Composers: Messiaen's Monument

Lisbon's vast Coliseu concert hall was in tumult. For 20 minutes, the audience of 5,000 at the Gulbenkian Festival simultaneously hailed and hooted as French Composer Olivier Messiaen, thin gray hair disheveled and glasses askew, went through the ritual of kissing the conductor and instrumental soloists on both cheeks. Then, perplexed by the audience's contradictory response, he discreetly withdrew as both applause and a drumming pateada—the foot-stomping Portuguese sign of displeasure —roared on.

The reaction to the world premiere of Messiaen's 1-hr. 45-min. oratorio, The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ, was...

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