In music school, students whispered his name with either reverence or jealousy. Though he lived among gen-Xers and saw the birth of Millennials, his incredible compositional output, heavily saturated with exoticism, Catholicism and nature, always felt antiquated, if not completely insane.
Messiaen was a boy genius (entering the Paris Conservatoire at the tender age of 11 and collecting a handful of first prizes). He wrote God’s name using the majestic organ of Église de la Sainte-Trinité. He wrote his own book of Revelation in a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II: Quartet for the End of Time. His legendary synaesthesia is only imaginable for mere mortals. The first glance at a Messiaen score was usually enough to scare any serious young music student with its complexity and technical demand: Hence, Messiaen’s music remains a cult-classic for both performers and audience.
However, this week, Rashaan Allwood is making it his challenge to present Messiaen, For the Birds, first show at the CMC on October 27, then second show at the Heron Park Baptist Church on the 28th. The program consists of a rather challenging set of piano works: Catalogue d’Oiseaux (1er Livre) and Petites Esquisses d’Oiseaux of Messiaen and Alondra Vega-Zaldivar’s Two Cardinals.
Torontonians may remember Rashaan from two news articles — the wonder boy who scored a perfect 100 in his ARCT Piano Exam in 2012, and from the list of 30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30, 2017 edition, as organist.
This may be enough to raise an eyebrow already: is he an organist or a pianist?
Rashaan walked into his first piano lesson at the Mississauga School of Music at age six — he does not know yet to this date why piano. His father, Filmore Allwood, a classical music fanatic, grew up listening to that one single classical music station in Jamaica and he was determined that his boys will learn to read and play classical music. Rashaan sang in his church, played the piano and noodled around on his keytar as a teenager. And in 2012 Fall, he came to study piano with Jamie Parker at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto.
In his first year at the University of Toronto, two things happened: He casually signed up to receive lessons as part of the organ pedagogy course at the faculty with Kevin Komisaruk, and in the mid-year, the Toronto Star published an article about the magic 100.
The article had an interesting effect. “Everyone works super hard in piano, and sometimes this competitiveness leads us to be negative”: Allwood’s world was suddenly invaded with calls for concert contracts and the quiet jealousy from the other students — it was all bit too much, so he took a step back, distancing away from the piano in his second year. He zoned in on organ as main interest, going proper crazy with the exciting world of organ literature — “It was all new, so different from piano world. I jumped right into it.”
After a sabbatical second year, Rashaan came back to serious piano study, along with his organ pursuit. As a natural extension of keyboard idiom, Rashaan explored the harpsichord with Charlotte Nediger in Tafelmusik Summer Baroque Institute 2015, and participated in the early music ensemble under the direction of Ivars Taurins, 2015-16. In 2016 Fall, he went off to study organ at McGill with Hans-Ola Ericsson. Since then he has won many prizes, including first prize in Concours d’orgue de Quebec (2017), Canadian National OSM Manulife Competition (2016), second prize in the Wadden Sea International Organ Competition (2017) and the Lynnwood Farnan Organ Competition (2017).
It was his study of Messiaen’s Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity on the organ that ignited his ‘For the Birds’ program. Notorious for its technical and semantic demand, Rashaan spent significant solitary hours wrestling with the work. This Jacobian wrestle with the angel did give him a revelation: it was not the technical difficulties or complexity of Messiaen’s philosophy that drove people away from Messiaen’s music. It was lack of familiarity.
Rashaan admits with laughter that he quite hated the Catalogue of Birds for at least for a year and a half. “I realized that just listening to them is too confusing. There is nothing to hold onto. Even when you are familiar with his bird motives, it is almost impossible to identify the birds through listening only.” So he went on to learn these birds- the first book of the Catalogue (1956-58) and Small Sketches of Birds (1985), and he wants you to come, the Messiaen apprehenders and fanatics, as he’s fully ready to show you these birds.
Avery Kua, a Toronto-based illustrator, was commissioned to create artwork to accompany these birds along with photos and videos of Canada’s nature. In the simplest sense, Messiaen’s birds are now set in these fresh visuals with a tribute to the beautiful Canadian landscapes, giving us a new chance to interact with these exotic beings.
Are you ready to gaze at these striking birds? Any serious birdwatcher will tell you that actual birdwatching relies heavily on patient waiting and careful listening. Well, Toronto, the bird whispering boy is here this week. Get yourself a comfortable seat and open your eyes wide for this wild journey.