New York — Olivier Messiaen's six-hour-plus opera, ``St. Fran,cois d'Assise,'' may not enter the repertoire of many opera houses, but the three tableaux (or scenes) presented in concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra are sure to gain the composer new respect and admiration. As conducted by Seiji Ozawa (in the American premi`ere performances here and in Boston), they are hauntingly effective pieces in their own right. Messiaen influenced a generation of composers when he taught harmony, then later composition, at the Paris Conservatoire. When he began introducing birdcalls, gamelan music, and other forms of musical exotica as valid additions to our musico-harmonic language, he was in the forefront of a new musical idiom that was not limited to traditional Western concepts. His most celebrated pupil, Pierre Boulez, has said that Messiaen opened new horizons harmonically, rhythmically, and melodically for all who were taught by him.
The senior composer's musical course has been quite consistent with his own special vision. It is a vision deeply tied to his religious faith, to his love of birds, and to his fascination with intricate subdivision of rhythmic patterns. His first great works were all for the organ. He was organist of the Church of the Trinity in Paris through the 1970s. When he began to explore the orchestra as a coloristic palette, it was an evolution from his organistic palette. And by the time he reached his monumental oeuvre of 1946-1948, ``Turangal^ila-Symphonie,'' (premi`ered by the BSO in Boston in 1949 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein), his fascination with percussion, as well as with that most unusual of electronic instruments, the Onde Martenot, had allowed him an entirely new array of colors, sounds, and effects.
Has he written anything ``new'' in all his works since ``Turangal^ila-Symphonie''? Essentially, no. The music is all unmistakably Messiaen, with those brooding melodic fragments, the flurry of percussive activity under a mood-sustaining drone of strings or brass, the fragmented eruptions of climactic passages, the exultant climb to apotheosis that occurs at least once in a piece -- it's all there, even in ``St. Fran,cois d'Assise.''
Like Stravinsky (a composer to whom Boulez compares his teacher), Messiaen was something of a glorious independent branch of music. But not everyone likes the style or sound. Elliott Carter, a widely worshiped American composer, has described Messiaen's music (quoted by Phillip Ramey in a note for the Decca recording of ``La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur J'esus-Christ'') as ``vastly overrated, boring, and vulgar -- in fact vulgar is putting it mildly.'' But the Frenchman's music possesses at its core the very thing Carter's glaringly lacks -- sincerity.
Clearly, what was heard of ``St. Fran,cois'' represents something of a career-long summarization. In the three tableaux offered, there is nothing showy about the vocal lines of the score. Fran,cois ``speaks'' in long declamatory bass-baritone phrases. The Leper, whom Fran,cois heals, is written for a tenor who must leap around the vocal range. The radiantly beautiful music for the Angel floats in the upper middle range of the soprano's voice, and Messiaen resists letting her exit with something transcendent and high-lying (a normal operatic gesture).
The tableaux share an austerity somewhat akin to that of Debussy's ``Pell'eas et M'elisande,'' a work to which Messiaen surely owes a profound debt. As with all Messiaen, their mysteries reveal themselves slowly, their beauties ooze out almost imperceptibly until one is suddenly aware of being in the midst of something tremendously appealing and communicative.
The finale, describing Fran,cois's death and apotheosis, is not only thrilling, but also a true final climax to a musical/mystical vision that -- in the context of a prolonged theatrical encounter -- must be overwhelming in its sense of climax. As it was, the crescendo Ozawa conjured from his remarkable BSO players in Carnegie Hall was a thing of awesome power and effectiveness.
Ozawa conducted the world premi`ere in Paris in 1983 and has long been close to Messiaen, so it was no wonder that the performance flowed so smoothly. The singers included the extraordinary Jos'e van Dam as Fran,cois and Kenneth Riegel as the Leper (both repeating their world premi`ere performances). Kathleen Battle sang the Angel's music with radiant purity of tone. Equally superb was the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, whose collective French was some of the finest I have heard from a non-French-speaking ensemble.