I have been internally screaming with excitement about tonight’s concert at Walt Disney Hall for just shy of a full calendar year. There’s only one piece on the program: Olivier Messiaen’s sprawling 1974 Des canyons aux étoiles... (From the canyons to the stars...)
Describing a work by Olivier Messiaen as “unusual” or “bizarre” is roughly like describing the Pope as “Catholic”, but even in Messiaen’s odd menagerie, Des canyons is something else. Despite his being French and not particularly nationalistic, Messiaen was commissioned to write the work to commemorate the United States bicentennial, a fact that I’ve never really seen explored or explained. Even tho the genocidal waves of American Manifest Destiny had yet to spread that far west in 1776, Messiaen took his inspiration from the weather-worn landscapes of southern Utah and the birds that are native to the region. (The inclusion of birds is par for the course for Messiaen — it’s much more unusual when his works don’t include transcriptions of their songs.) But, as the title implies, he also looked up, not metaphorically, but literally, to specific stars that are visible in the night sky.
The result is a 90-minute concerto for horn, piano, glockenspiel, and xylorimba that includes movement titles like “Interstellar call” and “The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran”. In addition to the solo percussionists, the piece calls for a bevy of ensemble players, covering everything from a wind machine (which gets several extended solos) to the geophone, an instrument of Messiaen’s own invention that calls for a drum filled with thousands of lead pellets to imitate the sound of dry shifting earth. Despite the size of the orchestra, there are numerous points over the course of the work where the music just . . . stops, and silence fills the air. At one point, some of the brass players remove the mouthpieces from their instruments and buzz on them as tho warming up backstage. I am not making any of this up.Read More