Des canyons aux étoiles… (From the Canyons to the Stars…) is one of the longest compositions from the iconic French composer, Olivier Messiaen. Its majestic arch spans over 12 movements and 90 minutes and kept most of the Sydney audience spellbound and its performers firmly focussed. Messiaen’s works, not unlike Wagner’s Parsifal or Joyce’s Ulysses, follow their own rules and take their own, not inconsiderable, time in order to provide superb artistic satisfaction. The composer’s highly distinctive style diverges in many ways from the recognised Western tradition. His passion for ornithology and liberal use of transcribed birdsongs in his works is legendary; he regularly allows Eastern (Balinese, Japanese, Indian) influences to contribute to the unique sound of his compositions, which is based on the persistent use of unusual scales (or ‘modes’) created by him; finally, his compositions are continually infused with his deep Catholic faith.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard © Marco Borggreve
Pierre-Laurent Aimard
© Marco Borggreve

In Des canyons aux étoiles…, inspired by a visit to Bryce Canyon, Zion Park and other natural wonders in Utah, the music contains illustrative elements as well. A wind machine is used evocatively, as well as an instrument invented by the composer himself: the geophone, a drum filled with tiny metal pellets that the player swirls around. One of my lasting memories from the preparation for the 1988 Australian première of this work (in which I played) is when the nearly 80-year old composer showed with infinite care the fine details of exactly how the geophone can be used to a young, local percussion player.

Almost three decades later, in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra's performance, the same player – Rebecca Lagos – excelled again, this time not just as part of the percussion section but as one of the four soloists. She played xylorimba along with two other principal player colleagues from the SSO: Timothy Constable on glockenspiel and Robert Johnson on horn. For orchestral players, to perform exposed solo parts, sitting in front of their peers rather than with them, can be an extremely challenging task. With hardly any sense of nervousness, these soloists contributed with admirable professionalism to the success of the evening.

The fourth – and by far the largest – solo part is given to the instrument of the late Yvonne Loriod (the composer’s second wife), the piano. Messiaen’s piano works were mostly composed with her formidable talent and technique in mind; she played this part on many occasions, including its Australian première. This time, Pierre-Laurent Aimard was the invited pianist. In his substantial solos, with constant attention to minutiae, he drew tone colours from his instrument that can rarely be heard elsewhere. To call Des canyons… a piano concerto would not be accurate in the traditional sense of the term; nonetheless, this part poses enormous technical and musical difficulties. Two movements are extensive piano solos in which, with self-effacing comradeship, conductor David Robertson stepped from his podium to turn pages for the pianist in the darkened Concert Hall.

Robertson gave one of the best performances that I have had the privilege to witness. He has been a long-standing advocate of 20th-century music, refining his skills for many years as musical director of Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris. His knowledge of the score was absolute, his unerring beat easy to follow. He exuded confidence which is extremely important with lesser known repertoire and his preparation of the orchestra was exemplary: the warm sonority of brass sounds and near-perfect ensemble throughout the rhythmically demanding score was especially noticeable.

As has happened on several previous occasions, the Sydney Symphony combined the acoustic experience with images, creating a ‘visual symphony’ with photos and videos by Deborah O’Grady projected onto a giant screen behind the orchestra. Such an addition, particularly when executed at such a high level, evidently pleases the eye, entertains the mind, and provokes varied thoughts from nature’s serene beauty to yet another item on the bucket list. Some of these images, like the magnificent, tree in full blossom accompanying most of the second solo piano movement (The Mockingbird), were stunning, as were the numerous landscapes from Utah's canyons. However, some of the illustrations, such as people walking inexplicably in fast motion or pictures of a merry-go-round broke the magic as they seemed to be incongruous with the flow of Messiaen’s grand concept of ascension from the depth of the canyons up to the highest heights – as he said: “to glorify God in all his creation”.

In Messiaen’s mesmerising music, every chord is an event, every characteristic tone colour or rhythmic pattern requires the listener’s concentration. Even if some of the images on the screen were similarly captivating, paying full attention to one unavoidably distracted from the other. Masterworks such as Des canyons… are seldom offered to the audience; it would be best to enjoy those occasions with unhindered focus on the music.