Ornithology, at Piano Spheres special season-opener


ed. note: We are pleased to re-enter life as we knew it, and feature, in this special post, writing by Kirk Silsbee and photography by Mark Levine

As performing-arts presenters take tentative steps toward resuming full programming, the prudent path would mandate familiar fare to reconnect with cautious audiences. Piano Spheres is having nothing of that.

In its nearly thirty-year history, the provocative Piano Spheres series, specializing in contemporary and avant-garde piano works, has made innovation a raison d’etre. Accordingly, the 2021-22 season opens with the seldom-performed Catalogue d’oiseaux by French composer Olivier Messiaen. The nearly three-hour-long work is a thirteen-part serial piece inspired by the songs of birds that the composer diligently transcribed on his many hiking trips around Europe in 1956-‘58. The Catalogue contains transcriptions of actual bird vocal sequences, as well as Messaien’s musical impressions of them and their surroundings. The latter provides some cover in the way of artistic discretion; the former had to be akin to loading mercury with a pitchfork.

Messiaen (1908-1992) was one of the most forward-looking and important European composers of the 20th Century. Literally a child of the World Wars, his work ingested and gave glimpses of the horror and carnage that he lived through. It’s hard music to play, and it can be hard to listen to. Yet for all of Messiaen’s jarring juxtapositions and dissonance, he still managed to find rays of spiritual sunlight.

Vicki Ray, a founding Piano Spheres member who heads the Cal Arts piano department, is one of thirteen pianists who will essay the Catalogue, at an upcoming Piano Spheres concert and fundraiser on Sunday afternoon, September 26. Ray has been grappling with Messiaen’s difficult music—in solo, chamber and orchestral settings–since her early twenties. “He kept his own stylistic voice throughout his career,” she says. “The music developed a lot, but it didn’t change a great deal. Along with Stravinsky, Bartok, Sibelius and Boulez, Messiaen is one of the giants of 20th Century composition.” Ray, who goes back with Piano Spheres to “licking stamps when we had no budget,” will play the “Loriot” (Eurasian Golden Oriole) movement of the Catalogue.

Another of the Piano Spheres interpreters is pianist Thomas Kotcheff. An alumnus of the USC Thornton School of Music (where he studied with composer Steven Stucky), Kotcheff teaches ear training and music theory at the Colburn School of Music. He’ll be playing “Book 4”—the central piece of the Catalogue—dedicated to the reed warbler. He points out that birds “speak” in microtones, and that’s at odds with the tempered scale in which Western music and its principal instruments are grounded. “It’s one of the few programmatic movements,” he says. “You hear the forest, the ocean, the waves of the ocean splashing against the cliff, then back to the forest, and sunset. I visualize these scenes as they’re being played to give as much a sense of the environment as I can.”

“And it’s incredibly challenging for a pianist,” Kotcheff adds. “Birds never sing the same note twice. For the pianists who play this piece, we have to learn a never-ending variety of articulations.” Apropos the technical demands of the Catalogue, Ray concurs. “There are tons of articulations and dynamics in this music,” she says. “It’s an incredible challenge.”

Not many Messiaen devotees have heard the Catalogue performed live, let alone in its entirety. But that’s the kind of demanding programming that the series has always trafficked in. “I attended my first Piano Spheres concert at fourteen,” says Kotcheff. “That’s where I fell in love with new music.”

Piano Spheres has added another unique twist to its presentation: it will be played outdoors in the awning-covered Audubon Center of Debs Park. “It’s a beautiful courtyard,” Ray says. “There’s an overhang where you can enjoy a drink, but you can wander the park as well.” Sounds like a good setting to fall in love with new music.    

Author Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.
Birder Mark Levine shares from the best of his bird photography.

Piano Spheres: Olivier Messiaen: “Catalogue d’oiseaux” | Audubon Center at Debs Park | Sept 26, 3:30 pm

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