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.”