Stars and Snow

02.22.16
David Robertson, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
The New Yorker

By Alex Ross

“Canyons,” which takes inspiration from the rock formations, birdsong, and night sky of Utah, has become a cult work of twentieth-century music. Its peculiar instrumentation has discouraged frequent performances: to program it, you need a virtuoso pianist, a first-rate French-horn player, tireless wind and brass, and a vast battery of percussion. Nonetheless, five recordings of the piece are in circulation, and in the first three months of this year it will have appeared on programs in half a dozen different cities, from San Diego to Sydney. Much of this activity is courtesy of the St. Louis Symphony, which recently presented “Canyons” in its home town and then took the work to the West Coast. I heard it at Disney Hall, in Los Angeles, which was nearly packed for the occasion.

Not every listener is prepared to embrace ninety minutes of geological, ornithological, and astronomical tone-painting. The St. Louis offered, as a guide to the uninitiated, a visual essay by the Berkeley photographer Deborah O’Grady, combining stills and video that she had shot in Utah and Death Valley. As towers of rock loomed on a screen behind the orchestra, O’Grady created the mirage of a performance in the canyons themselves.

The images did more than illustrate; they paid heed to the religious ramifications of Messiaen’s design. The third movement, “What Is Written in the Stars . . . ,” alludes to the writing on the wall in the Book of Daniel. (“Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.”) O’Grady here interposed glimpses of humanity’s invasion of the landscape: ribbons of highway, power lines, graffiti-covered structures. Messiaen’s severe gestures came across as a divine reprimand.

More often, though, we were pulled into a pristine natural world. In one sequence, a full moon rose slowly over an outcrop as Roger Kaza, St. Louis’s principal horn player, performed the sixth movement, “Interstellar Call,” which is a horn solo. Kaza knows this music well: in 1982, he brought his horn on a rafting trip on the Colorado River and played “Interstellar Call” in a branch of the Grand Canyon. He sent a tape to Messiaen, who was touched by the gesture but said that the tempo was too fast. Kaza’s rendition at Disney, slow and lyrically pulsing, would surely have made the composer happy.

David Robertson, the St. Louis’s music director, shaped “Canyons” with a sure hand. He quelled any suspicion that the work is indulgent or rambling; at the same time, he respected Messiaen’s meditativeness, his silences. The orchestra responded with playing of focus and fire. Peter Henderson was an incisive piano soloist.

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