Music review: Robertson, O'Grady and the SLSO bring Messaien to the stars

David Robertson
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

By Sarah Bryan Miller

French composer Olivier Messiaen was a synesthete: When he heard a particular sound, he saw a particular color, and vice versa. The chords he uses involve a spectrum of hues as well as notes.

That made his 1972 "Des canyons aux etoiles...(From the canyons to the stars...)," inspired by three breathtaking Western national parks, a natural for a visual element. On Saturday night at Powell Hall, David Robertson, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and visual artist Deborah O'Grady gave it a solid reading.

The production, premièring here before the SLSO's upcoming California tour, has a 20-minute introduction (commentary by Robertson; examples by the orchestra) to Messiaen and "Canyons." It was a smart move - Messiaen's music is dense, filled with transcriptions of birdsong and using unusual scales - but it could have been more detailed without losing anyone's attention.


The score of "Canyons" calls for an unusual orchestral configuration of just 13 string players, with ranks of brass, winds and percussion, plus piano. Four players received billing and front-of-stage placement as soloists: pianist Peter Henderson, principal horn Roger Kaza, principal percussion William James on xylorimba (a pitched percussion instrument that has the low notes of a marimba and the high notes of a xylophone) and percussionist Thomas Stubbs on a glockenspiel played with crystal mallets./

They were all outstanding. Kaza, in particular, was spectacular in his performance of the first movement of Part 3, "Appel interstellaire (Interstellar Call)." He and Henderson shone both in their brilliant solo work and in their parts of the ensemble.

Robertson conducted the piece on the fast side of the Messiaenic norm, in an almost ideal performance that made the birdsongs real and the colors almost visible even to those of us who lack that sense. It can take effort to get into his music, but this performance was a cherishable example of why the listener should make that effort.

Read the full review here.