Last Wednesday, i and the Beloved were at Bath Abbey, for a “Messiaen Centenary Celebration” given as part of the Bath Festival. The highlight of the concert was Messiaen‘s rarely-performed Trois Petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine, preceded by two works, a keyboard concerto by J. S. Bach, and the world première of Les Ondes Orientales by Dhafer Youssef. Thankfully, the concert was recorded by the BBC, and broadcast yesterday. Joanna MacGregor is the artistic director of the Bath Festival, so she was prominent in all three pieces. The Bach concerto is spirited and fun, with some lovely string writing, particularly in the slow middle movement; the solo part is highly florid, and almost continuous, but Joanna MacGregor tackles such things with incredible ease. In fact, she appeared so relaxed with the material that her communicative/reflective facial expressions seemed to become rather exaggerated (think Natalie Clein, but not so comic); all the same, it was a refreshing opener, a kind of musical sorbet.
i knew nothing about Dhafer Youssef before the concert, and that hasn’t changed much, but this first encounter with his work was fascinating. The majority of the work juxtaposes his vocal gymnastics with varying string textures (the piano part appears to be largely irrelevant); a sense of drone is often felt, and the rhythmic language is interesting but simple, so the overall combination has resonances with minimalism. The result, however, is something very different, not least due to the remarkably striking sounds and timbres that Youssef can elicit from his head. Softly spoken foreign phrases—perhaps prayer, perhaps narration—yield to raw, loud ululating, some of the notes held for incredibly long periods, plus occasional high pitches nasal sounds that made some members of the audience visibly jump with surprise. Over its 20-minute duration, it took a while for me to feel i grasped where he was coming from; ultimately, the sense of sheer enjoyment exhibited by the players and particularly Youssef, and the very palpable sense of risk (improvisation is significant in the piece) was an infectious combination. It’s not a piece to think too much about but, rather, in which to get caught up; the composer got a warm and very vocal ovation at the end, which he richly deserved.
and so to Messiaen which, surprisingly, seemed rather cerebral in the wake of Youssef’s artistic abandon. All the same, it’s surely one of his more immediately accessible works (so why isn’t it played more often?), with its own share of rapture. Veteran ondes Martenot player Cynthia Millar doesn’t get that much to do here, and even when she did, the instrument sounded at odds with the rest of the ensemble in a way i’ve never heard before (we were only a couple of rows from the front, which may have exacerbated the contrast). Both choir and ensemble did a magnificent job; accuracy sometimes wandered a little (and the Wells Cathedral School Chamber Choir sometimes seemed a bit disengaged), but it was nonetheless a taut performance, with a nice clarity, particularly in the more densely textured passages. In the Abbey, the choir occasionally got drowned out, but this has been nicely solved in the broadcast! Particularly striking in this work are the percussion; Messiaen lays off them for once here, using pared-down forces of vibraphone, tam-tams and—a bizarrely wonderful choice—maracas, but they’re used with absolute mastery, and in the softer passages are just exquisite.
Overall, it was a clever, successful concert, bringing together three works united in an emphasis on melodic invention and joie de vivre. Here are the latter two pieces, including interviews with both Joanna MacGregor and Dhafer Youssef; in addition, i’ve included a PDF of the concert programme, so you can pretend you were actually there.