Last night the concert traversal continued with the Juilliard’s AXIOM ensemble, led by Jeffrey Milarsky, playing Messiaen’s Des canyons aux étoiles . . ., my second large scale encounter with the composer this month. In a way, Des canyons is a smaller scale version of Turangalila, in that it uses similar language for a smaller ensemble. But it is grand in intent and scope, and places an emphasis on solo passages for piano and horn that mark it as a contemporary concerto grosso.
The performance was a bit stiff at the beginning, with Milarsky seeming to be pushing and encouraging the musicians forward, but then about halfway through the young horn player James Ferree enthralled everyone, audience and orchestra alike, with a tremendously powerful and hypnotic rendering of his long solo. After that, everything came to life, the ensemble was flowing along with the music rather than wrestling with it. The performance breathed and became idiomatic Messiaen – not a simple thing. The La Give des bois section was breathtaking. It was absolutely satisfying in the end.
This is a superb group playing the most difficult music; they were the pit band for the Elliot Carter opera performances in December. The student soloists. a mix of grads and undergrads, were exceptional, especially Ferree and Conor Hanick and Matthew Odell, who split the piano part. They already have the chops, they couldn’t begin to tackle this score without them, but they also brought a sense of personal expression that was beyond the obvious first choices. Messiaen is more than just energy and color, there’s a lot of personal exploration, and the soloists were covering a lot of inner territory, especiall Ferree, who seemed to be going further and further into his ideas about the music as he continued to play in a most expressive manner. And I’d much rather hear what the pianists have to say any day, rather than suffer another empty note from Lang Lang.
Tonight, the hi-light: Alarm Will Sound and Son of Chamber Symphony! See you tomorrow.