Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 'Des canyons aux étoiles', with visuals by Deborah O'Grady. Photo: Keith Sheriff
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 'Des canyons aux étoiles', with visuals by Deborah O'Grady. Photo: Keith Sheriff © Keith Sheriff/Barbican

It was a promising idea: Des canyons aux étoiles, accompanied by visuals. After all, Messiaen saw colours when he heard sounds; his music practically is visual. And this piece, inspired by the canyons of Utah, is about as all-embracing as this composer gets, depicting the “geological, ornithological, astronomical and theological”, as he once put it. Why not chuck in some tasteful panoramas too?

If that was the thought process behind this performance from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its music director Gustavo Dudamel, it backfired. This second night of their Barbican residency involved a constant battle between music and visuals. Not that Deborah O’Grady’s snail-paced videos were offensive in their own right. On the contrary, they looked like pretty screensavers. We saw flowers, we saw exotic birds, we saw the canyons, bathed in dazzling sunlight. In between, we saw motorways, pylons, crowds of tourists: O’Grady’s attempt to exploit the music for her own social commentary. We saw it all repeated ad infinitum. But there was one thing we didn’t see, namely any acknowledgment of the music’s dynamism.

So it was down to Dudamel to fill in the gaps. What he demonstrated, unlike these frustratingly literal images, was Messiaen’s ability to elevate his subject matter. Here was a no-holds-barred approach to colour, showcasing the knockout energy for which the Venezuelan conductor is well known. The orchestra (full marks to the brass) could hardly have sounded more vibrant in their tuttis; nor could pianist Joanne Pearce Martin in her solos, which showcased her virtuosic impression of birdsong. We were left with a vision of Messiaen’s blood-orange canyons as flamboyant as anyone could ever wish for.

It was in the passages of eerie, religious reflection that this performance found its centre, and one moment in particular stood out. That was the bare and beautiful horn solo of “Appel interstellaire”, which symbolises humanity’s suffering and redemption. Andrew Bain played it hauntingly and with next to no visual accompaniment. It was a precious moment of respite.

barbican.org.uk

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