The dot dot dot that Olivier Messiaen placed at the end of the title for his monument to Utah’s national parks, “Des Canyons aux Étoiles …" (From the Canyons to the Stars …), clearly implies something beyond. Knowing the French composer’s consummate devoutness, that should be way beyond.
His 95-minute, 12-section chamber music masterpiece from 1974 begins in the desert, dwells on Bryce Canyon and ends in Zion National Park, a stand-in for “the celestial city.” For Messiaen, music vibrantly, even gaudily and erotically, embraced the physical, only then to transcend it.
A compelling, beautifully phrased and elegantly proportioned multimedia performance in Disney Hall on Tuesday night by members of the St. Louis Symphony conducted by its music director, David Robertson, was more specific. The performers were guests for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella contemporary music series. The additional media were Deborah O’Grady’s scenes from Utah’s parks, projected on a large screen behind the players.
Before the performance, Robertson spoke of this as a kind of pilgrim’s progress, something the Santa Monica native experienced in visits to Utah with his grandfather, a mineral geologist. Messiaen’s music, he said, is so uncannily descriptive that after about an hour, it can become over-satiating. A sense of place, some grounding, can help.
It may not be possible for any photographer to avoid romanticizing Bryce Canyon, and she presents it as the place of astonishing beauty that it surely is. But she is also careful to remind us that our national parks are not as they were in 1972, when Messiaen made his mystically tinged trip. The composer described a setting of blissful peace and solitude. Today, he would be surrounded by tourists and warned about threats to our natural environment.
But there is also the environment of Messiaen’s music. Adding visuals is a complicated psychoacoustic business. The temptation is hardly new. But as media become more advanced, they can have an increasingly large, and still little understood, effect on shaping how we hear.
O’Grady’s successes were elsewhere. The ninth movement is a piano solo devoted to the mockingbird. No birds were seen. The first half was simply a lushly green tree seemingly still but with barely perceptible changes in color. (O’Grady worked with a video crew.) For the second part, the camera swirled around the tree.
The excellent pianist Peter Henderson did the rest. We knew the birds were there. We heard them. We sensed them. We might even have felt we understood their language as their music was made into something intelligible to humans. They were our birds, not those in pictures.
Now these “Canyons” will move on in peculiar fashion. Gustavo Dudamel will conduct members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the score, with O’Grady’s visuals, at the Barbican Centre in London next month on the orchestra’s European tour. Apparently, that project came about after St. Louis had already been booked for Disney.