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November 25, 2008

Organist honors Olivier Messiaen centennial in style

After hearing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's concert Sunday afternoon at the Meyerhoff I raced off to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen to catch part of Jonathan Moyer's admirable cycle of Messiaen's complete organ works. For this final installment, Moyer added a prelude concert featuring the Chandos Singers of the Handel Choir of Baltimore, led by director Melinda O'Neal. I Jonathan Moyerslipped into a pew in time to hear the choristers deliver a very sensitive performance of Messiaen's O sacrum convivium, a work of lyrical beauty that follows a natural flow of subtly developing harmonic progressions ever heavenward.

Moyer then performed the complete Livre du Saint Sacrement, Messiaen's last will and testament for organ, an 18-part reflection on core beliefs of Catholicism. Each movement is inspired by lines from scripture or the saints, and those lines were elegantly recited by revered soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson before each piece was played.

I wish I could have held on to the very end, but I ducked out at intermission. Still, what I heard was deeply enriching, from the shattering cosmos in sound unleashed by Moyer in the Adoro te to the brilliant tone poem of La manne et le Pain de Vie, with its multi-directional force of sounds creating intensely vivid images, spiced, of course, Messiaen's trademark bird call motifs. The relative simplicity of Institution de l'Eucharistie, a tapestry of major chords and bird song, was as impressively realized by the organist as was the tragic weight of Les tenebres, with its chilling evocation of darkness spreading over the earth (the cathedral's formidable Schantz organ provided tremendous sonic depth here).   

Livre du Saint Sacrement illustrates just how Messiaen's rock-solid faith allowed him to explore distant regions of tonality, diffuse concepts of form, without ever losing his way. Moyer's own obvious belief in the composer's vision yielded consistently riveting, incisive music-making.


Posted by Tim Smith at 8:36 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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