NEW YORK — Olivier
Messiaen's 100-minute homage to the canyons of Utah, Des
Canyons aux Étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars) returned
to the urban surroundings of New York at the Lincoln Center Festival on
The performance by the Chamber Music Society of
Lincoln Center was the second installment of the festival's
three-part tribute to the late French composer and a reprise of the
CMS's much acclaimed performance in April 1999.
Leading the 45 musicians through the epic score was Dutch conductor
Reinbert de Leeuw, who also is
participating in this year's festival with the
COLOR="#003163">Schöenberg COLOR="#003163">Asko Ensembles COLOR="#003163">William Purvis COLOR="#003163">Peter Serkin
COLOR="#003163">Asko Ensembles. Horn player
COLOR="#003163">William Purvisand pianist
COLOR="#003163">Peter Serkinwere the featured soloists.
It was Serkin, a leading Messiaen interpreter since the 1970s, who
persuaded the CMS to present Canyons a season ago at Alice Tully
Hall. The work had not been performed there since its premiere in 1974,
on a commission by Alice Tully herself (in observance of the American
Bicentennial). On Tuesday, it was revived in the much larger setting of
Avery Fisher Hall, thus continuing its artistic journey.
Given the orchestral size of the score and the sharp-edged vibrancy of
Messiaen's textures, the performance easily surmounted the unforgiving
chamber-music acoustics of the hall. The full ensemble of symphonic
winds, percussion and chamber strings drew forth a blazing array of
instrumental colors to match the magentas, orange-reds and azure-blues
that lighted the stage throughout the evening.
The vast 11-movement canvas of Canyons is a musical response to
the majestic beauty of Bryce, Cedar and Zion National Parks in Utah,
while more generally it encapsulates Messiaen's vision of nature, of
wildlife and particularly of birdsong as partners in the great universal
The piece's musical language is highly unusual, containing few
conventional melodies or harmonies. Yet if one understands some of the
descriptive and philosophical basis for the music, the imagination takes
over and it becomes a compelling, even if somewhat drawn out,
Messiaen's score features such wonderfully inventive gestures as the
rise and fall of the eoliphone (wind machine) combined with a trumpet
playing only into the mouthpiece to evoke the sound of the desert, the
percussive patter of the xylorimba (similar to a marimba) to depict the
squawk of an oriole or grouse, and the string glissandos in the
harmonics of the violins to suggest the sprinkling of water.
The performance blended finesse and electricity, with spectacular
playing from Serkin and Purvis. Such commitment only served to
strengthen the Lincoln Center Festival's case for Messiaen as a musical
icon at the turn of the century.