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An SFCM master class provides a ‘sneak preview’ of Phonochrome’s Messiaen

1930 portrait photograph of Olivier Messiaen
by Studio Harcourt, from Wikipedia (public domain)

This afternoon cellist David Requiro led a master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). While I normally do not identify the names of the students being coached, on this particular occasion the first such student was cellist Laura Gaynon, performing with accompanist Allegra Chapman. Those who read yesterday’s summary of activities for Valentine’s Day weekend will recognize that these are two of the founding members of the Phonochrome chamber ensemble; and for this afternoon Gaynon had prepared the “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” (praise to the eternity of Jesus) movement from Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatour pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time), which will be performed in its entirety at SFCM on Valentine’s Day.

This movement is an extended melody performed by the cello against nothing more than a progression of repeated chords on the piano. Messiaen’s tempo marking in “infiniment lent, extatique” (infinitely slow, ecstatic). After listening to Gaynon play through the movement, Requiro’s first question was whether she was approaching this music technically or expressively, and I was glad to hear Gaynon reply with the latter option. Nevertheless, much of the coaching session involved teasing out how addressing specific technical questions of attack, breath, and phrasing would lead to determining an appropriately expressive rhetoric.

While I would not question any of Requiro’s tactics or Gaynon’s approaches to his coaching, I have to say that, where this particular piece is concerned (and, for that matter, many other Messiaen compositions), the dichotomy that needs to be addressed is the one between mysticism and logic (with apologies to Bertrand Russell). The fact that the entire quartet was motivated by the apocalyptic visions of the tenth chapter of the Book of Revelations seems sufficient to suggest that this score is suffused with mysticism, whether we take the King James Version of the text “there should be time no longer” or the more pragmatic Jerusalem Bible version: “The time of waiting is over.” Thus, Messiaen’s tempo marking may be taken as an indication of an almost (but not quite) eternal “time of waiting,” whose expansiveness will (in the full scope of the composition) be brought to conclusion by the subsequent “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes” (dance of fury, for the seven trumpets).

While this excerpted movement certainly provided an excellent opportunity to experience Gaynon’s cello work, it is also, in many respects, the one movement of the quartet that is most focused on an underlying sense of time-consciousness; and it this made for a promising foretaste of what will come when Messiaen’s composition is performed in its entirety at SFCM this coming February 14.

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