"A Messiaen Rarity Pays Homage to Utah's Topography and Birds"
by Alex Ross
New York Times, August 11, 1994
Reinbert de Leeuw's inspiring first summer as director of the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music reached a pinnacle on Sunday night with the geological, astronomical and ornithological splendors of Messiaen's "Des canyons aux étoiles." This 12-part epic poem for small orchestra is not heard as often as the same composer's "Turangalîla Symphony," but it certainly ought to be. I can think of no other work from the latter half of this century that affords such an excess of sheer beauty. It leaves its audiences in a state of exhilaration and touches more than once on the sublime.
"Des canyons aux étoiles" ("From the Canyons to the Stars") was commissioned by Alice Tully 20 years ago for the American Bicentennial. Following his own infallible whimsies, Messiaen chose to pay homage to the canyons and birds of Utah. Although the state responded gratefully by naming one of its peaks Mount Messiaen, the work is less a portrait of a particular landscape than of the richness of the mind contemplating it. Against the austerity of the canyons, Messiaen unleashed an orgy of exotic instrumentation: trumpeters play with wa-wa mutes and mouthpieces alone, the solo pianist draws resonances from silently depressed clusters, the percussionists wield a sand drum and a very prominent wind machine.
What surprised many listeners in 1974, however, was not the complexity of the instrumentation but the lyric directness of much of the music behind it. Having allied himself with the postwar avant-garde through the early 1960's, Messiaen here completed a return to the grand triadic sonorities of his youth, while holding in mind the chief rhythmic and harmonic discoveries of the late 40's. "Canyons" is his supreme synthesis, his most daring leap from raw experimental materials to the mystical wonderland of his inner world. "Zion Park," the paradisiacal vision that closes the work, might be the most beautiful and powerful thing he created.
Sunday's was not a perfect performance -- even though Mr. de Leeuw's tempos were slow, the Fellows of Tanglewood Music Center still had trouble with the fiendish rhythms, and Peter Serkin's technically brilliant piano solos did not resonate as the composer wished -- but the score made its proper impact. There was magic in the mere fact of hearing it in the new Ozawa Hall, with its back wall open on the summer night. After the great A-major revelation of "Zion Park," I walked out a few feet and looked up at the stars; they seemed a silent echo of Messiaen's final shimmering chord.
With its huge chaotic vistas and intimate lyric images side by side, "Canyons" seems to sum up also the musical world view of Tanglewood's new director of contemporary music: a man who has made definitive recordings of such diverse repertory as Antheil's manic "Jazz Symphony" and Satie's glacial "Gymnopedies" (at the piano, on the Philips label). As director of the Schonberg Ensemble and other Dutch groups, Mr. de Leeuw pioneered an influential programming philosophy that mixes composers from early and late in the 20th century, European and American, orderly and anarchic, without regard to rigid ideological divisions.
His programs, however, have shown a certain bias toward more imaginative members of the current European avant-garde. Louis Andriessen's works dominated the opening weekend, and Tuesday was given over to Mauricio Kagel, the master ironist of German musical tradition.
The Argentine-born Mr. Kagel often threatens to lose himself in abstruse deconstructive schemes, but his scores are saved by a raw melodic charm and a dire wit worthy of Karl Kraus. There were wonderful moments in his "Phantasiestuck" (for flute and piano, with invisible chamber accompaniment) and Piano Trio (full of errant Romantic chromaticisms, like Franck gone mad). But the tour de force was ". . . den 24,XII.31" for baritone and chamber orchestra, a dramatization of comical or sinister newspaper clippings from the day Mr. Kagel was born. An awesomely absurd finale reports the ringing of Christmas bells all over America by electric transmission from Bethlehem. Composers through the ages have sought to transcribe bell timbres, but until Mr. Kagel no one thought to combine the usual resonant percussion with a tape of live church bells and a man shouting "Ding, dong, ding, dong!" onstage.
Next to this neo-Dadaist extravagance, American works in the festival were strikingly subdued. On Sunday afternoon, Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa played John Harbison's Cello Concerto, a handsomely made and dazzlingly orchestrated three-movement piece that adds to the impressive roster of new works Mr. Ma has lately been inspiring, although I felt that the whole was a bit less than the sum of the parts. (The amazing Mr. Ma returned after intermission for Strauss's "Don Quixote." In a single day, with Strauss and Messiaen, Tanglewood got to hear the two greatest wind-machine works in the literature.)
And on Monday night there was a concert devoted mostly to Northeastern composers who draw in different ways on the inexhaustible legacy in the Second Viennese School. Namely: Elliott Carter's Quintet for Piano and Winds, a 1991 work that brings no surprises in its fierce, sober argumentation; Leon Kirchner's sweetly rhapsodic Piano Trio No. 2, an adaptation of his recent cello concerto for Mr. Ma, which seems to propose, quite persuasively, that the way to go beyond Schoenberg is to go back to Zemlinsky; Mario Davidovsky's gaunt, finely detailed "Romancero" for soprano, flute, clarinet and cello, and Ralph Shapey's characteristically grim, violent "Evocation No. 2" from 1979, with its unexpectedly delicate close.
Tanglewood's student musicians dedicated themselves to this vast range of new music with unstinting commitment. A few soloists stood out: Christopher Cooper, the noble horn player in "Canyons"; Barry Dove, the indefatigable percussionist in the Shapey; Thomas Lehmkuhl, the wildly inventive baritone soloist in the Kagel. One hopes the young artists go away from the festival without institutional biases toward the opposing camps represented. Mr. de Leeuw's catholic, discriminating taste made internecine polemics temporarily irrelevant.