By Lawrence Budmen

Some of the New World Symphony’s most audacious concerts have been under the baton of the Dutch contemporary music specialist Reinbert De Leeuw. On Saturday De Leeuw returned to the Lincoln Theater podium for a landmark Sounds of the Times concert – the southeastern premiere of the 90 minute symphonic portrait Des Canyons aux Etoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars) by Olivier Messiaen. 

Messiaen was one of the most important and distinctive creative voices of the 20th century. For this French master, the infinite varieties of birdsong and deeply fervent Catholicism were the inspiration for a diverse series of instrumental scores. Unlike the bleak atonality of Arnold Schoenberg, Messiaen’s singular musical vision is filled with tonal colors and fascinating instrumental sounds. 

Inspired by the canyons of Utah, From the Canyons to the Stars is Messiaen’s magnum opus – the summation of his lifelong fascination with God and nature. The composer’s celestial vision and view of the cosmos are given glowing instrumental life in a remarkable palette of sensuous sounds and extraordinary instrumental timbres. 

A horn call opens The Desert, a tone painting of the stillness of nature. Two movements are scored for solo piano. Tippling bright sounds highlight The White-browed Robin while The Mockingbird is a miniature etude of a poetic cast. 

Contrasting neo-classical string figurations and majestic brass chorales give sonorous voice to Messiaen’s portrait of Bryce Canyon and the Red-orange Rocks. The shining timbres of the glockenspiel bring this majestic section to a joyous conclusion. In the score’s penultimate movement, three horns portray birds in flight with a motif that recalls the music of Arthur Honegger. Strings play an ascending choral in a stirring affirmation of faith – the unforgettable conclusion of Zion Park. 

The New World musicians played Messiaen’s gorgeous score with precision, voluptuous instrumental color, and heartfelt enthusiasm. Benjamin Kobler dazzled in wild figuration at the keyboard. William Purvis brought superhuman dexterity to the horn solos. Robert Del Campo and Matthew Henderson worked wonders on mallet percussion. Above all De Leeuw’s inspired leadership gave vivid life to this seminal masterpiece. 

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