Messiaen's music, jarring video make for an odd match at Hamburg Symphony concert
Sunday afternoon at Hill Auditorium, I couldn’t find my way into the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Messiaen’s “From the Canyons to the Stars,” with video installation by Daniel Landau. The concert, conducted by Hamburg’s chief conductor Jeffrey Tate, with rising star Francesco Tristano as piano soloist, was one of the University Musical Society’s “Pure Michigan Renegade” presentations this season.
Maybe I’m not renegade enough.
Just so you know, I was in a sorority in college. And in the interest of full disclosure, I don’t always recycle; like if the peanut butter jar is too hard to wash out, I sometimes throw it away.
Still, if I enjoy the old and trusty, I like the new and novel, too. I loved the UMS Renegade Show No. 1, “Einstein on the Beach.” I appreciated Bill Viola’s strange, disconnected and evocative video for a concert version of “Tristan und Isolde” I was lucky enough to see at Lincoln Center a few years back.
So I don’t think it’s my iffy recycling habits or any lack of openness to experiment that made me find Landau’s video, with its giant images of a post-apocalyptic world in which everything is garbage dumps and rot (at man’s doing), unbearable.
I understand that Landau, an Israeli video artist who specializes in collaborations with classical music, didn’t want, in any way, to “visualize” the Messaien score, a heavenward exaltation (plenty renegade itself in its materials and method) of the vastness and beauty of the American West. But Landau’s video, rather than perhaps providing a counterpoint to the music, seemed contrarian, so much so that I found it hard to hear the music for the gargantuan pictures.
With three enormous screens over the Hill stage beaming images of trash heaps and people picking at suppers of decaying flesh, of scavenging wild dogs and wary dwarf wanderers (who sometimes laughably, rather than magically, wear giant animal heads), it was not possible to ignore the video installation, short of closing one’s eyes. And the Messiaen sort of became a soundtrack for this silent film. Which is a perversion of the score’s sky-bound trajectory.
Sigh. When I did look away, I could hear. And what I heard, over the work’s 100-odd minutes, was more than good.
Odd is not such a bad description for this extended work, for it moves in fits and starts, in little phrases that are almost telegraphic exchanges between orchestra and piano (or the other solo instruments - horn, xylorimba and glockenspiel), exchanges that build the larger structures of the 12 movements.
The orchestral colors, beautifully realized Sunday, are strange and wonderful, evoking wind and birds and the forces of nature. Tristano, in the key solo piano part, brought tremendous color and sense to Messiaen’s terse utterances. In the horn’s solo movement, “Interstellar Call,” Tunca Dogu brought the mystery of the universe into play in his more expansive part.
It’s a rare occasion to get to hear “From the Canyons to the Stars.” I just wish this "Renegade" concert hadn’t run quite so far off-track.