"Zion Park" from Messiaen's Des Canyons aux étoiles; Reinbert de Leeuw conducting the Asko Ensemble, the Schönberg Ensemble, and Slagwerkgroep den Haag (Naive 782179).
The centenary of Olivier Messiaen, a formerly radical-seeming composer who now belongs to the ages, is being celebrated with a rather impressive array of concerts around the world. Andrew Patner describes a ten-day Messiaen festival now unfolding at the University of Chicago; the kickoff concert last night had the great British organist Gillian Weir performing Messe de la Pentecôte, among other works. (When I reviewed a great pile of Messiaen organ discs for Fanfare magazine some years ago, I came to the conclusion that Weir's cycle, originally issued on Collins Classics and now available from Priory Records, reigned supreme.) Chicagoans should take note of a screening of Paul Festa's intensely personal documentary film Apparition of the Eternal Church on Saturday morning. Festa's website gives a sense of the movie, although nothing can quite prepare you for the experience — for one thing, it's a bit racier than you might expect. As this page reveals, there will be two more showings of Apparition in Chicago and others in Sackville, New Brunswick; Austin, Texas; Concord, NH; Washington DC; Tempe, Arizona (I will appear at a related event with William Bolcom); and the Barbican in London. Another big Messiaen festival is unfolding in Montreal, leading up to a grand birthday presentation of Saint Francis under the direction of Kent Nagano. The actual centenary falls on December 10; oddly, neither Carnegie Hall nor Lincoln Center has relevant programming that day, although Reinbert de Leeuw and the Yale Philharmonia will present Turangalîla at Carnegie on Dec. 14 — in the wake of a week of Messiaen at Yale — and in February David Robertson will conduct the Juilliard Orchestra in From the Canyons to the Stars during the reopening festival of Alice Tully Hall.
For many people, the gateway to Messiaen's world is the Quartet for the End of Time, although there is no right place to start. Despite much formidable competition, the finest recording of the quartet remains Tashi's, on the RCA label. Currently at the top of my recommended CD list is a budget six-CD reissue, on the Naive label, of some staggeringly good recordings of major Messiaen pieces under the direction of de Leeuw and Pierre Boulez. Of the two conductors, it's the scandalously underrated de Leeuw who shows deeper sympathy for Messiaen's all-devouring aesthetic; the recording of From the Canyons to the Stars attains a degree of passion and intensity that you rarely find on disc. The beginning of "Zion Park," from Canyons, is excerpted above; the ending is pure animal joy in sound. Three other cherished Messiaen recordings: Pierre-Laurent Aimard's Vingt Regards (preview his new DG album here), Riccardo Chailly's Turangalîla, and Nagano's Saint Francis. You can hear more audio excerpts on my Messiaen/Ligeti pages.
Update: Marcus Maroney and Steve Smith add details of more events in Houston and New York. I should also mention the Celebration Messiaen series in Pittsburgh and the ongoing OM Century series at Jacaranda in LA. Notice that the Messiaen 2008 site linked up above has an audio archive of Claude Samuel's extensive interviews with the composer — a great resource for scholars. According to that site's concert listings, the Quartet for the End of Time will have been performed 145 times by the end of the anniversary year.