If you need a little help getting into the holiday spirit this year, I suggest you head on down to the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street next Monday, December 10, for a complete performance of Olivier Messiaen’s monumental 1944 piano work Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty Gazes on the Infant Jesus). Originally composed for Messiaen’s long-time collaborator Yvonne Loriod, the two-hour, 20-movement work will be gang-performed by five prominent pianists — Anthony de Mare, Margaret Kampmeier, Taka Kigawa, Blair McMillen, and Marilyn Nonken — and accompanied by what the web page for the concert describes as “visual projections, compiled by Fr. Frank Sabatté, C.S.P., Senior Curator of The Gallery at the Sheen Center.”
The Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésus is Messiaen’s highly personal celebration of the Nativity, and, as a devout Catholic, the significance he placed upon Christ’s birth. It is not the stuff of cheery Christmas carols and songs around the Christmas tree: in it, Messiaen draws on the iconography of Medieval and early Renaissance religious art and literature in the telling of the Christmas Story in which the birth of an extraordinary infant is marked with joy, love and awe tempered by a portentous sense of what is to come in adulthood. The individual movements, with their special titles and Messiaen’s own short, poetic explanations, are like staging posts in the great theological story, musical “stations of the cross,” if you will, leading to a conclusion which is both terrifying and redemptive.
Messiaen is an acquired taste, though I’ve acquired it, and you may acquire it as well. You’ll be able to decide for yourself on Monday. I’ll see you there; tickets available here.
Below, Loriod’s performance of the full work: