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Music Academy Goes Messiaenic

During a 'visiting artist recital,' pianist Christopher Taylor will perform the composer's two-piano piece.

Faculty members of the Music Academy of the West have taken the bit between their teeth and galloped into modern times. This year, at least in the first part of the summer, they have devised several challenging programs of distinctly modern works, with scarcely a major, or minor, chord in evidence.

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Olivier Messiaen

While I applaud the move — there is no use waiting for audiences to discover and embrace most of this music on their own — I am wary of remarking on it with too much emphasis for fear of scaring off patrons.

Still, the faculty must have considered the potential consequences and decided, on balance, that their students would gain more than they might stand to lose. If classical music is to continue as a living art, rather than a museum exhibit, we must add regularly to the list of composers to whom we pay our attention.

The faculty Chamberfest on Tuesday included a program made up of three uncompromising works: Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Playgrounds for Angels, performed, it would seem, by a brass ensemble (four trumpets, four trombones and a tuba) made up mostly of students; Aaron Copland’s trio Vitebsk played by Jonathan Feldman (piano), Jeff Thayer (violin) and Alan Stepansky (cello); and Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with Jerome Lowenthal (piano), Kathleen Winkler (violin), Richie Hawley (clarinet) and Alan Stepansky (cello).

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Einojuhani Rautavaara

Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (born in 1928) is perhaps the most widely known of the breed after Sibelius. Playgrounds was written in 1981 and has been recorded a number of times.

Copland’s Vitebsk was composed in 1928, a long time before he discovered American folk music. The piece is an austere set of variations on themes of Jewish life.

Messiaen’s Quartet was famously written in a German prison camp, for the available instruments, and premiered there on Jan. 15, 1941, when the thermometer read minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

The title and philosophical content of the piece come from the Book of Revelation: “And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer.”

The instrumentation of the Quartet was the basis of the stellar 1970s ensemble Tashi (Ida Kavafian, Peter Serkin, Fred Sherry and Richard Stoltzman), who have reunited and are on tour, with the Quartet, for the first time in 30 years, in honor of Messiaen’s centennial (1908-92).

On Wednesday, Messiaen is the exclusive subject of the Music Academy “visiting artist recital” (at 7:30 p.m. at Hahn Hall; reserved seating is $40) by pianist Christopher Taylor. Taylor will perform the composer’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus), from 1944 — a year after the amazing two-piano work, Visions of Amen, and three years after the Quartet, but France was still occupied.

Messiaen is a good example of an artist whose ultramodernism of technique co-exists with profound religious beliefs. Other composers who may be so-described are Poulenc and Penderecki.

If you enjoy the thrill of witnessing a brilliant career that is just getting under way, you’ll want to be in Hahn Hall on Saturday for the ever-popular Concerto Competition Finals, when the summer’s students — now called Fellows — compete for the honor of performing with the Academy Festival Orchestra on Concerto Night on July 26.

The winners will be announced at 6 p.m. The morning session will be from 10 a.m. to noon. Tickets cost $8. The afternoon session will be from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets cost $12.

For tickets to Lobero events, call 805.963.0761. For any Music Academy event, tickets may be purchased at the door, one hour before the concert, by calling 805.969.8787 or by faxing an order to 805.969.4037.

Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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