Thursday, January 14, 2016

Symphony Preview, January 16, 2-16: Messiaen's "Des canyons aux étoiles..." is one singular sensation

"BryceCanyon-Amphiteatre1" by Jean-Christophe BENOIST
Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons
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America's bicentennial sparked a lot of activity on the classical music scene, including special concerts, new commissioned works, and even a record label (New World) dedicated to American music, past and present.  One of the more unusual commissioned works, though, came not from an American composer but from a Frenchman.  It was "Des canyons aux étoiles…" ("From the Canyons to the Stars…") by Olivier Messiaen, and it's getting its local premiere this Saturday by David Robertson and the SLSO.

Messiaen, who died in 1992, was a remarkable character.  A devout Catholic, he imbued his music with a deep and sometimes obscure Christian mysticism.  But he was also a nature lover and dedicated ornithologist who drew inspiration from bird song and had an almost pantheistic appreciation of the natural world.  And as if that weren't enough to mark him as a singular individual, he was also a synesthete—someone who saw certain colors when he heard musical notes or chords.

His music has, as a result, an idiosyncratic sound that is unlike anyone else's.  He abandoned the traditional chromatic scale for a set of what he called "modes of limited transposition" and employed what Eric Salzman (in "Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction) called "a concept of sonority and static, spatial form."  Nineteenth-century notions of rhythm, melody, and harmony are upended in Messiaen's music, which often seems to exist in a sonic and temporal world of its own.

You can hear all of that eccentric, quirky sensibility in "Des canyons aux étoiles…."  Inspired by visits to the unearthly rock formations of Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah, this twelve-movement, 90-minute work is, I think, best appreciated in conjunction with images of those natural wonders.  Which is why video artist Deborah O'Grady's contribution to the concert is so important.

"Zion angels landing view" by Diliff
taken by Diliff. Licensed under
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons
A photographer specializing in the landscapes of the Western USA, Ms. O'Grady has also studied music theory.  In preparing the images and video that will accompany the concert, she immersed herself both in Messiaen's score and in the landscapes that the composer and his wife visited.  As Eddie Silva points out in his program notes, she walked where the composer walked, and at the same time of year.  “I wanted to hear the places,” he quotes her as saying. “I wanted all my senses involved… You have to stop and be still and let the place tell you what it’s about.”

Aware that Messiaen's music might need a bit of an introduction, Mr. Robertson will spend the first half-hour of Saturday's concert talking about the piece, with musical illustrations from the orchestra.  I think it's a good decision.  Olivier Messiaen was a wholly original figure in twentieth-century music, and a little background on the man and his compositional style couldn't hurt.

You don't have to wait until Saturday to get acquainted with the piece, of course.  Complete recordings are available on YouTube by the London Sinfonietta under Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Myung-Whun Chung.  There's also a live performance by what appears to be a student ensemble conducted by Fabian Russell.  You can also watch videos of the individual movements by a variety of orchestras.

While you listen, view images of the stunning alien landscapes of Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park.  That will give you some idea of what to expect from Saturday's immersive multi-media experience.

There will be only one performance of "Des canyons aux étoiles…," on Saturday, January 16, at 8 p.m. at Powell Hall.  It promises to be a provocative and important event; visit the St. Louis Symphony web site for tickets.  Later this month, the orchestra will take the piece on its West Coast tour, along with "City Noir" and the "Saxophone Concerto" by John Adams.

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