After spending most of the day on a long, leisurely drive down the coast from Mendocino, it felt odd to walk into a church at 9:00 PM on Monday night. It was only after dinner that we decided to attend the concert featuring the music of Olivier Messiaen- and it felt almost illicit, as if we were doing something a bit naughty. But it also felt right- like we were breaking a tradition which needed to be broken in the same way the composer often did.
Half an hour later, standing on the sidewalk out front on Fulton Street, I watched the crowd entering St. Ignatius as they filed in in groups of twos and threes- they looked jovial, relaxed and more than a little curious. We were warmly greeted as we entered by a man who encouraged us to view the art gallery, which was still open. Two more jovial chaps handed us programs and asked if we had any questions. I had one about the church's acoustics, having never been inside before, and was told I would be able to hear everything perfectly no matter where we sat. This turned out to be true.
The gallery left both of us unimpressed. I didn't really understand the artist's concepts and Isabella didn't care much for the execution, though being Catholic she understood the art's meaning with a clarity I don't possess. The church was gorgeously decked out in holiday decorations, the most festive of which were a dozen trees of different sizes, strung with white lights and clustered upon the apse creating a small bright wood before the altar.
We sat on the gospel side of the church, at the very edge, to avoid being under the strong lights coming from the ceiling of the huge nave. It didn't seem right to hear this music in such a brightly lit space. I wanted to hear it in the dark.
Once we were seated in the pew I opened the program and was surprised, then amused, to learn that not only could we use our phones to do whatever we wished (as long as the sound was turned off), but that we were encouraged to walk about during the performance, and even lie down if we felt like it. No "set" rules- just don't disturb anyone else and do whatever makes you feel comfortable- and hold any applause until the conclusion. We chose not to partake in any of these freedoms.
Shortly after 9:00 organist Jonathan Dimmock
came out, music in hand, and addressed the audience, which I estimated to easily be over 100 people. He repeated the freedoms stated in the program, mentioned the lights would be dimmed per the composer's intent during the second and eighth movements, and said he would be available after the performance for conversation. He then strode over to the organ, sat down on the very wide bench, and after a long pause in which he seemed to be summoning something, began to play La Nativité du Seigneur-
nine meditations for organ.
Perhaps I should mention my interest in this concert didn't stem from the religious theme of the music, but rather from curiosity about Messiaen's music in general and the opportunity to hear a rarely performed, challenging work.
The first two movements- depicting the feelings of Mary toward the child Jesus, followed by the Shepherds praising his arrival, didn't move me very much. The music felt, if not quite traditional, far from conveying a sense of transcendence, though it does have elements of reverence.
Things certainly took an interesting turn with the third section, Dessiens éternels, which, according Dimmock's program notes, has the listener entering into "the mystical world of the composer." The slowness of the movement, and the distinct ability to hear what Dimmock was playing with each hand, caused my attention to focus in way it hadn't in along time. From there, the performance lived up to expectation, including two moments when the floor of the church literally rumbled under our feet, causing me to open my eyes and see the silent question "are we experiencing an earthquake?" cross Isabella's face as it went through my own mind.
My eyes remained closed until the horrible pain and agony of the seventh part's depiction of the passion brought me out of a sense of reverie. I hadn't read through the program notes entirely, but the sound was enough to let one know something horrific was going on.
The lights dimmed again for the Magi's journey to Bethlehem in the eighth part, a welcome respite visually and aurally as the pain receded, replaced by gentle, repetitive music which ended in a flourish of light.
For the final part, Dieu parmi nous, a page-turner appeared to assist Dimmock. I asked Isabella if there had been anyone assisting Dimmock before this and she said no, but that the sixteenth notes of the toccata would require one. Oddly, it had the effect of increasing my expectations for an ecstatic conclusion, which turned out to be met. As the final notes dissipated through the church, I felt a deep sense of not wanting to make or hear a sound.
Dimmock sat still for a long moment and the audience remained hushed. It indeed felt like something profound had just been heard and communally experienced. When he finally rose, the audience did too, giving him a warm standing ovation followed by many queuing up to speak with him. We, however, had no questions- they had all been answered in the performance, and so we made our way into the cold night air.