Ecstatic Liturgies

This past weekend, November 7-9, the Cleveland Orchestra performed for the first time Olivier Messiaen’s Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine (“Three Little Liturgies of the Divine Presence”) of 1943-44, for (mostly unison) soprano chorus, strings, percussion, celesta, solo piano and solo ondes Martenot (that swoopy early twentieth-century electronic instrument of which Messiaen was such a fan).

The texts are Messiaen’s own in an ecstatic religious/surrealist style and deal with God’s presence in everything. This is some of Messiaen’s most accessible music and is a good place for people to start in exploring his music. It has a kind of overt simplicity masking extraordinary complexity and difficulty for the performers. For example, the singers are expected to make entrances out of nowhere pianissimo. Joela Jones was the piano soloist and Cynthia Millar (seeming the world’s leading exponent) was the ondes Martenot soloist. It all expressed a kind of thrilling and visceral space age ecstasy. Indeed, an acquaintance of mine also present at the Friday night performance said that he expected Jesus to arrive at any moment in a space ship. I have heard these pieces many times in recordings, but this was the best way to hear them.

The rest of the program consisted of some string fantasies by Purcell, two works by the conductor himself, and Stravinsky’s 1919 Firebird suite. As far as I was concerned, it was a mess. George Benjamin danced around on the podium, but who could tell what he was doing. I think it is a mark of the brilliance of the performers that anyone knew when to play or sing. The program was made even longer by some infelicitously long stage re-settings. A fifteen minute break in the middle of a program interrupts the audience’s (and probably the orchestra’s) concentration. The Messiaen work was the best thing on the program. Not coincidentally, George Benjamin was a student of Messiaen.

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