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Twitters and Titters

New York
Alice Tully Hall
03/14/1999 -  
Olivier Messiaen: "Des canyons aux etoiles…"
Peter Serkin (piano)
William Purvis (horn)
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
Reinbert de Leeuw (conductor)

From the Canyons to the Stars was literally written for Alice Tully Hall, its 44-piece orchestra straining the acoustical limits of this fine but intimate venue. Alice Tully herself commissioned the work as part of the celebration of the American Bicentennial and it was premiered there in 1974 with the composer's wife, Yvonne Loriod, as the piano soloist. The work is scored for large chamber orchestra augmented by seven percussionists, who play virtually no drums, but rather a conglomeration of metallic instruments featuring the glockenspiel and the xylorimba as well as a wind machine and a two-man sand machine. The work was inspired by Messiaen's visit to Bryce Canyon in Utah and nearby Zion National Park (where Mt. Messiaen now stands) and by his obsession with the songs and movements of the birds of the world. The mystic ornithologist spent years circumspectly cataloguing the rhythms and melodies of the avian population of Western Europe and North Africa and in this piece, to correspond with the American theme, there are many birdsongs from the exotic realm of the Hawaiian Islands. To emphasize the American desert, Messiaen relies on the birds of the Sahara, many of whose songs and movements he had reproduced in his Catalogue d'oiseaux for solo piano (also premiered by Loriod).

Peter Serkin was the driving force behind this presentation and convinced members of his old chamber group Tashi, who now form the core of the CMSLC orchestra, to perform it with him. He engaged one of the most respected contemporary music experts in the world, the Dutchman Reinbert de Leeuw, to put it all together and persuaded another contemporary specialist, the hornist William Purvis, whose recording of the Ligeti horn trio is particularly impressive, to play the difficult sixth movement for solo horn. Serkin has three solo movements in this over 90 minute paean to Nature and he played each of them with an athletic confidence and remarkable sense of dramatic phrase building that shone through even in the extremely fast passages which are jammed with notes (even the page turner gets a workout in this wild suite). Serkin is, of course, a contemporary expert himself and the combination of so many fine talents, such as Fred Sherry and David Shifrin (both Tashi alumni) produced the finest performance possible of this difficult music.

Purvis was especially interesting in his solo movement, known as Interstellar Call. There are many muted echo effects ala the Poulenc Elegie for Dennis Brain, a series of hunting horn fanfares, a section which evokes the natural horn with the fingering in the old D crook mode, and an almost electric effect which Purvis produced by placing his bell very near the sound board of the piano so that the strings would resonate in overtonal sympathy with his calls. Throughout this entire piece I was struck with the thought that this was probably the best performance that anyone will ever hear of this mystical work and for that the CMSLC should be very proud.

All of this praise belies the fact, however, that Canyons is far from Messiaen's best effort. We've heard it all before, and much more interestingly, in the Turangalila Symphony, where the gamelan effect of the tubular percussion is extremely rhythmically complex and where the individual movements are highly charged with dramatic weight. In Canyons the same five-note twittering rhythm is repeated ad nauseam and the appearance of the hunting horn made me hope that someone would actually shoot some of these pesky birds. I have the same complaint about the Catalogue d'oiseaux: it is interminable and tries the patience of the listener. Perhaps Messiaen was thoroughly enthralled by the movements of the birds on the shore, but after a while I get very, very bored.

Wagner had it right. By burying his orchestra at Bayreuth the audience never saw the percussionist turning the crank on the wind machine, tipping the tray of the sand machine or rattling the thundersheet and so could be totally fooled into thinking that an actual storm was raging. The machinations of the busy battery only provoked laughter from the audience as did the unfortunate duck imitations played through the mouthpiece sans trumpet and more reminiscent of PDQ Bach (or Spike Jones) than a serious composer's evocations of natural sounds.

Canyons is often pointed to by the more famous of Messiaen's disciples, most notably Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, for its total rejection of a sense of development and for its emphasis on the sonority of the individual moment (Stockhausen even wrote a piece called Momente in this style). Fine, the individual moments are quite beautiful in this work, but since it is consciously going nowhere, after an hour and a half I was ready to get off. And yet there was something thrilling about the great musicality emanating from that stage. To turn around Schoenberg's famous lament: "This music wasn't good, just excellently played."

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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