Jacaranda, the illuminating and increasingly important Southland music series, bills itself as "music at the edge of Santa Monica." True enough, its focus courts edginess, if cautiously, and with a mandate on mixing challenging and ear-pleasing fare.
And quite literally, the concerts take place on the continental edge in the newly remodeled First Presbyterian Church on 2nd Street, a large stone's throw from the Pacific. With the series closing its fifth season Saturday, it has become apparent that Jacaranda has nudged its way from the fringes toward the middle of what's good in Los Angeles' classical music culture. It's a success story in progress.
Saturday's long and smartly programmed concert, part of the multi-concert centennial tribute to the late, great French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), proved to be a fine example of the shrewd, engaging Jacaranda approach. In this densely packed evening, with eight separate works spread out in style and vintage (though all from the 20th century), concertgoers got a composite, multi-angled portrait of Messiaen, his time and temperament, through his works and those of his colleagues, mentors and protégés.
Messiaen's star student, Pierre Boulez, provided the evening's stellar serialist moment. His "Memorial" is a brief but action- and tension-packed work. Boulez's disarmingly meditative logic shines beneath the cool veneer.
Flutist Pamela Vliek Martchev acquitted herself beautifully here in the spotlight, as she also did on the palatable Modernist wash of André Jolivet's "Song of Linus," the concert's opener. Another highlight, Stravinsky's "Octet," was full of requisite neoclassical bounce and sneaky deposits of sometimes Modernist/circus-y wit in the lining.
Centering all the varied musical tendrils, also including pieces by forebear Debussy and teacher Paul Dukas, were Messiaen's early choral work "O Sacrum Convivum," written as a twentysomething, and his dazzling 1963 "Colors of the Celestial City." With a sound palette of brass, percussion and piano in the middle (the sharp, glorious Gloria Cheng), the work as played here had a bracing magnificence and sonic audacity, including imitations of the plangent Brazilian arapongo bird.
Here is music, still vivid 40-plus years later, celebrating sound, space, nature and divinity, without sentimental aftertaste. This is music on the edge, but also very much in the middle.