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CSO, Ludovic Morlot make a case for Messiaen’s ‘Liturgies’

Ludovic Morlot

Ludovic Morlot

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• 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

• Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

• Tickets, $33-$203

• (312) 294-3000,

Updated: July 6, 2012 10:48AM

In 1949, Leopold Stokowski gave the U.S. premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s 1943-44 “Trois petites liturgies de la Presence Divine” (“Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence”) with the New York Philharmonic. Leonard Bernstein revived it there in 1961 with pianist Paul Jacobs, and Columbia even released a recording with those forces.

Despite the steady increase in popularity of the music of French mystic composer Messiaen (1908-1992), whose 1941 “Quartet for the End of Time” is a chamber music staple and whose enormous, late 1940s “Turangalila Symphonie” is regularly played by orchestras both in auditoriums and at outdoor venues, that was it for “Liturgies.” The NY Phil and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had never played the work at all, even with the advocacy for Messiaen here by his star student, rival and later champion, Pierre Boulez.

So chapeaus off to Ludovic Morlot, this week’s CSO guest conductor, for programming this marvelous strings/percussion-only work, whose glimmering, glittering sounds telegraphed much of Messiaen’s later, more well-known works; it clearly inspired Bernstein — otherwise not such a great fan of modern music — in his own “Chichester Psalms” and “Mass” of the 1960s and early ’70s.

The French- and British-trained Morlot, 38, is enjoying great success with unusual programming and community engagement in his debut season as music director of the Seattle Symphony; in several CSO bookings over the past six seasons, he has shown himself a dependable hand and a clear guide to the music of his native France. His happy connection with Seattle should also help him develop the sort of rehearsal and podium presence that can inspire and lift a CSO or NY Phil to the highest possible levels.

Thursday at Symphony Center, the CSO strings and percussion, local young pianist Daniel Schlosberg and Brit Cynthia Millar, reigning interpreter of the ondes martenot, the early electronic instrument that so obsessed Messiaen with its eerie, movie-ghost-like sounds, were Morlot’s eager collaborators on the three-part 35-minute work. Women of the CSO Chorus were prepared by their director, Duain Wolfe (absent from Thursday night’s premiere), and came very close to the idiom, despite having a fuller, more womanly sound than that exhibited on some of the work’s standard recordings. Lightness is all in this piece, especially in the skipping, brief middle movement “God’s Presence in, Himself,” and to prevent the long final section, “God’s Presence in All Things,” from dragging. Morlot and the singers probably will get there in the performances, which repeat through Tuesday. Chorus member Angela Presutti was the angelic soprano soloist.

The program’s second half was a bit of an odd balance, even if it continued the CSO’s Keys to the City piano festival theme and allowed the orchestra’s principal piano Mary Sauer to play the celesta in three different pieces over the entire program! (I was reminded of CSO violist and composer Max Raimi’s line, “I like shrimp, but I wouldn’t prepare a menu or meal with all shrimp dishes.”) Manuel de Falla’s 1909-15 “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” is Spanish atmospheric music par excellence, and its non-concerto solo piano also forecasts some of Messiaen’s ideas. To have it follow “Liturgies” and precede Maurice Ravel’s own orchestral Spanish soaking, the 1907 “Rapsodie espagnole,” was a bit much.

Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, 34, offered a technically impressive contribution, especially in some of the trickier rhythmic passages to which he brought great digital definition. Morlot was probably more focused on the Messiaen. I found his Ravel too clean; others might have said refreshing. All four principal winds were on hand for this last work, and that was lovely, indeed.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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