Musical performances, much like spiritual moments, can spark deep emotions and colorful contemplations. When paired together, these experiences can feel larger than life itself. On Sunday, Oct. 23, at 4 p.m., soprano Kathleen Roland-Silverstein and pianist Dan Sato present the “Music of Olivier Messiaen” as part of the Hendricks Chapel’s Malmgren concert series.
Roland-Silverstein and Sato, both Setnor School of Music faculty members, pored over a year’s worth of preparation into this program of what they like to call “Messiaen’s greatest hits.”
“This concert might be a first for many to experience his music. It’s a kind of music that’s very intoxicating, like a really strong psychedelic,” says Sato.
French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) is best known for his harmonically rich and complex work that pushed boundaries in 20th-century music. A devout Catholic, his spirituality and fascination with nature were at the center of nearly everything he did.
To introduce Messiaen’s soundscape, the Hendricks Chapel Choir, directed by José “Peppie” Calvar, will gently open the concert with the sacred motet “O sacrum convivium.” This choral piece, composed in 1937, is one of his earlier works that offers a meditation on spiritual communion with the divine.
For Messiaen, music was not just an acoustic experience but a visual one. His synesthesia, a condition that links one’s senses, made him associate sound with color and vice-versa. Music notes were like ribbons, and chords became rainbows. With this imagery, he found ways to intertwine it with musical and spiritual concepts from other cultures.
In the piece, “Harawi: Chant d’amour et de mort,” Sato and Roland-Silverstein explore an ancient Peruvian story of a love ending in death. Messiaen composed in French and Quechua, an indigenous language spoken in the Peruvian Andes. “He also just used onomatopoeic sounds. One of the songs is called ‘Dondou tchil,’ which is supposed to represent the ankle bracelets that were worn by the Peruvians,” Roland-Silverstein remarked.
Messiaen’s cosmic scenes are almost supernatural, Sato added. “The scope of time and resonance offers a glimpse or a snapshot of what eternity feels like. [His music] demands so much more than we can provide, even just from the piano or from the human voice.”
Still, the challenge is worth taking. Sato plans to perform selections from Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus,” one of the most demanding and impressive works in the entire piano repertoire. Messiaen drew inspiration from birdsongs, Indian classical music and most importantly, his faith as he contemplated the infant Jesus.
“It goes from a lullaby into this really grand galactic explosion of dissonance. It feels almost uncomfortable and nightmarish, but that is that extremism of expression,” Sato says. “You’re just kind of left in a daze.”
After giving themselves the luxury of time to absorb Messiaen’s music, Sato and Roland-Silverstein say this concert will be a great opportunity to share the experience with the community. Anticipating a most memorable musical encounter, Roland-Silverstein says, “I hope people feel transported.”
The Malmgren concert is free and open to the public. Complimentary parking is available in the Quad Lot and Irving Garage. For more information, visit chapel.syracuse.edu.
Story by Piper Starnes, graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications program in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications