Ascending To The Stars On Messiaen Trek From The Canyons, Illustrated

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Former Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot returned to conduct Messaien’s ‘Des canyons aux étoiles…‘ (Photos by James Holt / Seattle Symphony)

SEATTLE — For their reunion, Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony put aside the familiar repertoire to offer a program devoted entirely to Olivier Messiaen’s vast, 12-movement work inspired by the landscape of the American West, Des canyons aux étoiles…. (From the canyons to the stars). The experience was blissfully unique, reminiscent of similarly rare outings during Morlot’s eight-year tenure as music director (2011-19) that have not faded from memory: a riotous Varèse Amériques early on, the collaborations with John Luther Adams, semi-staged Ravel and Stravinsky — and, indeed, other Messiaen performances, including the orchestra’s first encounter with the Turangalîla Symphony.

This latest challenge demanded a new level of technical sophistication, as well as sustained concentration from Morlot and the musicians. The result, if less ebullient and not as warmly personal, projected feelings of awe and, yes, spiritual transport, that felt like desperately needed balm.

This was to have been the sole guest assignment of the season for Morlot, who holds the title of Judith Fong Conductor Emeritus. But along with a series of last-minute cancellations caused by coronavirus here and there, the Seattle Symphony has been weathering a volatile period of internal drama that led to his services being called on for four additional programs earlier in the season.

Thomas Dausgaard, who replaced Morlot as music director at the start of the 2019 season, resigned from his position in early January, effective immediately, for reasons that have never been adequately clarified to the public — a situation that in turn has led to much speculation. The pandemic had an especially devastating effect on Dausgaard’s tenure. Because of his foreign residency status, he was separated from the Seattle Symphony for more than a year and a half and, in the end, returned for just one program last November before the sudden divorce. This is a lamentable split-up, not least in view of the sustained quality and excitement of the rapport Dausgaard had been building with the orchestra.

Ludovic Morlot leading the Seattle Symphony in Messian’s ‘Des canyons aux étoiles…,’ with projections by Deborah O’Grady.

In the meantime, the Seattle Symphony has been filling the gaps with a range of guest conductors. Morlot, himself freshly appointed to helm the Barcelona Symphony come September 2022, returned in April for a pair of programs, conducting Mahler’s Sixth and the second installment of a Sibelius cycle paired with new commissions that was to have been a highlight for Dausgaard. He also led a special concert for Ukraine and refugees worldwide. Additionally, Morlot stepped into the breach last November to cover with a meat-and-potatoes program when another guest conductor (Michael Sanderling) was stranded by visa problems.

Seattle announced its 2022-23 season a few months ago — for the first time that I’m aware of without an actual music director in place. The organization has been quiet about its search for the next music director and is still in the process of forming a search committee. No candidates have yet been formally announced.

It’s been fascinating to observe Morlot back in action on the Benaroya Hall podium. Apart from some changes in orchestra personnel since his departure, the pandemic has had a palpable, if impossible-to-quantify, effect on the mere act of joining together for live performance, on the deep satisfaction of being able to do this again.

What’s more, there must be something liberating about being able to wield the baton without the ongoing frustrations of management, contracts, all the nitty-gritty of the orchestral business. As Morlot put it in an interview I recently conducted for a preview of the Messiaen engagement: “I think of [guest-conducting Seattle] as not being the husband or wife anymore. It certainly feels like there is much more freedom in the music making, because all those other things are off to the side.”

Seattle Symphony principal horn gave a highlight performance playing Messiaen’s demanding solos.

To be sure, Morlot was presiding over an atypical formation for Des canyons aux étoiles…, commissioned by Alice Tully for the U.S. bicentennial and premiered ahead of that event in 1974. Even before the first of two performances began (June 2), the visual set-up differed dramatically from the norm, with Messiaen’s expanded percussion section (five players) swelling across the stage but the strings reduced to a chamber ensemble of just 13 (though each was given a single part). A Steinway grand dominated near the lip of the stage — one of the four instruments to which Messiaen assigns a solo role, along with horn, xylorimba, and glockenspiel, giving Des canyons a concertante dimension as well.

Morlot was largely blocked from view by the piano, and he even sat off to the side for some of the extended solo passages (two entire movements for solo piano, one for horn). Yet he exercised an unwavering sense of authority that allowed countless details to make their impact: Wiry, cross-bridge bowing on the strings or glowing wind lines lofted across a scintillating soundscape of tuned percussion.

An even greater challenge the conductor met was to sustain the composer’s air of meditative distance from normal drama across the enormous sprawl of this canvas, which is Messiaen’s longest work for orchestra (even dwarfing Turangalîla by some 20 minutes). Substantial pauses are a regular feature, each sound image separated out from its neighbors like tesserae in a grand mosaic, and each sonorous episode reverberated with tremendous power, taking full advantage of the lively Benaroya concert hall acoustics.

In this panoply of sonic images, passages executed with a chamber music-like intimacy made the solemnly granitic chords that characterize Messiaen’s use of his full apparatus all the more riveting, even terrifying, in their majesty. The contrasts were revelatory, too: a sudden infusion of Hollywood glamour and warm, woozy, sensuous strains in “Les ressuscités et le chant de l’étoile Aldébaran” (beginning of Part 3) proved strangely moving after the austere passages of Messiaen’s musical pilgrimage.

The depth and variety of expression that principal horn Jeff Fair brought to his solos paid dividends throughout. After setting the whole thing in motion with his opening solo — a task that would seem to far outweigh the trumpeter’s challenge heading into Mahler’s Fifth — Fair sounded the prophetic note in the “Appel interstellaire” but didn’t stint on its wilder aspects, including phrasings than suggested a sense of cosmic wonder.

Deborah O’Grady created a multilayered visual suite of stills and videographs drawn from her extensive footage of the landscapes in the great parks of southwestern Utah.

The same could be said of Steven Osborne’s rendition of the outrageously challenging piano part, which infused Messiaen’s complex rhythmic structures with purpose and color, giving each of the birds that inspired the composer a distinctive personality — and beautifully matching Morlot’s own exquisite attention to rhythmic articulation throughout. Osborne also partnered engagingly with the orchestra, delivering sustained bass clusters that had the ferocity of depth charges but also unspooling the most delicate tracery in tandem with Messiaen’s expanded wind section. The outstanding contributions from the orchestra were too numerous to single out, but special kudos go to Matthew Decker (glockenspiel), Michael Werner (xylorimba), and guest Robert Tucker on percussion and flutist Demarre McGill for some genuinely celestial moments.

The performance was presented with an elaborate multimedia accompaniment by the photographer and videographer Deborah O’Grady (who is married to the composer John Adams, one of Seattle’s guest conductors earlier this season). O’Grady created a multilayered visual suite of stills and videographs drawn from her extensive footage of the landscapes in the great parks of southwestern Utah that were the impetus for Des canyons aux étoiles…. Enhanced by Seth Reiser’s lighting design, this was projected on a large screen behind the orchestra.

There were a few moments when Morlot and what was unfolding onscreen seemed slightly out of sync. But O’Grady brought originality and considerable subtlety to the assignment that added a valuable dimension. She understands that Messiaen’s score is the furthest remove from a picture postcard “memento” of some paradisal moments in nature and doesn’t merely try to supply the “missing” images. Instead of a literalist interpretation, her shots of Bryce Canyon and surroundings probed the significance of humanity’s interaction with these settings, suggesting a few counter-threads. There are scenes of environmental destruction as well. For an entire movement devoted to the mockingbird and its music, she homed in on the mesmerizing image of a tree, as if to replicate the sculptural sense of time that Messiaen conveys with his music.