Messiaen’s Majestic From The Canyons To The Stars – Review

David Robertson

David Robertson Photo by Michael Tammara

The orchestral epic by French composer Oliver Messiaen (1908-1992) was performed sublimely recently at the Sydney Opera House, by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO), under Chief Conductor and Artistic Director visionary and charismatic David Robertson.

The music was compellingly imbued with the passion and intelligence.

Robertson’s expert analytical skills elicited from the penetratingly erudite composition and which he conveyed astutely to the SSO players.

Pianist and Messiaen protégée Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s uniquely personal and professional connection to the composer and his wife pianist Yvonne Loriod, transported the audience into the spirituality of the geographical and astrophysical shades of the composition.

His fervent and dramatic playing of the piano both as an orchestral instrument and in two virtuosic and very demanding solos soared with the intensity of the complex multi-dimensional work.

In the fourth movement The White-Browed Robin, Aimard powerfully expressed the varied and poignant song of a single bird.

The certainty of beauty was ever present in the extensive piano solo of the ninth movement, The Mockingbird.

Robertson Conducting

David Robertson Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, Sydney Symphony Orchestra

The animated motion of movement and the splendour of sound abounded in the tonal variation of the colours within Aimard’s piano playing and his dramatic and spectacular embellishments.

He was joined by Robert Johnson, Principal Horn with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra since 1986.

His rich luminous playing evoked the celestial solemnity of sounds and silences reminiscent of the night skies and the spiritualty of the heavens in the sixth movement, Interstellar Call.

From The Canyons To The Stars was commissioned by Alice Tully in 1971 to celebrate the bicentenary of the United States Declaration of Independence.

Messiaen finally accepted the commission after the extraordinary sway of a black and white photograph of Bryce Canyon.

He then travelled to Utah where he was moved by the landscape, birds, colours, panoramas and its spirit of place.

In particular he was inspired by three geographical points, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Messiaen believed birds to be the original musicians. When in his field expeditions he patiently listened to the diverse birdsongs and recorded their musical representation on note paper.

SSo 2

Sydney Symphony Orchestra Photo by John Marmaras

A repertoire of birdsongs enriched this composition of harmonious vistas and provided Messiaen with an instrument for divine praise.

As a child David Robertson had walked, hiked and camped in these very same striking locations.

He understood their ambiance, essence and effortlessly made the connections with Massiaen’s energetic yet contemplative musical vision.

Robertson had harboured a strong desire for people who were not able to visit these astonishing sites to also experience their awe and wonder through a visual production.

Fine art photographer Deborah O’Grady set powerful visuals to accompany Messiaen’s grand music of twelve movements, divided into three parts (1-5, 6-7, 8-12).

Her own musical background, deep appreciation of Messiaen’s music and astute understanding and practice of still and video photography ingeniously complemented the audiences’ experience of the music.

“The aim was to create a visual symphony that echoes the musical language with images corresponding to the places and colours referred to in the score.”

She was aware of Messiaen’s synaesthesia, as he would see a colour his inner ear would hear a sound. His visual and musical language was simpatico and cross pollinated his unique compositional gifts.

Grand Canyon 1

Panorama of an aspect of the Grand Canyon in America

The presentation of the music in a pictorial context defined the divergent nature of the landscape the rigidity of towering ancient red rocks, green trees silky from speckled light and caressed by breeze, skies scattered with a myriad of golden twinkling stars, a morning haze cloaking the sharply defined mountain line, the white moon a lonely entity and spectacular land formations, cathedrals of the terrain.

A detail of one of Deborah O'Grady's images of the Bryce Canyon

A detail of Deborah O’Grady’s images of Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, America courtesy artist

Deborah O’Grady articulated that she recognised the “geographical, ornithological, astronomical and theological aspects” of Messiaen’s music and her mandate was to use her photographer’s eye to experiment with creating an additional sensory stimulation.

Messiaen was deeply religious and I found myself thinking of the first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins poem Pied Beauty.

“Glory be to God for dappled things –“

The spirituality and fervour of the music is a monumental prayer of recognition and appreciation for all that flourishes in this serene setting.


Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson, Photo by Keith Saunders

The large percussion section included the xylorimba (Rebecca Lagos) glockenspiel (Timothy Constable) and eoliphone. The versatility of these instruments provided textural differences and communicated the inherent sounds of the settings.

From The Canyons To The Stars celebrates the vast space and immense geological and astronomical dimensions of time and matter.

The Australian premiere of From The Canyons to The Stars in 1988 was in the presence of the composer and Massiaen’s wife Yvonne Loriod was the piano soloist.

It was very touching that some of the Australian Chamber Orchestra ensemble from that first premiere Kirsten Williams, Paul Goodchild and Rebecca Lagos performed in the current concert.

Messiaen put a handprint of musical grandeur in this ecstatically absorbing composition that was inventive and held the audience spell-bound.

I responded to this music in a similar way to the enormous influence of hearing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for the first time in my adolescence.


Sydney Symphony Orchestra with David Robertson Conducting, PHoto by Ken Butti

From The Canyons to The Stars is a classic twentieth century masterpiece.

It is aesthetically beautiful, challengingly layered but ultimately, is a contemplation of beauty and the miracle of creation.

Rose Niland, Special Features, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016


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