The day a bird flew in to a Messiaen premiere

The day a bird flew in to a Messiaen premiere


norman lebrecht

October 04, 2015

Our weekend post about past relations between Pierre Boulez and his teacher has elicited this vivid memoir from clarinettist, John Hixson.


I grew up as a fan of the elusive Pierre Boulez, and having played Sacre under his lack of a baton on the Eb clarinet with a bit of rubato in a 5/7 passage, he stopped, took it from the top again, and I thought it was better to play with more exacting rhythm. In an unusual gesture, he made eye contact, gave a slight smile, and nodded.

Pierre is warmer in person than most would know from media. Impressed and moved by that, and by many conversations and meetings after, I was well read about his studies with Olivier Messiaen, another of my heroes. Pierre did get a bit teary-eyed at the following true story.

The conductor Gerry Schwartz, ex-principal trumpet at NY Phil, created a festival called Waterloo. It was a summer long festival based on principal players from good orchestras, and promising students. We were housed in the hallowed halls of Princeton University, which is my home town, and the best of the best soloists would come play. On a different note, I would enjoy conversations with Milton Babbitt and David Diamond, who were great friends, that would surprise many. We only wished Elliott Carter were there.

The concerts were held in Stanhope, New Jersey at the Waterloo Village.

One concert was to start with the US premiere of Un Sourire by Olivier Messiaen, in honour of the smile that Mozart’s music conveys. Conductor was Karl Anton Rickenbacher, a personal friend of Messiaen. Next was Brahms 4th. It was the summer of 1991.

It was a great team – Principal flute was Michael Parloff, from the Met Opera, John Ferillo, oboe, from the Met, leader was an extraordinary violinist from Finland, leader of Seattle Symphony, Gerry’s band. Clarinettist should have been Charlie Russo, a combative type from NYC Opera who had no interest in contemporary music, so he asked me to fill in.

It went off well, and the review said Charlie Russo had an unusually good tone in the Messiaen. Slightly annoying, but bygones are bygones.

Many people know that Messiaen had a strong affinity for bird song, and he notated them very well 0and used them quite musically, probably much to the annoyance of a more intellectually inclined Boulez.

But then, the most incredible thing happened.

In the first movement of the Brahms, a bird flew to the podium of Rickenbacher. It then perched on the leader’s stand, and as Rickenbacher held out his left hand as a gesture of legato, the bird flew to his hand.

It stayed there for the remainder of the entire first movement of the Brahms 4th to every knowledgeable person’s astonishment, and it was gently escorted before the 2nd movement to stage right by Maestro Rickenbacher.

We all slightly had to wonder… but we played it to close to the vest.

Parloff said to me, “nice trading high C’s perfectly in tune.” Ferillo just looked a bit stunned. Most of everyone else didn’t get the significance of what happened and I am inclined to think it is a coincidence.

But a pretty damn strong one at that.


photographer unknown. text (c) John Hixson/SlippedDisc


  • John Borstlap says:

    Obviously, the bird had wanted to hear more Messiaen, but took the Brahms as an acceptable alternative. Or it thought that the 1st mvt of Brahms IV was about birds as well. Or, since birds have an extremely restricted repertoire – they sing Messiaen all the time – the bird was perplexed that there existed also something else and listened carefully as to tell the others a good story.

  • Michael Redmond says:

    Thanks for the memory, John Hixson! I was present at this performance and reviewed it for the local newspaper. When I tell people this story, they don’t believe me.

  • Jonathan Zoob says:

    The codetta theme in Scotch snap rhythm in the Finale of Brahms’ Second Symphony is clearly based on the song of the Chiffchaff. He would have heard them on his country walks in Corinthia in the summer of 1873 when he composed it.

  • John Kelly says:

    Carl Jung wouldn’t think of it as a coincidence. Check out the Scarab Beetle story……….(you may need Google for that). Synchronicity.

  • walter gray says:

    It was a fabulous moment. I was principal cello and what preceded the landing on the podium was some amount of time perched on the first desk viola stand! Not to mention the flight time above the orchestra searching for the next perch.
    Truly amazing concert all around!