The Juilliard Does Messiaen

February 27, 2008


After Sunday’s Messiaen experience at Carnegie Hall, it was invigorating to know that there was another toothsome evening of his music coming up tonight at St. Bartholomew’s on Park Avenue, including another belated New York premiere. Unfortunately, in a sort of situation that a New Yorker may be inclined both to mourn and to brag about, there was to be something equally rare going on at the same time in the Juilliard School’s Peter Jay Sharp Theater: a complete performance of a work that Messiaen composed for New York, Des canyons aux étoiles… 

The students of the School’s newest new-music group, Axiom Ensemble, seemed to have a sense that this was in fact a rare occasion. And that was only one of the senses in which they “knew what they were doing,” for the technical skill on display in these young people was astonishing. No doubt the crucial requisite for the success of the evening was their remarkable mentor in such repertory. Jeffrey Milarsky is fast becoming, if he hasn’t already become, the doyen of 20th- and 21st-century music’s performance in New York. He’s certainly one of our busiest musicians. He pops up everywhere, bearing musical scores of the most daunting complexity, which he brings off with all appearance of ease and a musicality that seems to have no bounds at all. 

We were hearing Des canyons aux étoiles… on the same block where it had had its premiere in 1974. Played first for Alice Tully herself in the Hall that bore her name, it owes its existence to her legendarily intrepid personality. The story goes that she wanted to commission something “American” for the bicentennial of Independence. Messiaen was at first unwilling to do any such thing.

In the course of [a dinner], she told me that she traveled to India for the sole purpose of shaking the paw of lion. Well, at first I laughed at this story, but later I cried …


In such a woman, Messiaen recognized a spirit worthy of what turned out to be an effort of major — in a sense cosmic — proportions.

No fool our Miss Tully, she can have had no expectation of a piece of Coplandesque americana. The idea for the composer to go fetch some inspiration in the Grand Canyon was of historic aptness, for what American scene could be more likely to set off the sort of Teihard-like wonder that could put Messiaen’s most productive juices to flowing? It sufficed to produce a work that it would be gratifying to know might be played for a tercentenary celebration of the Declaration sixty-eight years from now. For if we can expect any two sublunar phenomena to be immutable, they would surely be the Grand Canyon and Messiaen’s art. Perhaps Axiom can plan a reunion for that occasion.

Performed (with simple and effective variations of stage lighting) for an hour and forty minutes, Canyons travels great stylistic distances. Scored for woodwinds, brass, thirteen strings, an elaborate battery of percussion instruments, solo horn and solo piano, no two of the dozen movements are alike in texture, orchestration (except for the solo movements), or surface stylistic devices. In this brief notice of the occasion, let it be understood that I stand in awe (and did so literally for a few minutes after this concert) of what the Juilliard School, Mr. Milarsky, and his student minions offered to an appreciative audience tonight.

Axiom Ensemble

Jeffrey Milarsky, Music Director

Conor Hanick and Matthew Odell, Piano

James Ferree, Horn

Tomoya Aomori, Glockenspiel

Chihiro Shibayama, Xylorimba


One Response to “The Juilliard Does Messiaen”

  1. […] three featured dance works also involve significant music (played by Axiom, the new-music ensemble noticed earlier on this site): Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring (Aaron Copland); Anthony Tudor’s Dark […]

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