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The Los Angeles Philharmonic is honoring French composers this Spring in a “City of Light” concert series. In a related Green Umbrella presentation on February 2nd, a sold-out, Disney Hall audience was mesmerized by a multi-media performance of Olivier Messiaen’s ethereal music. The late composer’s 90-minute “Des Canyons aux Etoiles” (From the Canyons to the Stars) was played with admirable clarity by visiting members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, guided by its energetic conductor, David Robertson. Enhancing the modern, near-mystical score was a visual celebration of the music–projected photos, videos and special lighting effects–created by Deborah O’Grady.


Composed four decades ago, Messiaen’s work is a masterpiece, usually played without added media. O’Grady’s stunning video, projected on a low screen behind the musicians, would not be out of place in a contemporary art museum. But seen and heard together, the music and the panoramic landscapes merged into a symbiotic creation of sensual and religious awe. It is now hard to imagine the two elements not performed together. The evening concluded with a five-minute standing ovation of cheers and sustained applause from the attentive audience.

Outside of the classical music world, Olivier Messiaen is less well-known than he should be. Along with Stravinsky , Schoenberg and Bartok, Messiaen is one of the most important composers of the 20th century. In 1919, at age eleven, he began a decade at the Paris Conservatoire, studying composition with Paul Dukas and organ with Marcel Dupre. He was then appointed organist at La Sainte Trinite Church in Paris and would continue to play there for 60 years. His important, often ecstatic works for solo organ are imbued with his deep devotion to Catholicism and inspired by the litany of the church.

As a soldier during World War II, he was captured and confined in a prison camp. While there, he composed “Quatuar pur la Fin du Temps” (Quartet for the End of Time) for piano, violin, cello and clarinet. The 1941 premiere was held before an audience of 5,000 fellow prisoners, with Messiaen at the piano. In 1942, he returned to the Paris Conservatoire, began teaching harmony and the 12-tone theory, and was a huge influence on students, including composers-to-be Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis and pianist Yvonne Loriod, who would later become his second wife.

His interest in the complex rhythms of Indian music helped shape Messiaen’s extraordinary, 10-movement symphony “Turangalila” (1946-48), which featured an early electronic instrument, the ondes martenot, and what would become the composer’s obsession for the rest of his life–birdsong. Like jazz flutist Eric Dolphy a decade later, Messiaen jotted down birdsong wherever he heard it, transcribed it into musical notes, then incorporated it into compositions like his 1956 piano concerto, “Oiseaux Exotiques” (Exotic Birds).


When he was offered a commission (by American patron Alice Tully) to compose something for the U.S. Bicentennial, Messiaen and his wife went on a hiking trip through Utah’s Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks and Zion Park. He was profoundly inspired by the majestic, wind-carved cliffs, rust-colored earth under exquisite blue skies, deep, winding canyons and the sound–if not always the sight–of native birds. Messiaen spent four years in the early 1970s writing From the Canyons to the Stars. This grand-scale work, immediately recognizable as Messiaen’s, is filled with his unique combination of intersecting harmonies, complex rhythms, repeated phrases, melodic counterpoint, copious amounts of percussion and, of course, birdsong. Writing about an earlier score, the composer mentions other aspects of his visionary style that are applicable here: “stacks of chords”, “the blending of sounds and colors” and “in this apparent disorder there is hidden order”.

The St. Louis Symphony is one of the world’s greatest orchestras and the second-oldest in the United States. David Robertson has led the ensemble for a dozen years; his vigorous approach to Messiaen was matched by the excellence and passion of the orchestra members and soloists. After the opening whoosh of a wind machine, a piccolo imitated a twittering bird. Then interplay of piano and xylorimba and ghostly sounds from the string section. A crush of percussion that recalled a gaudy gamelan orchestra; low, atonal flute notes mixed with muted trumpets; extensive use of piano, banged loudly, pedaled softly, caressed into a reproduction of more birdsong. The French horn sounding exotic, mid-eastern, propelled by remarkable continuous breathing; percussion explosions of bells, sirens, gongs. Finally, a transcendental moment as the strings quietly faded out. Every note was crisply played and many of them lingered in the air, held aloft by the Disney Hall acoustics. It was important to sometimes look away from the video screen in order to concentrate on just how wonderful the orchestra sounded.


Special kudos to Roger Kaza, the St. Louis Symphony principal horn player, who brought Messian’s unusual French horn solo to life. It was several minutes long and no doubt really difficult to play. Kaza was so skilled at the breathing tricks required to perform this section of unearthly sounds that, for a split second, it seemed like the audience was ready to “break the fourth wall” by applauding. That would have disrupted the calm, but Kaza would have deserved the praise.

Also praiseworthy were several lengthy passages for piano solo and the talented man who played them, Peter Henderson. Often a guest soloist with the St. Louis Symphony, Henderson displayed a delicate touch playing bird-like trills on the keyboard’s highest notes. Conversely, he literally leaned the weight of his upper body onto the piano’s lowest notes, 3 or 4 times, for an elongated “hold”. The dramatic effect was reminiscent of Messiaen’s unusually long-held chords in some of his organ works; at the piano, Henderson stretched the moment for as long as humanly possible and it was thrilling.

In a pre-concert chat, conductor Robertson discussed the 90-minute length of the Messiaen piece. Despite the magnificent recreation of Bryce Canyon’s sounds and silences, the grandeur of a night sky and the evocation of various birds, it’s a very long work to sit through. And it would seem longer still without the distracting beauty of multi-media. Robertson suggested that listeners might feel sated after an hour and that’s true. Despite their thematic relevance to the score, both the solo French horn section and the 20-minute “Mockingbird” movement–entirely solo piano–have a slightly extraneous feel to me. Both are startling and beautiful but they could stand alone elsewhere, perhaps in concertos, without diminishing the composition.

Deborah O’Grady has spent three decades photographing landscapes in the western United States. She is also a composer (and the wife of composer John Adams). It is the combination of an artist’s eye and the understanding of music that gives her video installation for Messiaen such subtle power. While O’Grady directed the multi-media event and took the photographs, equal credit is owed to her cohorts on the project: Jon Else, for his time lapse cinematography, Adam Larson, the video design consultant, Seth Reiser’s set and lighting and Cath Brittan’s production design.

The stage and audience were in near-blackness–the better to see the projected images–and the musicians had cool blue lights under their chairs. Opening shots of empty, desolate highways, dusty sky, telephone poles and a car or two seemed to suggest getting through a desert en route to the canyons. Paired with music, it was like the ominous start of a Hitchcock film. Few if any human beings are seen and then, only at a great distance, barely perceptible. A later, speeded-up long shot of tourists wandering through a canyon looks like ants crawling through a piece of desiccated fruit. It is the perfect image to illustrate Messiaen’s belief in humankind’s relative insignificance in God’s vast universe.


The composer’s music glorifies Nature and that is primarily what we see on the screen . Many “stills” gradually come to life as the subjects–a bird, the leaves on a tree, a coyote–begin to move. Photos and videos are matched to the music with precision: a whisper from the orchestra’s wind machine underscores a small ripple in a stream. A baby bird slowly transforms into the bare branches of a tree. Our view rises from richly-hued canyon walls, resembling Indian fabric, to a vista of sun-dried stone formations that call to mind stalagmites or ancient Burmese temples. Messiaen’s music is constantly ascending–from a lizard on a dusty rock, through quiet clouds in the sky, to the sun, moon and stars, to heaven.

This experience will be repeated in London next month: Messiaen’s music and O’Grady’s production but with the L.A. Philharmonic led by Gustavo Dudamel. To hear and see this once again would make the expensive trip worth every last cent.

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