Pintscher, New World deliver a season highlight with majestic Messiaen

By Lawrence Budmen

Matthias Pintscher conducted the New World Symphony in Olivier Messiaen’s Des canyons aux ètoiles Saturday night.

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was one of the twentieth century’s most original creative voices. The French composer was influenced by impressionism, but his music could never be mistaken for Debussy or Ravel. He experimented with atonality, yet his scores have little relationship to Schoenberg or his disciples of the Second Viennese School. 

Messiaen’s deep Roman Catholic faith and fascination with birdsong were the inspirations for his varied compositional output. That sense of spirituality and love of nature found their highest expression in Des canyons aux ètoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars), his final large-scale orchestral work inspired by a trip to the deserts and canyons of Utah.

Matthias Pintscher conducted the New World Symphony and members of Paris’s Ensemble Intercontemporain in a rare performance of this 90- minute soundscape on Saturday night at the New World Center, which offered one of the most individual and exciting events of the concert season. The performance, spanning three parts and 12 movements, was accompanied by projections created by Hicham Berrada of some of the venues and natural phenomena that form Messiaen’s sonic portraits. The projections were not constantly changing and proved unobtrusive.

A horn solo introduces the stillness of “The Desert,” interrupted by a wind machine as a storm disrupts the loneliness of the landscape. Atmospheric wind and string lines conjure up “The Orioles”in a  gorgeous musical landscape. Fierce and blazing opening pages herald “What is Written in the Stars.” Five percussionists commanding an array of instruments support jagged rhythm, the wood blocks given prominence.

The piano, unaccompanied by the ensemble, has the stage to itself for “The White-browed Robin” and “The Mockingbird.”  These astringent, masterful impressions of bird cries mix rapid fingering, trills and cluster chords in a test of the pianist’s dexterity. Dimitri Vassilakis (from Ensemble Intercontemporain) proved a master of Messiaen’s complex keyboard writing, playing with agility and tonal depth.

Olivier Messiaen in Bryce Canyon in 1971.

The solemn opening chords of “Bryce Canyon and the Gift of Awe” convey the landscape’s sense of immensity, interrupted by a thunder sheet and distant chimes. An unaccompanied horn takes the spotlight for “Interstellar Call,” (which opens Part II) suggesting myriad bird calls, both muscular and soft. First year New World fellow Henry Bond negotiated the angular patterns superbly, evidencing total control of his difficult instrument. The brass fanfares of “Bryce Canyon and Red-Orange Rocks” emerged almost cinematic. Messiaen captured the majesty of the setting with vigorous and sharp edged strings adding texture to the soundscape.

Lush sonorities portray the world of the cosmos as the third and final part opens with “The Resurrected and the Song of the Aldebaran Star” in tones both luminous and beautiful. While Messiaen never embraced minimalism, the repeated figures of “The Wood Thrush” hint at that technique. Chimes and final gong slaps embellish this piquant portrait. Every ounce of timbral color and excitement in Messiaen’s paint box seems front and center for “Oma’o Leothrix, ‘Elepaio, Sharma,” a bird common in Africa and the Hawaiian Islands but definitely not in Utah. “Zion Park and the Celestial City,” the score’s final movement, envisions the beyond with rich harmonics and, at times, piercing wind sounds. The five percussionists, plus the solo xylophone and glockenspiel, provide a robust racket in the culminating heavenly feast.

Messiaen’s splendidly crafted, distinctively picturesque score was given an outstanding reading by an ensemble of over forty players. Pintscher, now in his final season as music director of Ensemble Intercontemporain, clearly loves this music. He directed the players in a clear-cut, authoritative reading that distilled every detail of Messiaen’s visions. He was particularly effective in differentiating the many changes of meter and shading that bring character to the each of the work’s sections.

The New World players were joined by Diègo Tosi, (violin), John Stulz (viola), Eric-Maria Courturier (cello), Sophie Charrier (flute), Philippe Grauvogel (oboe), Martin Adámek (clarinet), Jean-Christophe Vervoitte (horn) and Samuel Favre (percussion) from the French contemporary music ensemble. In the crucial xylophone and glockenspiel parts, New World members Joe Desotelle and Ben Cornavaca were towers of agile brilliance and stamina. The entire presentation was memorable, played and produced with integrity. After too many mediocre programs, the New World’s Sounds of the Times series, at least for one evening, regained some of its luster.

Stephane Deneve conducts the New World Symphony in Dutilleux’s Mètaboles, Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and arias by Anthony Davis and John Adams with baritone Davone Tines, 8 p.m. April 8 at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

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Sun Apr 2, 2023
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