Dudamel’s Excellent Messiaen Performance Marred by Distracting “Visual Aids”

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Messiaen: Joanne Pearce Martin (piano), Andrew Bain (horn), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Barbican Centre, London, 23.3.2016. (AS)

Messiaen: Des canyons aux étoiles

We are told that the human sense that provides most information to the brain is that of sight. When we watch a film, the musical soundtrack plays a supporting role to the action on the screen. At a ballet performance, the music heard plays second fiddle to the choreography on the stage.

One wonders why it was found desirable to accompany Messiaen’s concert work Des canyons aux étoiles with a “work of photographic art”, projected on a screen behind the orchestra: there seems no reason to suppose that Messiaen contemplated or wanted such a thing. Even if the quality of the visual presentation had been first-rate it would still have been a distraction to hearing the music, but it wasn’t. Much of the material was in the form of still photographs, but every so often there were moving pictures, some of them speeded up to show people going across the screen at a manic rate. Often it was impossible to match the sights on the screen to the content of the music. To combine a live performance with such an ill-matching film promotion was a great mistake; and even if one tried to concentrate on the music only, the brain’s natural preference for assimilating what is seen rather than heard made it difficult to shut out the visual element. Closed eyes was not really an option, since the sounds craved to be seen by their originators. If I may be forgiven a personal note, this work by Messiaen was new to me, and I was presented with the choice of doing my homework before the event and getting to know it, or adopting the more purist alternative of letting the music strike me as a new and live experience, just as the audience would have heard it at the first performance. As it happened, my choice of the latter course of action was a mistake, for during the whole screening the auditorium was plunged into darkness and although I had read the programme in advance I (and everybody else) was unable to follow the printed description of each of the 12 movements as they were played. We were all literally in the dark.

It’s only three months since Dudamel showed his excellent Messiaen credentials in a performance of the Turangalîla-symphonie at the Royal Festival Hall (review). It’s tempting to compare both works, since there are superficial similarities in that both are large in scale, and have some exotic percussion and other unusual instruments in the orchestration. But the subject matter is dissimilar. Des canyons is scored for a much smaller ensemble of players – 13 solo strings, a standard wind section, but with piano, a wind machine, thunder sheet and geophone (lead shot rotated in a large flat drum to make a sound somewhere between water lapping on a beach and shifting sands) as part of the percussion battery: just 44 players in toto. The composer described the work as “at once geographical [the Bryce Canyon in Utah is that referred to in the title], ornithological [reflecting Messiaen’s study of bird song], astronomical and theological”.

Apart from Dudamel’s excellent, characterful and precise direction and the superlative quality of the Los Angeles woodwind section, which had to negotiate some obviously extremely difficult passages, a hero of the occasion was Joanne Pearce Martin, the orchestra’s regular keyboard player and pianist. With her instrument placed in front of the orchestra, as in a concerto, Martin not only showed extraordinary skill and communicative flair, but also remarkable stamina, for the piano part is very much to the fore during much of the 100-minute work, and a high degree of virtuosity is clearly required. There are two movements for piano solo (the second, “The Mockingbird”, was very long and did rather outstay its welcome) and a long one for a solo horn, superbly played by Andrew Bain.

I would very much like to hear Dudamel conduct this work in conventional concert hall conditions.

Alan Sanders


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