Lincoln Center Fest #4: Exploring Messiaen's Canyons

Reinbert de Leeuw conducts, William Purvis and Peter Serkin are featured


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 and

COLOR="#003163">Asko Ensembles. Horn player

COLOR="#003163">William Purvis and pianist

COLOR="#003163">Peter Serkin were 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.