A testing night for some, bliss for others

March 10, 2016 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The SSO went out on a limb presenting a single work by a contemporary composer for the usually predictable ATP Master Series concert last night, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.


David Robertson  Photo: Ken Butti

David Robertson Photo: Ken Butti

After a mini-season of Beethoven, Olivier Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars bordered on shock treatment. This French composer creates quite a divide among music lovers, and even in the ranks of those who profess love for his music there are the genuine and the pretenders. The night revealed the two distinct camps. The genuine and pretenders cheered and stamped their feet at the end while the haters snuck out between movements, hunched over like escaping convicts.

Not only was the music challenging, but the way the opera house had been set up was offbeat. Seats in the boxes above the stage and the choir stalls had been cordoned off and the people who would have sat there were placed in the body of the house, giving the impression of a substantial turnout. The reason for the move was to accommodate a giant screen to show images that the music was also conveying. It was quite an effective device. Without the visuals, the music alone would, for many people, have been hard to tolerate.

The changes of surroundings didn’t stop there. The house lights, strongly favouring blue, came up and down during the performance while floor level stage lighting faded in and out through a range of colours to fit the location and mood of the movement.

Fine art photographer, Deborah O’Grady, had provided the screen images of the Utah canyons, which varied between movie and still photography, often cross-fading to produce some mysterious and beautiful effects. She and conductor, David Robertson, gave a myth busting pre-concert talk, which I’d recommend to upcoming concertgoers. Robertson, who speaks as well as he conducts, told how he’d spent some boyhood time in the Utah canyons which had inspired Messiaen’s twelve movement, hour and a half work. Robertson’s love for the piece was obvious and I’d guess it had been burning a hole in his back pocket for quite a while.

Messiaen, who lived between 1908 and 1992, is regarded as one of the most important composers of the twentieth century. His composition style was based on a system of invented modes, meaning that it seldom strays into generally accepted tonal harmony. There are occasional sublime passages, such as those found in the eighth movement (The Resurrected and the Song of the Star Aldebaran), but for the most part a war rages between the members of the unusually constituted orchestra. If I suggested that much of this piece could be seen as a series of highly inventive sound effects produced by an orchestra, I’d be put in the village stocks and pelted with ripe tomatoes. But I think there is some truth in it, especially as Messiaen clearly states that he set out to imitate several birdcalls in the music.

In many ways the piece is a piano concerto. The piano, lidless, sits at the front of the orchestra and is heard continually and often dominantly throughout the work. The piano score is incredibly difficult to play and French pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard handled it superbly. Two of the 12 movements are for solo piano – at which time David Robertson left his podium to become Aimard’s page-turner. I felt great affection for him doing that.

Aimard locks horns with more Messiaen next week for his solo recital at the City Recital Hall in Sydney.

The make-up of the orchestra was light on strings (only one bull-fiddle) but strong on brass and woodwind. As part of a substantial percussion section it boasted a xylorimba and glockenspiel (cousins of the xylophone) and a eoliphone – in lay terms a wind machine – which Vaughn Williams used to great effect in Symphonia Antarctica.

I admit to being happy in my musical comfort zone and I resist being confronted by the likes of Messiaen, but I know the stretch is good for the mind and the soul. I used to jeer at the music of Charles Ives but now I love it. One day I may say the same for Messiaen.


One Response to “A testing night for some, bliss for others”
  1. Peter Halas says:

    I agree with the review. I didn’t always enjoy the piece, but I found it interesting and sometime it’s good to be challenged.

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