“Synesthesia” is a neurological condition that causes an involuntary sensory experience to be provoked from an initial stimulation of a different sensory or cognitive pathway – for instance, automatically associating colors with numbers, letters, or sounds. Olivier Messiaen, a 20th-century French composer, organist, and ornithologist, “heard” colors in all music, whether tonal, modal, or serial. His own compositions are undeniably colorful themselves, dating back to his early composition Les offrandes oubliées (“The Forgotten Offerings”). On Thursday night at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall, the New York Philharmonic was led by David Robertson in a taut performance of this work, which Messiaen composed in 1930 and which highlights his Roman Catholic faith. The short piece consists of three (very short) movements: a bracing, “profoundly sad” opening whose tense anticipation bursts suddenly into the “ferocious” renting chords of the second movement, and finally mellowing back out into the third movement, to be played “with great pity and great love”. The musicians painted the canvasses of our ears with trails of watercolors spilling across each other; their instruments became paintbrushes dragging and blending pastels across the white silence.

Olivier Messiaen, by Malcolm Crowthers
Olivier Messiaen, by Malcolm Crowthers

The Philharmonic was joined by French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard for the next two works on the program, both of which carried their own striking palettes and atmospheres. First was a crystal-clear interpretation of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major. Although the mood could not have been more different, the colors were still distinct and luminous. During the best moments – for instance, the energetic opening of the third movement – Mr Robertson and Mr Aimard worked with the orchestra to transform the familiar melodies into brilliant brushstrokes that glittered and gleamed. The delicate second movement was just as tightly-drawn as the Messiaen, and the spectacular splash into the final movement felt like an almost delirious sigh of relief. During other moments of the concerto, however, the music veered towards the mechanical. Mr Aimard is a pensive performer who infuses each note with thoughtfulness, but at times his playing seemed detached and almost distracted.

However, all detachment vanished when Mr Aimard returned to the piano after intermission for the United States première of Tristan Murail’s 2012 Le Désenchantement du monde (“The Disenchantment of the World”), symphonic concerto for piano and orchestra. Mr Aimard was fully focused and his playing was brilliant during the concerto, which clearly requires virtuosity. Mr Murail was born in France in 1947 and studied with Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire, where he later taught, in addition to studying and teaching at IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique). He is known for his “spectral” techniques; however, in this work, there is less of a focus on spectralism: “Rather, my exploration of sound provides models for the concerto’s musical structures, giving me a large palette of harmonic and timbral colors and gradations to work with, almost like a rainbow.” Murail’s concerto, with its use of microtonality and rich array of textures, transformed our ears not into canvasses but into kaleidoscopes, through which we heard not only rainbows but cascades of chords and colors: a deluge of sounds and submersions and splatters of discordant, unearthly hues and tones. The kaleidoscope shifted from hollow, wandering patterns to jazzy pops of iridescence to a melting flute melody and shrill streaks of color in the violins.

After the art museum provided by the first three pieces – Messiaen’s watercolors, Mozart’s prismatic structures, and Murail’s rainbows – the evening took a sudden turn to the theatrical with the last work on the program: Beethoven’s Symphony no. 2 in D major. No longer painters, Mr Robertson and the musicians suddenly became a marionette leading an army of toy soldiers. The sounds and structures, though delivered in a clever and precise interpretation, felt commonplace and grey. Mr Robertson’s head bobbing – which at times looked like it might cause whiplash – elicited murmurs of laughter during the third and fourth movements. Most of the audience was apparently charmed by this sudden shift in energy, though I heard one listener comment that it seemed “frenetic”. It was a spirited and, for the most part, enjoyable rendition of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. However, I gladly would have remained in the museum instead, listening to all those colors, spellbound by a delightful case of synesthesia.