New York World

Messiaen Mania

The first message one sees upon entering the Church of

St. Mary the Virgin, an opulent cathedral near John’s Shanghai restaurant and

the Lazer Park video-game arcade in Times Square, is a command: “Sinners

Repaint.” The words serve to help raise funds for a recent makeover. They also

characterize a church off-center enough to host a nine-hour concert of music

more knotted and scary than your typical church fare.

Starting at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 24, a

congregation of music faithful filled the pews of St. Mary’s for a nine-hour

marathon of Olivier Messiaen’s complete organ works. A French composer who

coupled avant-garde leanings with his devout Christian faith, Messiaen wrote

music that addresses darkness and light on equal terms. Before he died in 1992,

he played a singular role in the drama of 20th-century music-he transcribed

birdsong into musical notation as a teenager, embraced electronic instruments

in their earliest stages, and wrote increasingly powerful compositions that

carried musty classicism into the modern age.

Channeling Messiaen’s music at St. Mary’s was Paul

Jacobs, an organist straight out of central casting: Sweet-faced and cherubic,

he wears those button-down shirts without collars, often in bright colors. He

says things like, “You’re probably very astute in observing this …. ” He’s also

27, a tender age for someone recently appointed as incoming chairman of the

organ department at the Juilliard School.

Mr. Jacobs is no stranger to endurance tests. In 2000,

he performed an 18-hour concert of Bach’s organ music in Pittsburgh. “I had nothing

more than a cup of chocolate pudding to sustain me,” he said. “I didn’t even

notice hunger and fatigue. When I was finished, it hit me like a ton of bricks.

But when adrenaline takes over and one is so into the moment, you don’t think

about those things.” During this performance, he would eat only a bowl of

raisin bran before he started and a banana while he played.

Giving

the marathon treatment to Messiaen presents unique challenges.

“Messiaen’s

music has an element of terror to it,” Mr. Jacobs acknowledged. “Even though

it’s a good, radiant, bright terror, it’s so powerful that it’s almost a bit

frightening, which is very attractive to me.”

Indeed,

the sounds at St. Mary’s ran the gamut from swooning beauty to a dark, eerie

dissonance that could make the Transylvanian Top 40. Partial credit goes to the

St. Mary’s organ, a grand instrument made up of more than 5,000 pipes measuring

up to 32 feet long. Finished in 1933, it’s one of the biggest pipe organs in

New York. Suspended high above the heads below, a vertical mess of metal and

wood, the instrument looks like a city unto itself.

“Up

until the 19th century, the organ was perhaps the most complicated invention of

mankind,” Mr. Jacobs said. “It’s an incredibly complex machine. To play it, one

almost has to conduct an entire orchestra.”

The space at St. Mary’s is extravagantly ornate. Known

for its high liturgy and devotion to incense (hence the nickname “Smoky

Mary’s”), the church proved amenable to sitting around and staring for long

spells. The audience-numbering between 100 and 300 at any given time, with a

core of die-hards there for the duration-was a gangly mix of young and old,

classical music fans and not. Two women knitted casually in their seats. A few

people read books. A guy in a jean jacket actually played air organ.

During the nine-hour program, the mind had a tendency to

wander. (It turns out that the painted ceiling of St. Mary’s has 1,457 gold

stars visible from the third-row center pew.) Around 4 p.m., after Mr. Jacobs

announced he was heading into some of Messiaen’s “most extreme” work, the

program grew notably more intense and urgent. Bristly chords rubbed against

each other in anxious ways, high notes piercing and low notes bellowing like

angry ocean liners. A friend with tickets later to see Einstürzende

Neubauten-an industrial-rock band known to play jet engines-jumped in her seat.

“With Messiaen,” Mr. Jacobs said, “what may strike the

ear as bizarre and harsh will soon change, if one is just willing to spend time

to listen with an open mind.”

Notions

of time and its passing were central to Messiaen’s artistic mode. As Mr. Jacobs

told the audience during one of his few 15-minute breaks, the eminently

quotable composer tried to realize the “banishment of temporality” in music

that can’t help but begin and end.

Did it work? The echo certainly helped. As clanging

refrains spilled out during the finale, “Livre du Saint Sacrement” from 1984,

chords were left to dangle, reaching crests that swirled around the room for as

long as six seconds after air had left the organ. The only clear sign of time

inside came when the stained-glass windows faded to black as the sun went down.

The

next day, Mr. Jacobs said he was “pleasantly fatigued.”

“To

see so many people interested was enormously uplifting,” he added. “People do

have a longing for music of substance. I could tell the audience was listening,

aggressively.”

10 Things I’ll Say Before

Terrorists Cut My Throat

1) Dubya’s gonna get you evildoers!

2)

My cat Scoopee, she likes a full bowl of Cat Chow 24-7; Dover Sole; Salmon

Caviar; a puddle of fresh cold water in the tub three times a day; a session

with the wire brush daily; and getting petted and talked to all the time. Don’t

pick her up too much, she doesn’t like that.

3)

Delete all my e-mails, burn all my letters, and I didn’t purchase that Mia

Smiles porno movie, someone gave it to me.

4) I love you Mom, Dad, etc., Scoopee, Hilly, Sheri,

Jilly, Bedonna, Brigit, Meg, Molly, Lindsay, Amy and every other girl I was in

love with in college, especially the one who said, “If you call me again, I’m

calling the police!” Goodbye to Hippie Chick, Volleyball Head, Punk Rock Girl,

Lesbian Sasquatch, Sexy New Jersey Midget and all the wonderful boomies of the

world I’ll never know.

5) I’m sorry for making fun of your accent, Martin, in

ninth grade at St. John’s in Houston. You were a fine fellow and I’m very sorry

I did that. Same goes for my roommate at Choate summer school. Don’t remember

your name, but I regret not standing up for you. If it’s any consolation, I got

badly hazed in high school. Dude on the crew team, Bruce, urinated into a

Pringles can and poured it over me. Seniors walking down the boardwalk would

casually punch me, pick me up, carry me over to the pond and “pond” me.

6)

Hail Satan! Just kidding.

7) All things considered, I’d rather be here than having

to see that hideous MCI “What a Wonderful World” commercial again. Here’s the

playlist for my memorial service at Siberia: George Jones’ Cup of Loneliness ; Loretta Lynn’s “Honky Tonk Girl”; the fourth

song off Komeda’s The Genius of Komeda ;

Velvet Underground; the Jam; that Depeche Mode song I like; Barry Manilow’s

“Weekend in New England”; Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Savoy Truffle” and

“Get Back”; Neil Young’s “Keep On Rocking in the Free World”; Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime ; stuff from The Who Sell Out and the Kinks’ Animal Farm .

8) I’ll go along with Tony Soprano listening to that

great but obscure Faces song in the last episode because he’s got mommy issues,

but no Faces song has ever been played in a New Jersey strip bar, ever. So

let’s please try to keep it real during those “Sorry, folks, no violence

tonight, we’re keeping it real” episodes where nothing happens. Also, we don’t

care if you TV writers know who Leon Wieseltier is. We know you know the $10

words. How about a spin-off starring Meadow?

9) Please, no, I don’t wanna die, nooooo! Fuck Bush.

He’s a retard! Fuck America. We had it coming! The Nation and the Michael’s crowd were right! God is great! Yay,

Allah! Vote Kerry!

10)

Oh Jesus, please, please take the devil out of me.

-George Gurley