Grace Cathedral
Messiaen Centenary Celebration

On April 18, 2008, atop San Francisco's Nob Hill, 600 people gathered in Grace Cathedral to celebrate the centenary of Olivier Messiaen with the U.S. West Coast premiere of the composer's 1933 Fantaisie for violin and piano, the San Francisco premiere screening of my 52-minute Messiaen film Apparition of the Eternal Church (the final third of it accompanied by Grace Cathedral music director Jeffrey Smith on the cathedral's 1934 Aeolian-Skinner organ), and a reading from my book OH MY GOD: Messiaen in the Ear of the Unbeliever, based on the film.

Below are five video clips from the evening - one of the Fantaisie premiere (with me playing violin and Steven Vanhauwaert on piano), one of the first few minutes of the screening, and three of my remarks and reading. Further down, you'll find a link to Grace Cathedral's weekly Forum discussion, from the prior Sunday morning, titled "Messiaen At 100: A Life of Music, A Life of Faith," with conductor Jean-Louis LeRoux, Jeffrey Smith, Grace Cathedral dean Alan Jones, and me. Below that come my contributions to the program notes: my bio; a note about Messiaen, the Fantaisie, and the two organ works included in the film; and acknowledgments. Finally, I have copied a statement about the evening by Grace Cathedral Canon Pastor Mary Haddad.

NEW ADDITIONAL VIDEO: After the Grace Cathedral Fantaisie video, I've added the LA premiere. Again with pianist Steven Vanhauwaert, that performance took place the following Saturday, April 26th, in Santa Monica, presented by Jacaranda: Music at the Edge of Santa Monica.

If you're interested in performing the Fantaisie, check out this page I've posted with some observations about the recently published score.


U.S. West Coast premiere of Messiaen's Fantaisie for violin and piano (1933)
Paul Festa, violin
Steven Vanhauwaert, piano
(Listen for the cable car bell about midway through the video.)

Los Angeles premiere of the Fantaisie
First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica
presented by Jacaranda: Music at the Edge of Santa Monica
with performances of Messiaen's organ music by Mark Alan Hilt
following the LA premiere of Apparition of the Eternal Church.

The videocamera taping the Grace Cathedral Fantaisie premiere
caught the first few minutes of Apparition of the Eternal Church.
Apologies for the candlesticks obscuring the screen.

Introductory remarks prior to a reading from
OH MY GOD: Messiaen in the Ear of the Unbeliever
the book based on Apparition of the Eternal Church.

The beginning of the reading from OH MY GOD...

...and the end. (The video mistakenly identifies this as the second
of three parts; actually it's the last.)
For more about the book, click here.

Grace Cathedral's weekly Forum discussion, from the prior Sunday morning, titled "Messiaen At 100: A Life of Music, A Life of Faith," with conductor Jean-Louis LeRoux, Grace Cathedral director of music Jeffrey Smith and dean Alan Jones, and me.


San Francisco native PAUL FESTA studied violin at the Juilliard School before graduating in 1996 with honors and musical and academic prizes from Yale, where he studied English. His essays appear in Nerve, Salon, In Formation, the Best Sex Writing anthologies for 2005, 2006 and 2008, and other publications. The award-winning and critically acclaimed Apparition of the Eternal Church is his first film; his second is Paleojournalist: The Life and Career of George Dusheck.

As violinist, he won the San Francisco Symphony Young Musicians Award, toured as soloist here and abroad, and performed frequently in New York as a member of Albert Fuller’s Helicon Ensemble. Since October, he has given the U.S., Boston, and New York premieres of Messiaen’s recently discovered Fantaisie, and on April 26th, with Steven Vanhauwaert, he gives the Los Angeles premiere. As violinist and actor, Paul has appeared with the Stephen Pelton Dance Theater and the North Bay Shakespeare Company.

Paul is the author of Oh My God: Messiaen in the Ear of the Unbeliever, which is based on his film. He is the official historian of the Presidential Memorial Commission of San Francisco. Currently revising a novel and touring the country with Apparition, he lives near Dolores Park with his boyfriend James and their dog Ziggy. His next San Francisco appearance, with the Stephen Pelton Dance Theater, is May 3. Details of that performance and more information at

OLIVIER MESSIAEN was born in Avignon December 10th, 1908, and died in Paris on April 27th, 1992. Among great 20th-century composers, a notably iconoclastic group, Messiaen held a special claim on originality. His incorporation of birdsong, his invention of harmonic and rhythmic techniques, and his lifelong musical investigation of Christian theology all distinguish him as a composer of fearless and virtually unparalleled independence. He was as dedicated a student of tradition as he was a teacher of the next generation of composers, but he was fundamentally without precedent or heir.

Messiaen was the 19-year-old composition student of Paul Dukas at the Paris Conservatory when he salvaged, from an orchestral work he’d deemed a failure, The Celestial Banquet for organ. The work, which accompanies the credit sequence of tonight’s film, proceeds with revolutionary slowness, a temporal and harmonic netherworld unfolding over seven and a half minutes. About the Apparition (or Vision) of the Eternal Church, composed in 1932 when Messiaen was 23, the less said before the screening of the film, the better.

Written in 1933, Messiaen’s Fantaisie was apparently the second work for violin and piano he composed for his first wife, the violinist and composer Claire Delbos; it was unknown to Messiaen scholars until its discovery and publication last year. One can only speculate on why Messiaen allowed this robust and ecstatic work to disappear. One factor may have been that the composer recycled its introductory theme in the movement of his Ascension suite (for orchestra and later for organ) titled “Serene hallelujahs of a soul yearning for heaven.” Messiaen wasn’t particularly shy about musical recycling – important material from his famous Quartet for the End of Time came from earlier works, including the final movement, for violin and piano, "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus," which is taken from the second half of his early Diptych for organ. Another factor in the Fantaisie’s fate may have been Claire’s own. Her health began to deteriorate during Messiaen’s war service; in 1953 she was diagnosed with incurable cerebral atrophy, and after several years in an institution she died in 1959. Messiaen never again wrote for the violin.

The filmmaker gratefully acknowledges the following friends and family, without whose help tonight’s event would not have been possible.

Diva d’Alessandro

Drew Banks and Nicholas Rubashkin

Alvin Baum

Fernando Martin del Campo

Keith “Digger” Chisolm

Howard Cooper

Steven Dibner

Sheila Von Driska

Emily S. Gasner

Salvatore Giambanco and Thomas Perrault

Eric Glaser

Raymon Hanssen


Norman and Barbara Heller

Chris and Warren Hellman

Carole Hines and Mavis Hawley DeWees

Fenton Johnson

Oshri and Harriet Karmon

Beatrice and Henry Krivetsky

Nathan Ladyzhensky

Ron Levaco

Barbara Lewis

Alexandra Lexton-Metzner and Michael Metzner

Sister maeJoy B. withU

Lester and Ruth Margolies

Lynn & David McLaughlin-Webb

Richard Osmon

Barry Owen

Linda and Les Plack

Lindbergh and Mary Porter

Suzan Revah

Lynn Rothman

Charotte Sheedy

Nina Sinclair

Brianna Smith

Louis Stephenson

Mont Stong and Robert Waymack

Gilda and Dan Sullivan

Michael Sullivan and Paul Loeffler

Sara and Jean Paul Trélaün

Sam Tucker and Lewis Nightingale

David Tuller

Marc Weinberger

Beany and Dick Wezelman

Stephanie and David Wickum

most of all: James Harker


by the Rev. Cn. Mary E. Haddad, Canon Pastor, Grace Cathedral
From Grace Cathedral's Sunday newsletter for April 27, 2008
From time to time, we get an iconic picture of Grace Cathedral as a public religious institution like no other. One such moment was a recent Friday night when we hosted the San Francisco premiere of documentary filmmaker Paul Festa’s Apparition of the Eternal Church. It was one event in our Messiaen Festival, celebrating the centenary of the French composer’s birth. The setting, the lighting, the ambience, the energy and the engagement of the people all came together for an extraordinary evening that transcended both religion and culture. The nave was packed, for the most part, with people who (you just knew) would otherwise never be caught dead (or alive) in a church, any church. Our music director Jeffrey Smith wore a black turtleneck sweater, rather than the usual purple cassock. This was definitely Friday night and not Sunday morning. Smith performed Messiaen’s piece live on the organ as part of the film, and it was sublime.

Thank you, Paul Festa, whose creativity filled the church. Thank you, Grace Cathedral, for taking chances and continuing the conversation, which takes us past religious boundaries and cultural limitations, into the joy of imagination, mystery, and artistic beauty.


about the filmmaker:
about the film:
about the book: