In 1973, the story goes, the wonderful, if eccentric, New York patron Alice B. Tully asked Olivier Messiaen to compose a piece for the American Bicentennial. Messiaen hesitated at first; the notion of celebrating American skyscrapers or the like did not appeal. Then Tully told him she had been invited to India, and one of her adventures had been to shake the paw of a live lion. To accept money from a hand that had touched a lion's paw, Messiaen could no longer resist. His plan for an American piece was to search out and extract the music in the “most beautiful” landscape in this entire country, and his eye and ear fell upon the canyons of Utah, especially Bryce and Zion. He then spent several weeks notating colors and birdsong in his familiar manner. That produced From the Canyons to the Stars, the lavish outpouring of personal ecstasy that burned bright during the 90 or so minutes of the “Green Umbrella” concert last week.

Robert Millard

Isolde (Linda Watson) hands Tristan (John Treleaven) the fateful potion.
(Click to enlarge)

I don't know whether Esa-Pekka Salonen had planned the work as a pendant to the Philharmonic's “Concrete Frequency” observation earlier this month; it was not so identified, and it was announced as a late addition — with the awesome virtuosity of the piano soloist, Marino Formenti, who had learned the score, with its cascading kazillions of notes, in less than three weeks. It certainly worked in that context, however. Salonen has recorded quite a lot of Messiaen's music, including this work, but in Los Angeles he has kept that involvement somewhat under wraps. Perhaps (heh, heh) he was waiting for me to catch up, because that is what seems to have happened. I have struggled against the proclamations of eternal glorification in Messiaen's grandiose scores for years. I heard the Canyons premiere (in New York's Tully Hall, of course) and wrote a clunky review, in another paper, about the pianist's (Yvonne Loriod, the composer's wife) bright-orange gown being a nice match for a Utah sunset, and not much more. Tuesday night I began to hear what Messiaen is really all about, what he is trying to say and by what means he is saying it in this phenomenally multicolored, hugely expressive work.

The mix is superbly achieved, by musical means in vast, exuberant quantities but poured out in controlled lines, about great archways shaped by heavenly forces and vast numbers of birds up close, so that they actually do make those brassy noises. He is our Handel, and his music shouts out the Hallelujahs for our times. We cannot sing along as we can with the other Handel, because Messiaen sings outside the lines, but that's okay; interwoven with the flamboyance, there is an urge to believe, and that is the quality in Messiaen that finally reached me this past week. Those guys in Santa Monica with their “Jacaranda” concerts — there's one this weekend — have always struck me as a little unhinged when they talk about planning year after year of odd and oddly titled works by this overly motivated Frenchman; after Canyons, I wanted to hug them both. Oh, and by the way, is anyone driving up to Bryce Canyon anytime soon?

The Same LanguageMessiaen nourished his musical language on Wagner; throughout his teaching career, his class schedules listed lectures on Tristan und Isolde, and he would have been happy here this past weekend — with the irresistible surge created by the local opera under James Conlon's leadership and with the color scheme evoked by the sets devised by David Hockney, however faded in the 20 years since they were new. These are not necessarily evocative of your or my vision of a Wagnerian world, nor do they connect in any way with anyone else's notion — not even Olivier Messiaen's — of a particularly Wagnerian ecstasy. They are the world of a great and individual master of color, given a uniquely evocative musical drama to imagine into light and shape on a huge stage, with music by a composer he adores and aches to share with us. This matters more — somewhat more, anyhow — than questions of ordinary singers, banal staging, and an orchestra denied the weeks of rehearsal time that Wagner demanded and deserves. (It also matters more, although this is an argument for another day, than the ludicrous notion, practiced elsewhere in town, of breaking up and marketing this most continuous of all operas into three separate packages with someone else's visualizations — including a nudie show.)

John Treleaven is the Tristan, I heard him in November in Munich; he's on a DVD from Barcelona, and I'd swear I've heard him somewhere else: maybe Seattle, maybe here. (Ah, yes! The first “Tristan Project,” 2004!) In any case, you'd think that such a ubiquitous Tristan, born in Isolde's Cornwall, would have something to offer, but no. I hear a dry, characterless tenor that hits most of the notes okay, but nothing more. No more of the ardent, defiant lover of acts 1 and 2; none of the drained, helpless shell of a hero at the end, whose penultimate “Ahhh, Isolde…” should drain every one of us. Linda Watson has a pretty voice, but she too discerns no heights and therefore rises to none. Her “Liebestod,” sung in a circle of green light, with the dead Tristan rising to hold her hand at the end, is just the latest in my lifetime of witnessing cute ways of solving a staging-biz problem better left alone. Thor Steingraber's direction is mostly inoffensive, and I suppose it's late in the game to note that the lovers sing of “hand in hand” while cavorting around half a stage apart.

The best of Tristan— and, indeed, of all Wagner — is, of course, the orchestra and its leadership, and in this regard the news continues great. Conlon is all over the place, to our great benefit. His orchestra continues slightly undersize and, by the standards of Wagner's own demands, under-rehearsed, but he has gotten it to play at top capacity, and it sounded great on Saturday. Before all that, he was up in a public space, chatting up Tristan and Wagner in general until about 10 minutes before downbeat; he has an important article in the program, and more writing on his Web site. At the end he drew the biggest cheers, which was only right.

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