United States Messiaen, Des canyons aux étoiles…: Steven Osborne (piano), Jeffrey Fair (horn), Deborah O’Grady (videos), Seattle Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot (conductor). Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 4.6.2022. (ZC)
By the mid-1970s, Olivier Messiaen had firmly established his distinctive musical voice. Vivid orchestral writing, a co-mingling with spiritual purpose and the sounds of the natural world marked most of his major works. He sought what many saw as unachievable – a union of the physical and metaphysical through music – but a commission for the bicentennial of the United States Declaration of Independence put the unachievable within reach.
The project fueled the composer’s fascination with the American West, especially Bryce Canyon in Utah. Seeking inspiration, he journeyed to Utah and Arizona to experience the region’s wild beauty. There he documented birdsongs, reveled in nature’s noisy silence and, above all, experienced what he described as the ‘gift of awe’.
Out of this experience, Messiaen composed one of his most ambitious works: Des canyons aux étoiles… (From the Canyons to the Stars…), a spare, 90-minute masterpiece in three parts and twelve movements. Abounding in rich, impressionistic colors, the work is sacred music, a travelog and a showcase for solo piano, horn and percussion. The composer paints in massed, deep-hued orchestral colors one moment and in kaleidoscopic sonic fragments the next. The orchestra and augmented percussion are expected to play with ecstatic fervor and pinpoint clarity.
Bringing the work to the stage with the Seattle Symphony was Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot, and the performance was a sober reminder of what Seattle lost when the French conductor left the orchestra in 2019 after eight ambitious and impressive years at the podium. In his time here, Morlot challenged audiences to push their listening boundaries and made incredibly esoteric music approachable through innovative programing and friendly commentary from the stage. But, most of all, Morlot always elicited the best from the orchestra, as Saturday’s performance reminded the audience.
For added dimension, Morlot brought in Deborah O’Grady’s engrossing videos. O’Grady’s work was first displayed in 2016 for a performance by the Saint Louis Symphony. Back then, she described the images as ‘choreography and translation’: they move with the music but also attempt to bring Messiaen’s desert pilgrimage back into the visual world. They are mostly successful: wide, still shots of deserts with distant horizons evoke stillness and, when the music turns jagged, alien and warm in ‘Bryce Canyon and the Red-Orange Rocks’, O’Grady matches the aural tones with imposing, brightly colored images that appear to emerge from the orchestra. Only in a few parts, where she punctuates the score with scenes of junked out cars, power lines and other man-made ephemera, is her point less clear.
Three solos are key to the work. Two for piano – ‘The White Browed Robin Chat’ and ‘The Mockingbird – are found in Parts I and III respectively, while ‘Interstellar Call’, a luminous horn solo, opens Part II. With force and precision, pianist Steven Osborne reminded us of Messiaen’s skill at manipulating bird songs. Osborne’s endless technique is on display for both solos, but ‘The Mockingbird’ impresses most of all. He dazzled with keyboard acrobatics designed to emulate the chattering of the Mockingbird, but he also added sensitive phrasing, giving the movement a lyrical quality binding human, spiritual and natural elements together. ‘Interstellar Call’ received a similarly sensitive performance by Jeffrey Fair, the orchestra’s principal horn. Messiaen’s solo unfurled heavenward with mystery but with ample effects, and Fair’s performance was measured and deeply felt. He easily handled the oscillations, trills and flutters, his mellow sonority creating a sense of longing.
From the Canyons to the Stars… may be the highlight of the 2021/2022 Seattle Symphony season. In a few weeks they will close out their schedule with Verdi’s Requiem, a spiritual work of a different kind. Nevertheless, it is Morlot, Olivier Messiaen and the expanse of the American West that I hope lingers in my mind long after the stage goes dark at Benaroya Hall.