The Utah Symphony is planning to perform one of the most challenging works in classical music at the source of its inspiration: The edge of Zion National Park.
The symphony will perform French composer Olivier Messiaen’s 12-movement epic “Des canyons aux étoiles …” (“From the Canyons to the Stars …”) — inspired by Messiaen’s journey through Zion, Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument in southern Utah — at the O.C. Tanner Amphitheater in Springdale, just outside Zion, on June 2.
Tickets, at $35 each, went on sale Friday — on what would have been Messiaen’s 113th birthday — at utahsymphony.org. They also are available over the Utah Symphony’s mobile app or by calling 801-533-NOTE (6683).
The massive work — the piece’s 12 movements run about 90 minutes, from start to finish — has been a priority for Thierry Fischer, Utah Symphony’s conductor and musical director, for the last few years.
“I always wondered: Why is this piece never performed in Utah?,” Fischer told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2019. “If one symphony should symbolically own the piece in America, it’s the Utah Symphony.”
Fischer initially programmed the work to be played in sections during eight concerts in the 2019-2020 season — but four of those shows were canceled when the COVID-19 pandemic began. The symphony is scheduled to play the remaining movements next spring, on its home stage at Salt Lake City’s Abravanel Hall.
The Zion performance of Messiaen’s work will be a capstone for Fischer’s tenure with the Utah Symphony, which is scheduled to end when his contract expires in August 2023. The Swiss-born Fischer now is splitting time between Utah and the new job he started last year, as conductor and music director of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra.
The Utah Symphony had been scheduled to perform at O.C. Tanner Amphitheater this August, as part of its “Forever Mighty Tour” of outdoor venues around the state. When the amphitheater was hit by a flood in July, that concert was moved to Hurricane.
In 1971, arts patron Alice Tully commissioned Messiaen to create a piece of music to celebrate America’s bicentennial. After he saw photos of Bryce Canyon, the composer brought his wife to Utah, where they spent three months touring red-rock cliffs, canyons and rock formations. He recorded birds and wrote down the melodies they made; some of those birdsongs appear in the finished work.
The 12 movements of “From the Canyons to the Stars…” — first performed in 1974 in Alice Tully Hall, the venue in New York’s Lincoln Center named for the composer’s benefactor — are broken up into three sections, each representing an area the Messiaens toured.
Cedar Breaks had a “wild and colorful beauty,” Messiaen said, and gave him a feeling of “immense solitude.” He thought Bryce Canyon was the most beautiful place on Earth, and the red rocks made him think of bright E-major chords. (Messiaen had a condition called synesthesia, so he “heard” colors” and “saw” sounds.) The work’s triumphant finale was inspired by the “ultimate joy,” he said, of Zion.
According to the Utah Symphony, Messiaen’s work is tricky because of its unusual instrumentation. The work requires only 13 string players — the symphony’s usual string section has more than 50 musicians — and bigger-than-usual woodwind, brass and percussion sections. The percussion section has some odd additions, including a whip, gongs, crotales (small cymbals struck with a mallet), a wind machine and one instrument invented specifically for this work: A geophone, or sand machine, a flat drum filled with beads to imitate the sound of shifting sand.
Four musicians will perform prominent solos: Principal keyboardist Jason Hardink, an expert on Messiaen, on piano; principal percussionist Keith Carrick on xylophone; percussionist and associate principal timpani player Eric Hopkins on glockenspiel; and Stephan Dohr, principal horn player with the Berlin Philharmonic and a champion of this work, on horn.
Because of the work’s length and complicated musical requirements, “From the Canyons to the Stars …” isn’t performed often, and only a few symphonies have recorded it. The Utah Symphony plans to record the Zion performance, for a later release on Hyperion Records.
The symphony also plans to work with local groups to offer activities in coordination with the June 2 concert, including dark-skies stargazing, guided hikes, bird-watching, and pre-concert talks with the artists. Details on those events will be announced later.