St. Louis Symphony: Olivier Messiaen “Des Canyons aux étoiles…”

At the end of January, I had the opportunity to experience a unique performance at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall by the St. Louis Symphony of Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoiles… (From the Canyons to the Stars). The Symphony was led by David Robertson, a noted interpreter of Messiaen’s music, and the performance featured synchronized visuals by artist Deborah O’Grady.

 Bryce Canyon National Park photographed by Deborah O'Grady. O'Grady and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, present a multimedia performance of Des canyons aux étoiles Sunday, January 31, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall.
[ Bryce Canyon National Park photographed by Deborah O’Grady. Courtesy of Cal Performances]

Des Canyons aux étoiles… was the product of a commission by Alice Tully (of Alice Tully Hall) in the early 1970s for the US Bicentennial. Messiaen was inspired by the images of the canyons of southern Utah, including Bryce and Zion, and spent several weeks there along with his wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, in 1972. He was quite taken with the visual landscape as well as the soundscape, particularly the sounds of the birds. He was able to write down and interpret the bird songs as pitches of the Western tonal system, and these melodies appear throughout the piece as a unifying element. The visual landscape is less literally interpreted, though one can hear the deep tones of resonant wind through narrow openings in canyon, and the more abstract sense of awe at the open landscapes. There is also a sense of anxiety, particularly in the first few movements, that comes from Messiaen’s distinctive harmonies.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, perform Friday, January 29 and Sunday, January 31, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall.  (credit: Dilip Vishwanat)
[Photo by Dilip Vishwanat, courtesy of Cal Performances]

In addition to the full symphony, this piece features solos for piano and horn. In the original premier in 1974, the pianist was in fact Yvonne Loriod, who wore a dress featuring the color palette of Bryce Canyon. (I would love to see a photo of this!) For this performance in Berkeley, the solo pianist was Peter Henderson and the horn soloist was Roger Kaza. The piece also features a larger than usual percussion section, including features on xylorimba and glockenspiel, and a really cool wind machine that was unfortunately hard to see from our seats. But the real visuals were on screen in Debrah O’Grady’s photographs. While not on a click track or any forced tempo, they were clearly timed musically to elements on the piece, with a mixture of gradual fades and sharper transitions. The photos and stage were bathed in a continuously changing set of monochromatic lights, which added to the visuals of the performance.

Moonrise at Zion National Park photographed by Deborah O'Grady. O'Grady and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, present a multimedia performance of Des canyons aux étoiles Sunday, January 31, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall.
[Moonrise at Zion National Park photographed by Deborah O’Grady.]

To make the visuals for this piece, O’Grady retraced Messiaen’s 1972 trip, visiting Bryce, Zion and Cedar Breaks National Monument in April of 2014 and 2015. She noted that the parks have become much more crowded in April than they were back in 1972, which made her experience quite different. As such, the interactions of humans with the environment, both positive and negative, became part of her interpretation of the work. Nonetheless, the photos remained squarely focused on the natural landscape.

The American desert southwest is perhaps my favorite natural landscape, and one I enjoy visiting whenever I get a chance to (regular readers of this site have encountered my photographs). So the combining of that landscape with Messiaen’s influential musical style was a particularly special experience. I remained quite enrapt throughout the entire 90 minute performance, which did not have an intermission. And afterwards, I find myself both inspired to do more music and to get back out to the desert.

Wordless Wednesday: Landscape Arch

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah

Wordless Wednesday: I-70 in Utah

I-70 in Utah

Wordless Wednesday: Geological Contrast (Arches National Park)

Arches National Park

You can see our previous (and future) WW posts featuring Arches National Park here.

Wordless Wednesday: Pine Tree Arch

Pine Tree Arch

Wordless Wednesday: Impending Storm (Arches National Park)

Arches National Park

Super Tuesday Fun with Highways: I-80

So how to continue our “primary highway series” when so many states are voting at once? Well, we can't visit them all, but we touch several important places with a trip along Interstate 80. I-80 runs the entire width of United States connecting New York City to San Francisco, two cities to which I have connections. In between New York and California, it crosses three other states voting this Tuesday: New Jersey, Illinois and Utah. We have already visited two other states crossed by I-80, Iowa and Nevada, during earlier contests.

Actually, I-80 never enters New York. Rather, its eastern end is in Teaneck, a town on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge:

It would have been cool if I-80 crossed the bridge along with I-95 into New York. Perhaps then splitting at the Bruckner Interchange in the Bronx (yes, I had to get the Bruckner Interchange into this article) before heading out to Long Island.

North of New York City is Chappaqua, “hometown of CatSynth and Hillary Clinton,” as I have mentioned a few times on this site. And while it is my hometown in that I grew up there, Hillary's original hometown is a little bit west of New York and New Jersey, in Chicago. But of course you can get there by heading west on I-80, which passes through Chicago's southern suburbs.

Chicago is all the home of Barack Obama. So we have two candidates with Chicago roots, either of whom I would be very happy to support.

What a strange position to be in, to have such a choice – and I admit I have had a hard time deciding. There are historic opportunities with each, connections to various aspects of my own life (geography, education, mixed heritage). I guess it's much better than 2004 when I was excited about no one.

Traveling further west along I-80, we eventually come to Utah, a place of striking natural beauty that I would love to visit again soon. In the south are canyons, stone formations and other wonders of the southwest. In the north, along I-80, are the Great Salt Lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats:


[Click to enlarge]

When they say salt flats they mean flat. It is an incredibly stark landscape, and that's part of what makes a great experience. And the silence. Longtime readers know how such things appeal to my personal and aesthetic sensibilities. Although I have been to the Great Salt Lake, I did not get to see Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, which is considered a major work of modern American art, and which I have seen reproduced countless times.

Heading further west, we cross Nevada and then arrive in California, where I-80 crosses the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, my new hometown.

I-80 actually ends as the western approach of the Bay Bridge, although most people (and road signs) suggest that it continues into San Francisco to US 101. This section of freeway actually cuts through my South-of-Market (SOMA) neighborhood, contributing to its urban, industrial feel.


[Click to enlarge]

I did manage to find my polling place, and will soon have to make a choice as this election season reaches home. But it is great that those of us in California finally get to make a difference. Same for the folks in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Utah. So many of us have had very little opportunity to actually have a say in the process, long dominated by Iowa and New Hampshire and the South. The rest of the country will finally have to listen to the people in our major urban centers and in the west. And I'll be satisfied with whomever we end up choosing (at least in one party).