during which the composer's complete works will be played (it actually began on December 20, with organist Olivier Latry). Some of the most awe-inspiring footage is of Messiaen's class at the Conservatoire de Paris, analyzing and playing through the score of Pelléas et Mélisande, a work he describes memorably as essential to his own musical formation.

Olivier Messiaen, Regard de l'Esprit de Joie
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano

The film is all the more appealing because of the footage of excellent performances of Messiaen's music, including some of his most famous interpreters. Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays the Regard du silence movement from Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jésus. We also see Messiaen's student, and eventually second wife, Yvonne Loriod, playing in various eras, at one point performing the Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine with Kent Nagano and the Maitrise Gabriel Fauré and orchestra. Olivier Latry plays the Messe de la Pentecôte, and there is footage of Saint François d'Assise at the 1992 Salzburg Festival, with Dawn Upshaw's angel and Jose van Dam's Francis. Quite memorably, Pierre Boulez conducts Aimard and the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Oiseaux exotiques.

Olivier Messiaen, Oiseaux Exotiques (Part 1 - Part 2)
Ensemble Intercontemporain, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Pierre Boulez

Among the extra features are some funny anecdotes and interview excerpts that did not get used in the film. Ornithologist Jacques Penot tells a story about taking Messiaen to see a colony of herons on a private property near Aigues-Mortes (at the mouth of the Rhône). The guard sees Messiaen notating the herons' calls like a crazy person and asks Penot if the composer is a foreigner or a nut, and the Provençal accent Penot imitates is hilarious. In another sequence, Yvonne Loriod remembers recognizing a bird, the courlis (curlew), in the field with Messiaen only from having played the corresponding movement in the Catalogue d'oiseaux. All of this visual and sonic information is presented in a way that will be informative for the newcomer to Messiaen and a glorious review for longtime fans.

Idéale Audience International DVD9DS44

Act II Scene 6 - The Sermon to the Birds
Olivier Messiaen, Saint François d'Assise
World premiere, 1983, conducted by Seiji Ozawa, Opéra national de Paris

Messiaen's Chronochromie as soundtrack to grainy footage of the, ahem, specialized performer Nikki Andersson. She is doing nothing but walking (probably still NSFW), but it is a surreal combination.

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