Hunter Gatherers

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Anna Kuwabara, VP for Operations, returned to St. Louis with the X group so she could oversee the logistics of the concerts featuring music by Bach, Dvorak and Latvian composer Peteris Vasks this weekend. She gave me some first-thought highlights of the tour she experienced. “Most wonderful to me is how the orchestra members go out and find all these great restaurants,” she told me. “Din Tai Fung is this dumpling place in Costa Mesa, and I thought I was special in finding it, but many of the orchestra members had already been there.”

Soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung
Soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung

“At Soka … it’s an unusual hall shape–the audience is really close. I felt I was sitting in Tim McAllister’s saxophone, and it was wonderful.

“I was backstage for the last Adams-Mahler concert in Berkeley. The ovation went on for a very long time. Deborah O’Grady and John Adams both came to the concert, and John got to come up and take a bow after the concerto.”

Timeless Chord

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I’d been having a stressful day, many deadlines all crunched together.

I went to the auditorium to catch the end of the afternoon rehearsal of From the Canyons to the Stars… before interviewing pianist Peter Henderson for the Saturday night KWMU live broadcast. The orchestra was Messiaen birdsonging along with plinks and plunks of piano and xylorimba. Images of the desert landscape appeared on the screen. Suddenly all the day-long tension released. Red rocks. Red moon. The strings played an ineluctable chord.

Amargosa wetland. Photo by Deborah O'Grady.
Amargosa wetland. Photo by Deborah O’Grady.

A Show Before the Show

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David Robertson, photographer Deborah O’Grady, and the St. Louis Symphony give a 20 minute introduction–followed by an intermission–prior to the performance of Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles… (From the Canyons to the Stars…) this Saturday. For the 7 o’clock Pre-Concert Conversation, you may hear more music by this singular 20th century composer.

Cedar Breaks. Photo by Deborah O'Grady.
Cedar Breaks. Photo by Deborah O’Grady.

St. Louis Symphony violinist Helen Kim and pianist Nina Ferrigno will perform Messiaen’s Thème et Variations, an early work from the 1930s. Symphony flutist Jennifer Nitchman and Ferrigno will perform Messiaen’s Le Merle noir, one of the composer’s middle period and birdsong-related works. Robertson will use these examples of Messiaen’s earlier work to discuss the composer’s musical evolution, the journey that led to rapturous From the Canyons to the Stars….

Up & Down & Up & Down

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The St. Louis Symphony performs Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles… (From the Canyons to the Stars…), with David Robertson conducting, this Saturday at Powell Hall, with images created by photographer Deborah O’Grady that will accompany the music. Messiaen traveled to Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks and Zion Park in the great desert Southwest in 1972, and found inspiration for his recently commissioned work there. O’Grady walked the terrain that Messiaen walked, his music guiding her eye.

Bryce Canyon. Photo by Deborah O'Grady.
Bryce Canyon. Photo by Deborah O’Grady.

In December I met with O’Grady and asked how the music did this and what it made her see: “Structurally the music is composed in large blocks that repeat…there are various different configurations of this structure, but basically it is maintained throughout the piece. Messiaen considered that the geological part of the piece. He wanted the piece to be ‘geological, ornithological, astronomical, and theological.’ From that point of view I was continually led to pay close attention to the geography, to land forms and to compose in my eye how that might fit with the music.

“Also, in the melodic structure there are jagged, fast-moving melodies. In the Bryce Canyon movement the music describes the shape of the horizon when you see all the hoodoos going up and down and up and down. When I heard that I saw it immediately. I made that connection right away. There were definitely things in the music that suggested the land, the openness.”

Double Digits

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Last Monday I announced the Top Five Hot Picks of the 2015-2016 season as chosen by the musicians of the St. Louis Symphony. They are 1) Mahler 5, January 22-23; 2) Mahler 4, April 2-3; 3) All-Strauss, September 25-26; 4) Beethoven 6, November 13-15; 5) Beethoven 9, October 9-11.

Undoubtedly there is music to love every week at Powell Hall, and throughout the season, on the blog and elsewhere, you’ll learn more about the relationships musicians have with the music they play–what makes the hot picks hot, what are the memories and emotions the music evokes in the individual players.

In the meantime, three concert programs were on the bubble for the Top Five Hot Picks. So not unlike in the Chris Rock movie Top Five, there’s always a sixth worth mentioning (Slick Rick!), or a seventh and an eighth. The concerts were all in the double digits when it came to the final tally.

Joshua Bell
Joshua Bell

6) Opening Weekend with Joshua Bell. September 18-20. David Robertson, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin. JANACEK Taras Bulba KODALY Hary Janos Suite LALO Symphonie espagnole.

Music and images play in the Symphony's performance of "From the Canyons to the Stars."
Music and images play in the Symphony’s performance of “From the Canyons to the Stars.”

7) From the Canyons to the Stars. January 16. David Robertson, conductor; Peter Henderson, piano; Deborah O’Grady, video artist. MESSIAEN Des canyons aux étoiles… (From the Canyons to the Stars…) .

Christine Brewer sings Berg's "Altenberg Lieder" in the season finale.
Christine Brewer sings Berg’s “Altenberg Lieder” in the season finale.

8) The Planets. May 6-8. David Robertson, conductor; Christine Brewer, soprano; Kathleen Mattis, viola; St. Louis Symphony Chorus; Amy Kaiser, director. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Flos campi (Flower of the Field) BERG Altenberg Lieder HOLST The Planets.

You can call these the Slick Rick Picks if you want to.



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The St. Louis Symphony performs Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyon aux étoiles… (From the Canyons to the Stars) at Powell Hall on January 16 and on the California tour that same month. The piece will be accompanied by video images of the great canyonlands of the Southwest, shot by the artist Deborah O’Grady. Those monumental spaces are where Messiaen walked, taking in the expanse of the land, sky and sound that are unique to the American West. Messiaen loved birds, especially the sounds and songs of birds, and incorporated their music into his own.

Olivier Messiaen writes down what the birds sing in Bryce Canyon in 1972. Photo credit: Fondation Olivier Messiaen.
Olivier Messiaen writes down what the birds sing in Bryce Canyon in 1972. Photo credit: Fondation Olivier Messiaen.

From the Canyons to the Stars
is sure to be one of the St. Louis Symphony musicians’ hot picks for 1516. Messiaen was an enigmatic composer. Many of the musicians store memories of him, whether playing his music or encountering the man himself, and you’ll be hearing about those as the Canyons to the Stars event draws closer.

Richard Goode. Photo credit: Steve Riskind.
Richard Goode. Photo credit: Steve Riskind.

But today I want to share a memory from this past season, relating to birds, music, Messiaen and Mozart. When the pianist Richard Goode was in town to perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17, K. 453, I conducted an interview with him for the St. Louis Public Radio Saturday live broadcast. I mentioned a famous anecdote about Mozart’s pet starling singing a passage of the K. 453. I suggested a link between classical Mozart and modern Messiaen, since they both were inspired by birdsong.

Goode corrected me: Mozart taught his starling to sing the theme; Messiaen learned and adapted many of his themes from the songs of birds. Then Goode took on an old Brooklyn accent: “Mozart never loined from no boid.”