Lost in the Brooklyn backcountry (Review: Messiaen, Tate, Hamburger Symphoniker)

Still from the film that accompanied this performance, by Daniel Landau

Everything about this concert was out of the ordinary: orchestra, conductor, venue, repertoire, and accompanying film (see above).  And it was a triumph—in spite of itself.

I hadn’t heard much about the Hamburger Symphoniker; I’m more familiar with Hamburg’s other orchestras, the NDR-Sinfonieorchester and the Philharmoniker Hamburg.  Conductor Jeffrey Tate had dropped off our radar after his work with Covent Garden and the English Chamber Orchestra.  For venue, the orchestra bypassed the usual suspects and journeyed out to Roulette, a new performance space in downtown Brooklyn.  On the program was Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles… (“From the canyons to the stars…”), with accompanying film by Israeli filmmaker Daniel Landau.

Des canyons should be one of my favorite pieces.  I love Messiaen, and I also adore the work’s subject: Utah’s canyon country.  To me, it’s the most beautiful place on Earth.  Messiaen and his wife traveled extensively in the region, taking extensive notes of the scenery and his beloved birdsong.  Drawing upon his synesthesia, he attempted to render the riotous red, orange, and pink hues of Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Cedar Breaks in music.  For his themes he used the birdcalls that he had painstakingly notated in the field.  Nevertheless, the work had eluded me, and I hoped that this performance would finally do the trick.

It did.  Pianist Francesco Tristano showed consummate mastery of the Messiaen style, combining rhythmic exactitude with a wide range of dynamics and timbre.  Orchestra soloists were outstanding: horn player Tunca Dogu expertly handled all the avant-garde techniques of the sixth movement, “Interstellar Call,” while xylorimba player Alexander Radziewski brought renewed bursts of energy to each birdsong.  On a few occasions, brass intonation was imperfect and string tone became rough as the players coped with the work’s balance challenges.  But such moments were rare, easily overshadowed by the gorgeous string blend in the eighth movement and the massive brass chorales throughout the piece.  Such moments made one forget that this wasn’t a full size orchestra.  Tate’s interpretation was not as expansive as Myung-Whun Chung’s, but remarkably sensitive to instrumental color, clarity, and melodic contour.  This music can seem spastic and relentless, but Tate shaped the music beautifully.

Musically, this performance was tremendous.  But I had to get past some other things to appreciate it.

First, the venue.  Classical music needs new venues and audiences, and Roulette fits the bill.  (Surprised that CAMI was behind this.)  But the acoustic is bone-dry.  It gave Messiaen’s percussion-heavy timbres no chance to blend, and highlighted insignificant imprecisions that normally would have disappeared in the wash.  The razor-sharp clarity had some benefits: every detail of Messiaen’s fantastic orchestration was vividly realized.  Still, the hall was too dry for the piece.

Second, the film.  For Messiaen, the splendor of the Utah canyons was a manifestation of the divine.  Landau’s film disregards this.  Instead, it offers a dual conception of mankind’s relationship with nature: drawn from nature, man despoils it.  For the first movement, Landau presents a nude pregnant woman lying in a still body of water, focusing upon her floating black hair.  (Warning: NSFW!)

This next clip appears during the seventh movement, “Bryce Canyon and the red-orange rocks.”

Elsewhere we see a balding man pulling himself out of a lake onto gray mud, a human figure enclosed in a bloody membrane and poked by sticks (shades of Operation Rescue?), and shots of garbage alternating with a meal eaten by monk-like personages.

While some of these images are odd, many are arresting and poignant.  The problem is that Landau’s perspective is at odds with Messiaen’s.   The film’s “conceptual point of departure is the cyclical process of decay and creation, as the driving force of a society clinging to its wish for redemption.” But according to musicologist Richard Steinitz, “This great hymn to heaven and earth has no darker side…a narrative of human drama would have interfered distractingly in this theocratic song of praise.”*  For Messiaen, redemption and transfiguration are facts, not questions.  Thus, I found that Messiaen’s birdsongs and glowing brass chorales clashed with the film’s symbolic narrative.

Landau was right to eschew a mere slideshow of Utah landscapes; that would have become wallpaper.  But I found myself dwelling not on his images, but instead on the awe that I always feel when I’m in Utah–something like the awe that struck Messiaen.  Maestro Tate and the Hamburger Symphoniker say that they want “to lead Europe in broadening the experience of the classical concert.”  Last night, such innovations added little, but thankfully did not get between this listener and Messiaen’s music.

[UPDATE: Tommasini in the Times disagrees, partly.]

Zion National Park, depicted in the last movement of Messiaen's "Des canyons aux étoiles..." Photo by the author


*Richard Steinitz, “Des canyons aux étoiles…,” in The Messiaen Companion, ed. Peter Hill, pp. 464, 483.

About thousandfoldecho

Everyone likes classical music. Not everyone knows it yet.
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