Messiaen’s ‘Canyons’ gets a photographic counterpoint

David Robertson, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

One of the 12 movement titles in Messiaen's encyclopedic orchestral opus "From the Canyons to the Stars ..." makes reference to "the gift of awe." That was a gift that the modernist French composer had in spades - the ability to be struck with wonderment at the beauty and splendor of the universe, and to make a listener feel it as well.

"Canyons," which got a brilliant and vividly colored performance in Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall on Sunday afternoon by conductor David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony, is one of the composer's most expansive and all-encompassing expressions of that wonderment. Commissioned to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial and inspired by the natural vistas of Utah's parklands, including Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks, the piece is an evocation of the landscape in all its craggy grandeur and vitality.

And on Sunday, Messiaen had a nimble collaborator in Berkeley photographer Deborah O'Grady. Her imagery, collected over two years' worth of visits and projected on a large screen behind the orchestra, supplemented the visual component of the piece without distracting from its essentially musical character.


"From the Canyons ..." is, among other things, a sort of piano concerto, and Sunday's performance boasted a powerhouse soloist in Peter Henderson, whose energetic and keenly etched playing only underscored the blocky, kinetic fervor of the score. His star turn was supplemented by heroic solos by French hornist Roger Kaza and percussionists William James and Thomas Stubbs.

Robertson and the orchestra, meanwhile, cemented the growing impression that this is an artistic partnership that continues to yield remarkable results. They spent the weekend in Berkeley, courtesy of Cal Performances, in a two-concert residency that began on Friday with a dynamic pairing of music by John Adams and Mahler.

Adams' new Saxophone Concerto, which had its first local performance with Timothy McAllister as the extravagantly focused soloist, marks a wonderfully important addition to the repertoire. Much of it comes at the listener in fast, breathless waves, like a cross between a Romantic concerto and a Charlie Parker solo; the contrasting episodes sustain a lustrous, debonair edge (it's a rare composer who can mark a movement "suave" and actually pull it off).

Almost as impressive was Mahler's Fifth, which occupied the second half of the program in a broad-beamed, tender account. Robertson took a curiously slow tempo in the opening movement, which blunted the music's rhetoric a bit, but the energy of the following two movements and the translucent delicacy of the great Adagietto were unimpeachable.

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