Sunday, April 5, 2009

Jacaranda’s ‘Sacrifice’: Going to the limits of extreme performance and sensuality

Saturday, April 4, 2009 - 8:00 pm
First Presbyterian Church, Santa Monica

Igor Stravinsky: Sacre du Printemps
(The Rite of Spring) For piano 4-hands, 1913

Olivier Messiaen: Harawi Chant d’amour et de mort
(Song of Love and Death) For soprano and piano, 1945

Danny Holt & Steven Vanhauwaert, piano
Elissa Johnston, soprano & Vicki Ray, piano

Review by Rodney Punt

Imagine, the knuckle-busting four-hand piano version of Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, coupled in one evening with probably the most difficult song cycle of the 20th Century, Olivier Messiaen’s Harawi, Chant d’amour et de mort. The near impossibility of finding musicians who can do justice to these two stupendous works, much less muster the courage to tackle them, challenges the brave if not the foolhardy.

Jacaranda’s producers, Patrick Scott and Mark Hilt, have the kind of audacity that lives up to the epithet of their series, “music at the edge”, and a stable of artistic talents approaching bottomless. For this evening, they put together a coalition of the willing - more importantly, the able - and brought us what may have been the most astounding concert in the five year history of the organization.

We are so used to the orchestral version of Sacre du Printemps, it is hard to think of the work without its prism of brilliant instrumental colors, or for some, the extra-musical associations of ballet or cinema. Who can forget seeing fearsome dinosaurs fighting to the death in the Walt Disney movie, Fantasia? Ballet versions are less frequent in these parts, but I was once fortunate enough to have taken Nicolas Slonimsky, the renowned lexicographer, to the Chandler Pavilion for the American Ballet Theatre’s recreation of the original Ballet Russes version. Slonimsky had seen a revival of the original with dancer Vaclav Nijinsky just a couple of years after its premiere, and was initially skeptical of the ABT’s ability to do it justice. But he was ultimately delighted with the results.

Stripped of such vivid orchestral colorings and visual evocations, however, would tonight’s Sacre prove to be nothing more than a historical curiosity? There is, after all, a certain lugubriousness inherent in four-hand piano performances, even with the best of musicians. I approached the evening with trepidation.

Not to worry. With Steven Vanhauwaert and Danny Holt on hand, all such doubts were cast aside. The four-hand piano Sacre blazed like a comet through the hall. Both illuminating and liberating, one could only stand mute at the work’s astounding musical structure. Dissonances were sharper when stripped of orchestral colorings. Interwoven lines that exist more independently in the orchestra version are here more obviously connected. Asymmetrical rhythms, constant off-beat accents, meters that change like jumping beans, all were revealed afresh in the piano version for 20 fingers.

Vanhauwaert and Holt tore into this piece like furies, undeterred by daunting challenges (and even the distracting breeze from the hall’s air-conditioning system that threatened to topple the music off the piano). It was a performance at turns propulsive and precise, aggressive and tender. What aplomb these two demonstrated!

It was like looking at one of those model ships where a half-cut down the middle reveals all the chambers. No wonder Messiaen studied this version for his own instruction and taught it to his students. It is a terrific companion to its more famous orchestra twin.
Unlike the Sacra du Printemps, Messiaen’s Harawi, Chant d’amour et de mort is not a composition many will encounter with prior conceptions or associations, or a even knowledge of its existence. Fiendishly difficult for both pianist and singer, it is shunned by most singers for understandable if lamentable reasons: there are simply very few with the combination of voice, musicianship, or time to prepare and perform it.

Patrick Scott’s lengthy program notes provide a good history of Harawi, including commentary on its surreal-inspired origins and its autobiographical significance to Messiaen. The notes can be found on Jacaranda’s website ( Suffice it to say here that Messiaen’s iconic musical obsessions and devices abound, including what seem like hundreds of exotic bird calls.

As with the evening’s first piece, the two performers of Harawi, soprano Elissa Johnston and pianist Vicki Ray, know not fear. Johnston has a voice of enormous range and suppleness, with a fresh, many-hued tonal quality just right for this piece. Just as important, hers is an impeccable musicianship without which it simply could not be performed.

Likewise, Ray has the dexterity to fully negotiate this beautiful monster, and the simpatico to be an ideal pair to Johnston in bringing it off, not just adequately but well nigh definitively. (Unconfirmed reports tell of the two working on it over a period of several months. If so, we can add artistic integrity to the merits they brought to the work’s revelatory performance.)

With this concert, the last at First Presbyterian this season, the two-year survey of works of Olivier Messiaen and those who influenced him draws almost to a close. There is but the season finale, a large-scale extravaganza featuring the seminal 20th Century composer’s compositions, including one US premiere, to be given at the restored art deco Barnum Hall at Santa Monica High School on May 9. Don’t miss it.

After you see it, please tell me what I had to miss while on a Sierra Club trip to southern China next month. Even in deepest China I doubt I’ll encounter birds more exotic or a spring more ravishing than those of this evening in Santa Monica.

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