Concert: Messiaen: Des canyon aux étoiles - LAPhil/Dudamel pp 23 March 2016

Messiaen: Des canyon aux étoiles (1974)

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Cond: Gustavo Duidamel

Joanna Pearce Martin, piano
Andrew Bain, horn
James Babor, xylorimba
Raynor Carroll, Glockenspiel

Director: Deborah O'Grady


It is a long time since I saw Gustavo Dudamel conduct and so his appearance with the LA Philharmonic performing Messiaen's great work of God and Nature and Man, 'Des canyons aux étoiles' was too tempting to miss.

I last saw The Dude conduct at the Proms in 2008 where he was the star of the show.  At that time he was one year into his tenure as contract with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and it was telling that he took the august orchestra through a traditional Symphonie Fantastique (a bit too well mannered for my taste) but also he had the place swinging from the rafters to "Tico Tico…" as a second encore.  His rise in his reputation has been meteoric - though his time at Gothenburg wasn't marked with more than the three CD set and few YouTube concerts. 

He's been at the LA Philharmonic since 2009 and they have had more notable triumphs the Scandinavian orchestra. Much has come from his record company DG releasing certain performances for download only during his tenure (a great scheme which seems to have dried up sadly).  But not all of his recordings have been great - either with the LA Phil or the roster of great orchestras who have hired him - including the Berlin Phil, the Vienna Phil.  He has had a charmed rise to the top.  To hear him live in this relatively obscure concert work was a test for me. I was interested to see how far he can work with multiple soloists on a long difficult score without becoming the hubristic maestro. The answer was that he didn't seek to steal the show at all.  He's greying now and the bouncing curls are more restrained, his manner less concerned by the audience.  His conducting too is less extravagant - simple gestures, very clear and measured.  No showboating here - it was a serious business.  In front of a capacity audience (the concert had sold out) he and this great group of players delivered a thoughtful and telling reading, moreover he didn't appear to be anything other than a hard working conductor. 

For me the two stars of this performance were the orchestra's pianist Joanne Pearce Martin and the Principle Horn Andrew Bain.  Both had there own solo movements of Messiaen's fiendish but hypnotic writing.  And their fellow soloists out front, James Babor, xylorimba and Raynor Carroll, glockenspiel to made their mark but in solos and in ensemble with elan.  Dudamel busied himself behind them all and sat in darkness on a conductor's stool during the three solo movements

Listening to Messiaen has been a pre-occupation this last year as I have tried to come closer to his music.  My journey with this composer has not been notable for it's depth until now.  It's not easy music in some senses, so at first I tend to go with it open-eared, mindful of its presence and it's effects: it can give you a lot in the same vein as Takemitsu, Varese or Stockhausen. Later comes an appreciation of the detail and structures.

In this performance we had, projected above the orchestra, pictures and video taken and assembled by Deborah O'Grady of the places and invocations that Messiaen names in the piece and which he visited with his wife after accepting the commission from Alice Tully in 1972.  These were neither always literal nor did they just pertain to the natural world and it's birdlife: humans were featured too.   My regular preoccupation with music's ability to switch off one's interest in measured time was satisfied in a surprising way by both sound and vision.  

As Deborah O'Grady has said elsewhere - the invasion of man into these marvellous sacred places had increased since Messiaen and Loriod wandered around recording birds in the 1970s.  So in a sense the combination is both a statement of the piece and a reflection of it's history.  Our relationship with this landscape looks rathe flawed through her lens in places.  The use of time lapse was very interesting - inducing a feeling of ghostly flow of people through an ancient landscape: it maybe a comfort that we are so temporary.  The pictures also bring out  scale and, in their changing aspect they make a vivid reinforcement of music's tendency to stretch and compress time.  Some of the most enriching imagery for me was of the heavens, not the earth.  I think O'Grady got Messiaen's point on the spiritual nature of the sky and its night-time supremacy over land and landscape.  She brought it out best in the marvellous visuals created for the V 'Appel interstellaire' (Interstellar Call).


The piece itself is divided into twelve sections and those are grouped 5-2-5 into three parts.  I think the whole effect of this performance was contemplative rather than extravagant.  I came away feeling as though I'd been in a trance both in terms of the juxtaposition of music and image and in terms of the structures, repetitions and textures of the 12 movements.  In a full concert hall (how many times does that happen for this piece?) there's an effect which the audience bring too - contemplation en masse.  It is was intense, as was the playing and Dudamel's conducting.  The music scarcely ever felt pushed or in danger of putting localised effect over longer term presence.  The solos were rich in nuance and feeling - powerful at times, haunting at others - Bain's quiet headnotes in V came from another world. Martin was front and central and so her concentration and physicality were palpable - somewhat ironically this is very hard music for a grand piano to deliver with the required terse explosive capability of a small bird.  The two piano solos - extensions one might say to Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux - VI 'Le cossyphe d'Heuglin' (The White-Browed Thrush) and IX 'Le moqueur polyglotte' (The Mockingbird) were superbly doneby Joanne Pearce Martin and one wondered after cluster chords, irregular rhythms and those explosive utterences how she managed the switch between solo and ensemble.  Messiaen offers the player no respite.

As far as I can see this was the orchestra's first outing with the piece this season.  O'Grady's visuals were first seen at Walt Disney Hall in LA earlier this season with David Robertson (who suggested the marriage of sound and image) leading the St Louis Symphony which provided the music.  
It may be that Dudamel gets more comfortable with the music over time - I hope it doesn't lose it's transcendental quality.  This performance wasn't without it's moments of heady musical moment, but the impression I came away with was a performance which was a deep meditation on Nature and Space and Time. Thanks to the detailed attention and a considerable and considered effort to retain the mystery and allusion within Messiaen's writing to a tightly packed concert space in London.  I've never been to these open spaces but I have thought about nothing much since. 


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