BERKELEY—There’s been no composer quite like the French mystic Olivier Messiaen. He wrote long pieces on bird calls, on visions of Heaven, on memorable environments. He was a true believer in many areas, even in the whole-tone scale exploited by his countryman Debussy.

Like Scriabin, Messiaen had synesthesia—the rare quality of seeing colors on hearing music, and vice versa. After hearing his immense, 92-minute tone poem “From the Canyon to the Stars,” I concluded that having the synesthesia gene would be a huge help to appreciate the big blocks of sound that he reels off at generous length.

No one can doubt the commitment and sincerity of the messianic Messiaen (1908-1994), who traveled to our national parks of the western deserts to assimilate the ambiance and to record the bird calls too. But I must assert that whatever theme he chose for his emphatic music, Messiaen was at his best in shorter works, where he can often effect a hypnotic mood.

In performing this large work on tour this season, the St. Louis Symphony astutely tapped Berkeley photographer Deborah O’Grady to provide large-screen visuals, shot at the various parks. Her stills, overlays and videos illuminated the concert with the very colors that had inspired Messaien and his score, the best being the reds and vermillion shades at Zion, Bryce and Cedar Breaks National Parks. And even if you’re not conversant on the seven Utah birds that he worked into the percussion section, this was a revealing assay linking the fine-feathered friends, the stunning rocks, and the heavenly firmament above ultimately leading to God’s throne, in his view. The finale actually links Zion Park with a vision of celestial paradise, albeit opaquely.

The assertive, sustained, austere sounds from the full orchestra were less interesting than the rapid patter from the percussion section on piano, glockenspiel and a “xylomarimba,” approximating bird sounds within their human limitations (The birds sing lightning-fast combinations, using many pitches in between the players’ available notes). Messaien recognized that birds are among the best musicians of all, and we mere humans are hard put to imitate them.

Adding to the musical mix are a virtuosic horn solo (Roger Kaza), and two piano solos (Peter Henderson) written, over 40 years ago, to be played by the composer’s pianist-wife Yvonne Loriod. And for realism there is a “geophone,” sounding like waves receding over pebbles, as well as a wind machine. When heard here Jan. 31, the sell-out audience at Zellerbach Hall reacted more warmly to O’Grady than to the music.

The performance was greatly enhanced by enlightening introductory comments by the articulate Music Director (and Messiaen fan) David Robertson, assisted by music snippets. Along the way the puckish Robertson sang some bars from the “Do-Re-Mi” song (“The Sound of Music”), rewriting the text as befitting the Canyons/Stars. Robertson not only brought to life this unique monastic composer, but also explained the music, particularly how it cried out for visuals which now, four decades later, strongly fortified the mix via the visual commission to Ms. O’Grady.

The performance Jan. 29 recalled a historic visit to this very hall that Messiaen had made in the late 1970s, in a week-long residency with the Berkeley Symphony, developed in an amiable collaboration with the emerging California conductor Kent Nagano.

St. Louis Symphony on tour, concerts Jan. 29 and 31 at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, with differing programs. An offering of Cal Performances. For info: (510) 642-9988, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.

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