If you know Des canyons aux étoiles (From the canyons to the stars...) only from a sound recording, it comes as a bit of a surprise to see the orchestra – sometimes called a large chamber ensemble – on the platform. Forty-three players are needed, but only thirteen strings, plus a sizable phalanx of woodwind and brass, a large array of percussion, including gongs, bells, wind machine and thunder sheet. Here is an exotic sound world made silently visible. Then there are the four solo roles, for piano, xylorimba, glockenspiel and horn. These instruments are placed at the front of the stage, the conductor just behind the piano as for a concerto, and the four executants came on and took a bow with the conductor. It felt like a special occasion before a note was sounded, and not only because this was the Los Angles Phil and Dudamel.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic © Keith Sheriff | Barbican
Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic
© Keith Sheriff | Barbican

Canyons is a large work in twelve movements, and lasting in this performance just over 90 minutes, played without interval. Commissioned in 1971 to celebrate the bicentenary of the United States Declaration of Independence, it was premiered in 1974. In 1972, while preparing the work, Messiaen visited Utah, where he was inspired by the birds and the landscape, such as the fantastical shapes and bold colours of Bryce Canyon. “My work” said the composer in an explication more formidable perhaps than the music, “is at once geological, ornithological, astronomical and theological. Despite the importance of colour and birds, it’s above all a religious work of praise and contemplation.”

The piano throughout has a very prominent solo role, (Canyons can claim to be the largest work for piano and orchestra ever written), with the fourth and ninth movements being long piano solos. Pianist Joanne Pearce Martin was outstanding throughout, both in those big cadential solos and elsewhere, her digital dexterity matched by formidable stamina. The horn solo of the sixth movement, Appel interstellar (“Interstellar call”), was gloriously played by Andrew Bain, brazen or whispered as required, robbed of ultimate magic perhaps by the Barbican acoustic, for such playing deserved the resonance of some great ecclesiastical space. James Babur’s xylorimba and Raynor Carroll’s glockenspiel evoked starlight and star-struck birdsong with spectacular glittering flourishes.

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic © Keith Sheriff | Barbican
Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic
© Keith Sheriff | Barbican

As for the LAPO players, this must have required much more preparation than the Copland or Mahler works featured in their other two residency concerts here. “All the woodwind parts are difficult,” warned Messiaen, but he did not mean that the other parts are easy. Yet the performance was as expert as could be imagined, the length and difficulties notwithstanding – the only fault that can be found with these musicians was that they almost made it look and sound easy. Dudamel has a real feeling for this idiom, pacing the music so that both the mighty wind and brass chorale-like passages, and the birdsong material with which they so often alternate, both make their mark. Thus the natural world and our awe in contemplation of it were fully registered, the avian twittering a celebration of joy in God’s creation.

Alongside this wonderful music-making there was, in the words of director/photographer Deborah O’Grady, “a work of photographic art to be viewed simultaneously with… performances of this landmark musical composition”. Thus projected on to a large screen behind the players, there was continuous video material featuring trees, rocks, canyons and birds, sometimes with an environmentalist implication. While very pleasing to look upon in itself, this added little to my experience, and ultimately diminished it. There are three aesthetic and philosophical problems with this voguish idea. First, it invites us to watch a screen rather than these top flight musicians actually performing, thus denying us some of what Dmitri Mitropoulos called the “sportive element in music”. Second, film reduces this ambitious and demanding score to the status of accompaniment, when presumably the reverse was intended. Third, showing scenes from the places that inspired the music is dismayingly literal – those spaces have now become the music of Canyons, “a religious work of praise and contemplation”, and earthbound images constrain the imaginative, even spiritual, response the composer aimed to evoke in his audience. Messiaen is leading us to the celestial city, not down some popular tourist trail.

These, of course, are post hoc reflections, and many others seemed to enjoy the whole experience, to judge from overheard comments of the large audience as it dispersed. And none of this mattered much during the resplendent closing pages of the final movement (Zion Park and the Celestial City), when the LAPO capped the vast structure in another alternation of mighty chorale and ecstatic birdsong, greeted by a fortissimo riot of chiming bells and whooping horns. The audience whooped too, as well it might.