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Messiaen’s ‘From the Canyons to the Stars’ brought to visual life by the St. Louis Symphony

This weekend’s performance of French composer Olivier Messiaen’s “From the Canyons to the Stars” by the Saint Louis Symphony aims to take the listener from the orchestra pit to the passages and hollows of Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon and Cedar Brake, Utah. These are the same places that Messiaen went in 1972 to find inspiration for the piece in 12 movements. 

“For Messiaen, the combination of his love of nature, his feeling that nature represented a deep divinity, and his love of bird song, this is the true incarnation of music and god’s love for man in music,” Music Director David Robertson said. “All of this comes together in this piece.”

The performance is done in honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park system in the United States.

For Robertson, the inspiration of the parks’ natural beauty meant he needed to address something he’d left out when conducting the symphony previously: adding a visual accompaniment to the music to help listeners who have never been to the canyons before understand their power.

Credit Keith Saunders / St. Louis Symphony
St. Louis Symphony
David Robertson

“We’ve done performances where we we’ve had visual accompaniment before,” Robertson said. “We’ve done programs with a dramatic art, whether they’re operas or stories of some sort with music involved, but this is one that takes the notion of a piece of music and explores what it can do and where it can go.”

Visual artist Deborah O’Grady partnered with the symphony to produce the encompassing imagery of nature and intoxicating color projections that correspond with the music during the performance. Click through the gallery above to get an idea of the production.

“I’ve been working on this piece for a little more than two years,” O’Grady said. “I first visited the canyons in late 2013 and 2014/2015 were very much about making trips and making photos and videos, and being in my studio studying the score and finding images that for me were in concert with  the music to bring out the emotional, visual importance of what was happening in the music.”

The music can be hard to access without that understanding of the nature it was inspired by. O’Grady made sure the visuals would be additive, not detracting from the music. She worked to bring the screen the projections are viewed on down closer to the orchestra and incorporated lighting onto the orchestra that makes it seem like they’re sitting in a pool of colored light.

“Seeing all of it at once, it’s something magical,” O’Grady said. “Like a jewel on stage making music.”

Credit St. Louis Symphony
From the Canyons to the Stars

Robertson, who had met with Messiaen before he died in 1992, said his synesthesia and understanding of color and light are also compatible with O’Grady’s creations.

“There’s extraordinary sophistication and childlike wonder [in his music],” said Robertson. “There are series of scales done in ways that are unusual. One of the characteristics of this piece is the dense chromatic harmonies that open up on a simple major core. It’s almost as if you’d go through dense brush and come through a meadow and everything would seem so clear. He was very literal and also makes a phenomenal analogy for everything divine.”

Related Event

What: David Robertson Conducts the St. Louis Symphony in Messiaen's "From the Canyons to the Stars" with Deborah O'Grady's Video Installation 
When: Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016 at 8:00 p.m. (standing room only) or listen live on St. Louis Public Radio.
Where: Powell Hall, 718 N. Grand Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63103
More information.  

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