Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Speaking of Faith

June 12, 2010

Eric Huebner at the 2010 Ojai Music Festival
Photo: mine 2010

There are so many things about the music of Olivier Messiaen that lie almost outside the realm of comprehension. And I suppose that is what makes his music so great. So much of it deals with his deep spiritual faith and attempts to give voice to phenomena that aren’t comprehensible in their own right. I was reminded of this on my only day at the 2010 Ojai Music Festival this year in today’s afternoon performance of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant-Jésus by the formidable young pianist Eric Huebner. For starters, it’s hard for me to even imagine the circumstances under which the piece was composed and first performed. Completed in 1944, the two hour plus work was written for and first performed by pianist Yvonne Loriod. It received that premiere in March 1945 in a recently liberated Paris, but still before the end of WWII. Given how unearthly it sounds more than 60 years later, it must have been a shock to that particular audience at that time – an emphatic statement of faith in a Europe that was in a position to question it more than ever. Not that Vingt Regards ignores the darkest days of the 20th century, it actually embraces them in a way that acknowledges that all of this, too, is part of some greater plan.

It still sounds that bold today. Of course, not unlike the Santa Fe Opera, the Ojai festival has a setting that augments the music played here in unexpected ways. A late morning performance of Vingt Regards on a beautiful sunny day surrounded by copious amounts of the very birdsong Messiaen spent his entire career trying to emulate could not have been more poignant. Here was evidence of St. Francis’ own assertion that if one speaks to God in music she will answer you in music. This wasn’t just a concert involving performer and artist, it was one that nature participated in fully at all moments. It was another mystery in its own right.

Finally, there is the matter of mysteries in the work’s performance. Vingt Regards is one long, demanding piece of music. Eric Huebner marshaled amazing strength and consistency, maintaining focus the whole two hours and no one to hide behind. Huebner has given many well received performances here in Ojai, and we were so lucky that her returned with such a superb and Herculean performance. It’s the kind of thing one imagines that even when the performance is finished, he continues to feel the physical remnants of it for hours—if not days—to come like one might experience the sensation of flying after hours and hours of being on an airplane, although having landed long ago. Certainly listening to it is no small matter, and Huebner left an impression that will likely last for a long time.


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