Fine Festival Fare: ‘Des Canyons Aux Étoiles’ Illustrated

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Deborah O'Grady's photo of Cedar Breaks National Monument was shown during the St. Louis Symphony concert.
Deborah O’Grady’s photo of Cedar Breaks National Monument was shown during the St. Louis Symphony concert.
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – In a coincidental confluence of music and current events, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is putting on a festival called “City of Light: A Century of Music From Paris” this month. Since it is happening in the wake of recent terrorist atrocities, the festival immediately became a gesture of solidarity that was not originally intended but will probably color the occasion anyway.

St. Louis Symphony music director David Robertson. (Michael Tammaro)
St. Louis Symphony music director David Robertson. (M. Tammaro)

In any case, the LA “City of Light” is really a shortened spinoff of a more extensive “City of Light” festival that the Philharmonia Orchestra undertook during the entire 2014-15 season in London. And “City of Light” can be taken literally, for each of the three orchestral concerts on the agenda has a “light show” of sorts built into the event.

Speaking of confluences, David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony found themselves at the crossroads of two projects at Walt Disney Concert Hall Feb. 2: the closing concert of their California tour included a residency at UC Berkeley at the end of January and the opening concert of “City of Light.” It was, to say the least, a rather out-of-the-ordinary concert for a touring orchestra.

There were none of the usual worn-out, show-off showpieces — no Tchaikovsky 4, no Symphonie fantastique, no New World Symphony, no Pictures at an Exhibition (although they did perform Mahler 5 in Berkeley, Aliso Viejo, and Palm Desert). Instead, Robertson devoted the entire program to Messiaen’s gigantic environmental/ornithological/theological symphony, Des canyons aux étoiles … (“From the Canyons to the Stars …”).

One shouldn’t be surprised by such a gamble, for Robertson often tries to push the limits of what an audience can swallow when he conducts in his native Southern California. Yet Robertson sweetened the deal by commissioning a video installation from photographer Deborah O’Grady that promised to illustrate the actual locales that inspired Messiaen’s music — Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks and Cedar Breaks National Monument in Utah. The concert was placed on the LA Phil’s Green Umbrella new music series, and it drew a nearly-packed house — partly lured, I suspect, by the unusually reasonable ticket prices ($26.50 to $65) for a concert by a major touring orchestra.

A landscape portrait by Deborah O'Grady.
Deborah O’Grady spent two Aprils making portraits of locations Messaien visited.

If ever there were a symphonic work that begs for illustration, it is this one — a 94-minute, 12-movement behemoth completely tied to specific, staggeringly beautiful locations. While it is true that music ought to be able to speak for itself, there are times in this piece where Messiaen could use some help, particularly when he is obsessed with notated birdsong in long, static, tiring (for this listener) stretches.

O’Grady gave it a good try, spending the April months of 2014 and 2015 taking pictures and videos on location. (Why April? That’s when Messiaen visited the parks in 1972.). In addition to the scenic treasures of Utah, she also went to Death Valley for the opening movements, making the desert a jumping-off point for what amounts to a feature-length combination of still lifes and slow and-fast-motion videos. Sometimes O’Grady’s videos made quick jump cuts in sync with Messiaen’s music, though usually she didn’t follow him that closely. Sometimes the visuals fused together with the music, sometimes they clashed. Surprisingly, there were very few birds to be seen; I guess that would have been too obvious.

O’Grady is aware that the parks aren’t what they used to be when Messiaen was there, so she includes shots of ugly graffiti and debris, of crowds of tourists traipsing along the trails through the delicate canyons, onrushing vehicles, and such. But she doesn’t overstate her case of man intruding upon nature; there is no sense of Koyaanisqatsi-style saturated frenzy. The main focus is on the rocky spires, canyons, ground coverings, and big skies, and she lingers long enough on them so that they blend with the spell that Messiaen is weaving. As a whole, the installation works – and works better than many added visual accompaniments to classical music that have passed this way recently.

Robertson is keeping the St. Louis Symphony in splendid shape, and it showed throughout the uninterrupted performance. The contingency from the orchestra sounded crisp, alert, responsive to Robertson’s expressive gestures; the language seemed to be coming naturally to them. Pianist Peter Henderson showed sterling technique, clarity, and patience in the extensive keyboard part, and first horn Roger Kaza, playing up front without a score, made easy work of one of the most dangerously exposed solo French horn parts in the literature, in Part VI. The clarity and sharply-pinging acoustics of Disney Hall were great matches for this score; it bonged and blared and sparkled and floated deliciously in this space.

Salonen is the mastermind behind the City of Lights Festival
The City of Light Festival will continue under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s guidance.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the LA Phil’s conductor laureate, now free of the speculation that had him pegged as a candidate to succeed Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic, takes over the “City of Light” festival from here. On Feb. 12-14, he leads the Philharmonic in a grab-bag of a century’s worth of French music – Éric Tanguy’s Affettuoso (a tribute to Henri Dutilleux), Poulenc’s Organ Concerto (with organist Vincent DuBois), Dutilleux’s Correspondances (with soprano Camilla Tilling), and Ravel’s complete Mother Goose ballet. The Ravel will feature a visual installation by the Austrian think-tank Ars Electronica Futurelab.

Next, Salonen leads the LA Phil and LA Master Chorale in semi-staged performances of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande Feb. 19 and 21. The David Edwards production is supposed to be similar to the one Salonen led in London in Nov. 2014, with Stéphane Degout (Pelléas) and Laurent Naouri (Golaud) returning in their roles, Tilling as Mélisande, and actress Kate Burton narrating lines by the author of the original play, Maurice Maeterlinck. Colin Grenfell is the lighting designer; The Guardian described his work in the London performance as “murky” and “subtly-shifting.” Salonen had previously led fully-staged performances here of Pelléas some two decades before with LA Opera. (Full disclosure: I wrote the program notes for that production which, as things turned out, bore only a passing resemblance to the Peter Sellars-directed spectacle onstage.).

The low-key finale for “City of Light” Feb. 23 is a chamber music concert played by members of the Philharmonic, including Ravel’s Duo for Violin and Cello, Saint-Saëns Septet, and Roland Kato’s arrangement of Ravel’s Mother Goose.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic will also be presenting the Messiaen with O’Grady’s video installation Mar. 23 in London’s Barbican Centre as part of their residence there.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.

The Amargosa wetland (Deborah O'Grady)
Deeborah O’Grady visited the Amargosa wetlands in the Mohave desert as Messiaen had done.

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