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For The Love of God

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Centre
02/26/2009 -  
Olivier Messiaen: Des canyons aux étoiles (From the canyons to the stars)

Conor Hanick, Matthew Odell (Piano), Molly Norcross (French horn), Robert Knopper (Glockenspiel), Alexander Lipowski (Xylorimba)
Juilliard Orchestra, David Robertson (Conductor)

Olivier Messiaen’s love of earth and heavens was never mawkish, sentimental, or ceremonial. He was a man who revered the Catholic Church, nature, God, the senses of sight and music together, the sensuality of Tristan and Isolde and the sounds of birds (admitting recognizing several hundred bird calls).

He also loved Ms. Alice Tully who, in her 90’s, commissioned the composer, himself in his late 60’s, to write a work for a rather small ensemble, to be performed in the hall for which she had given her name.

Messiaen was admittedly dismayed at the acoustics of the hall in 1975, but after visiting some American national parks—notably Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks and Zion Park—he began a work that was to combine the geological, the avian, the religious, the colorful, and the Biblical. Plus, it would be a damned good musical experience as well.

Des canyons aux étoiles was his longest (over 90 minutes), his most difficult for certain soloists (piano and French horn), and a work which almost defines Messiaen’s love for God and the Earth together.

And oh, how he would have relished the new Alice Tully Hall, which opened a few days ago, and which is meant to be the lodestone in aural grandeur for New York. Before the sonority, though, came the visual wonder of the concert hall. Methinks Messiaen, while preferring the country to the city, might have admired the open doorway and windows which summons in audiences and passersby. He certainly would have loved the auburn woodwork on the wall, the lack of railings, the seeming intimacy of a hall which seats over a thousand people.

But most of all, Messiaen would have listened not only with delight, but with passion to the extraordinary voices which come from this stage.

But during the two movements of piano cadenzas, played with both virtuosity and extreme tintinnabulation by Conor Hanick and Matthew Odell, I found myself attuned to every reverberation, the most fleeting cluster of 32nd notes, the twittering of the mockingbird, and the gentle cadences of the wood thrush.

Even more, though, was Messiaen’s use vibrating bells, marimbas, sheets, tubular gongs and enough percussion (some invented by the composer) to make a Balinese gamelan orchestra seem like a baby’s rattle.

The wonder, though, wasn’t in the orchestral forces (which included a few strings, lots of brass and winds as well), but the different colors coming from each of the twelve movements. We start with the soloists. Messiaen wrote for a single pianist, but so daunting is the piano music—which besides the two solo movements is almost constant throughout the work—that it was divided between the aforementioned pair of soloists.

The diminutive Molly Norcross played the “Interstellar Call” with a French horn technique that was more than assured, it was startlingly good, not only for its scale passages and flutterings, but for astonishing changes of timbre and tone which one would not think the instrument capable.

The work itself was described in great detail by the composer, where he explained bird-sounds, Biblical references and articles of faith. The result, though, was, even for the uninitiated, aural tableaux of marvelous diversity. The bejeweled sounds could have been satisfying in themselves, but each movement had its own emotions. For those who reveled in the overtones and resonances, suddenly we were given “The Wood Thrush”, with cadences and simplicity worthy of Mozart. For the seventh movement, “Bryce Canyon and the Red-Orange Rocks”, Messiaen gave us an energetic dance music which could have come from Bernstein’s Fancy Free.

But at no time did the percussion fail to provide one or two or perhaps dozens of birds, and their variations, weaving bells and gongs, “sand” machines and piano, with pointillist colors or great booming gongs.

Behind all of this were the able young players of Juilliard, and in front of them was David Robertson, whose New York appearances are rare in both senses. Messiaen himself loved Robertson’s conducting, and it was obvious in the eleventh movement—taking in Hawaiian birds—that Robertson was the man for the job. That section has so many chances of tempo and beat that it would scare most other masters of the baton. Mr. Robertson is obviously frightened of nothing.

And in a concert season still celebrated as Messiaen’s centennial (he was born in 1908), we can still be astonished at the composer’s singularity, his credos and is creation. On the subway trip back, I was attempting to choose an artist of the last century akin to Olivier Messiaen. All that came to mind was the Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose “hound of Heaven” could have been equivalent to Messiaen’s birds of paradise.

But comparisons, as Malvolio said, are “odorous”. Even when the odors in this case are fresh desert sands and the perfumes of Messiaen’s Celestial City.

Harry Rolnick



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