When Alice Tully, the great New York patron of the arts, commissioned a work from Olivier Messiaen to celebrate the American bicentennial, the French composer packed up his sketchbooks and headed West. He found inspiration in the unearthly beauty of Utah’s national parks, among the brilliantly colored landscapes of canyons, cliffs, rock pillars, and arches. Des canyons aux étoiles... (“From the canyons to the stars...”) is the result, a twelve-movement work that encompasses birdsong, modernist experimentalism, evocations of earthly and interstellar landscapes, and religious mysticism.

Bryce Canyons, Utah, by Jesper Rautell Balle
Bryce Canyons, Utah, by Jesper Rautell Balle

Canyons is at once an extended piano concerto and a complex ensemble piece. The infamously difficult piano part shares the spotlight with solo French horn, glockenspiel, and xylorimba (a xylophone with an extended range). In addition to the soloists, the ensemble is scored for 40 musicians, including a wind machine, all manners of clarinets, flutes, and oboes, and a geophone, an instrument of Messiaen’s own invention: a drum head filled with pebbles that sounds like a primitive snare drum.

Listening to Canyons, you have the feeling of being in a landscape where the earth descends before you as much as the sky seems to rise. The tonalities range from honking chords of rich earthiness to delicate string harmonics that evoke outer space. Arrivals on major chords (any tonalities in the work are major) are as thrilling as the first glimpse from a summit or a blast of cool mountain air. As is always the case with Messiaen, the music not only glorifies nature but the God of his fervent Roman Catholicism.

An enthusiastic amateur ornithologist, the composer transcribed the bird songs he heard in Utah’s valleys, and no less than five movements of Canyons invoke native birds and their songs. There are also guest appearances from birds found in Hawaii and China, notably in the happy riot of the ninth movement, “Omao, Leiothrix, Elepaio, Shama”. Bird songs in Messiaen’s hands are like folk melodies in Bartók’s: transfigured, transformed, at once evocative and unreal.

The piece exploits a number of techniques that became de rigueur in modernist instrumental music, and even were emulated in early works for electronics. Wind players tap their keys without sounding a pitch, the trumpet buzzes a sliding solo on his mouthpiece, and the horn is transformed into an intergalactic transmitter by pressing the keys halfway and oscillating among pitches. This latter technique is featured in “Appel Interstellaire” (“Interstellar Call”), for solo horn, which Messiaen originally wrote as a memorial to the young French composer Jean-Pierre Guézac. In the notes to this movement (Messiaen annotates all of them) the composer quotes from the book of Job: “It is him that heals hearts and cares for their wound; it is he that numbered the stars, calling each by name.”

Canyons is not without flaws. At roughly 100 minutes, it is a tall order to sustain momentum. Messiaen’s inventive gestures hold much interest, but the repetition of numerous effects, the use of a symmetrical form for many of the movements, and the shrinking of forces to solo instruments can make time slow down in an undesirable way. With two of the movements scored for solo piano, the lengthy piano cadenzas in the other movements can feel redundant. The best performances find lyricism even within the piece’s spikier and more percussive passages, so that the repetitive elements appear as different facets of Messiaen’s vision of nature as a manifestation of divine power.

Robert Spano led a precise and vigorous performance by Ensemble ACJW, which is comprised of fellows and alumni of The Academy, a joint venture by Carnegie Hall and The Juilliard School to develop young professionals as musicians and educators. Three ACJW members deftly took on soloist roles, including percussionists Ian Sullivan and Jared Soldiviero and French hornist Laura Weiner. She nailed the treacherous leaps of range in the solo movement, but struggled to make the half-pressed keys speak. Flutist Julietta Curenton, who excelled at the piccolo part, should have received solo billing for her expressive playing and sensitivity to color.

Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen proved skilled at evoking Messiaen’s riot of colors and moods, switching between introspection and ecstatic ebullience during even the most technically demanding moments. Pohjonen brought the right sense of breadth and space to his phrases, a quality that would have benefited the entire ensemble. While the performance rose to the high level of technical skill that any Modernist masterpiece demands, something of the composer’s fervor was lost in gestures that received identical phrasing with each repetition. Spano excelled in the slower, intimate moments of close harmonies and rich color, as in the movement inspired by the wood thrush (“La grive des bois”) or the final movement, “Zion Park et la Cité Céleste”. But with music meant to evoke the vastness of an otherworldly landscape, one wished to dwell more in “the space between the notes”, as Messiaen’s role model Debussy said.