NEW YORK — For Myung-Whun Chung, conducting the premiere of Olivier Messiaen's final composition was as much a surprise as an honor.
''Some weeks after he died, his wife called me and said, 'I discovered a score on his desk I didn't even know he was writing,' Chung said recently. '''It's a score for you and the opera orchestra.'''
Mr. Chung, music director of the Bastille Opera in Paris for five years before he was ousted last October, conducted the world premiere of ''Concert a Quatre'' in Paris last September. He conducted the United States premiere on March 30 in Cleveland with the Cleveland Orchestra. A recording is scheduled for release in the US sometime in May.
''It's like a lot of great music in the sense it contains a lot of childlike simplicity with an enormous complexity inside,'' Chung says.
Messiaen orchestrated most of the first three movements before his death in 1992. His wife, Yvonne Loriod, orchestrated the final movement and part of the opening movement along with Heinz Holliger and George Benjamin.
On the recording, Ms. Loriod plays the piano, Mr. Holliger the oboe, Mstislav Rostropovich the cello and Catherine Cantin the flute -- the four soloists for whom Messiaen composed the piece.
Along with the usual Messiaen birdlike sounds, the piece has musical quotes from Chopin and from Mozart's great opera ''The Marriage of Figaro.''
''No one would catch them in the first listening,'' Chung says of the quotes. ''Sort of like Verdi writing 'Falstaff' at the end of his life.''
Chung, perhaps the greatest advocate of Messiaen's compositions among current conductors, feels especially close to the music.
''It's not just that he was profoundly religious,'' he says. ''He exemplified the profoundly human qualities: his generosity and his almost pure humility. It's something that stays with you and remains in your thoughts for your entire life because it becomes an almost living example of what you should aim for.''