During the final weekend of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s season, conductor Alan Gilbert will lead the festival’s musicians in two very different concerts on consecutive days, both at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. In each case, the program consists of a single major work. On Saturday, Aug. 22, he presides over Mozart’s Serenade in B-flat major (K. 361/370a), for 12 winds and double bass. The following evening, he conducts an ensemble of 44 instrumentalists, a mammoth assemblage by festival standards, in Olivier Messiaen’s 90-minute-long Des canyons aux étoiles ... (From the Canyons to the Stars ... ).
The Serenade in B-flat major is deeply loved by Mozart aficionados and positively revered by wind players. Serenades and related pieces — divertimentos, notturnos, and so on — were essentially entertainment music, crafted for indoor or outdoor use; it may add to our appreciation of Mozart’s contributions to imagine them wafting through the air of an 18th-century evening in Salzburg or Vienna. The origins of this particular piece remain obscure. The paper on which Mozart wrote it is of a type he used principally in 1782, but a number of musical details align instead to turns of phrase more characteristic of late 1783 and early 1784. That may be a slight difference in terms of years, but it becomes significant in light of how quickly Mozart’s brilliance was evolving just then. Four of its seven movements were apparently premiered on March 23 of that latter year, by Mozart’s clarinetist-friend Anton Stadler and a group of his colleagues from the National Court Theater Orchestra in Vienna. An Austrian arts lover named Johann Friedrich Schink reported in his memoirs that he had attended that performance: “At each instrument sat a master — oh, what an effect it made — glorious and grand, excellent and sublime!”
The genesis of Des canyons aux étoiles ... is, in contrast, well documented indeed. Alice Tully commissioned it in 1971 from Messiaen, who expressed a desire to seek inspiration in some of America’s most imposing landscapes. In May 1972, he and his wife headed for Utah, where their 10-day visit afforded visits to two national parks — Bryce Canyon and Zion — as well as Cedar Breaks National Monument. Messiaen documented his impressions in his diary, taking care to notate the calls of the birds he encountered, birdsongs being one of his particular passions. The work was finally unveiled at Miss Tully’s namesake hall at Lincoln Center by an ensemble she largely financed, the Musica Aeterna Orchestra. The work, in which every instrument plays an independent line, scored a great success, and audiences were swept up in its colorful, 12-movement fusion of tone painting and theological mysticism. As was his wont, Messiaen attached an extended commentary that begins in characteristically effusive fashion: “From the canyons to the stars ... that is, an ascent from the canyons to the stars — and beyond to the resurrected souls in Heaven — to share with God the eternal state of Creation: the beauty of the earth, its rocks, its birdsong; the beauty of the physical sky and the beauty of heaven.”
Gilbert, who since 2009 has been music director of the New York Philharmonic and is now returning for his second stint as the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s artist-in-residence, discussed his upcoming appearances with Pasatiempo.
Pasatiempo: Although you are a native New Yorker, you have spent a lot of time in the American West, including your annual residencies conducting the New York Philharmonic at the Bravo! Vail festival in Colorado and your several years as music director of Santa Fe Opera. Do you feel a strong attachment to the West?
Alan Gilbert: Santa Fe was a part of my life from the beginning. My father was concertmaster of the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra for many years, and my mom played in the orchestra, too. Eventually, so did I. My sister, who is two years younger than me, was born in Santa Fe. As it happened, many years later, when I was music director of the Opera, my son was born in St. Vincent’s Hospital, so the city has a real pull on all of us. I have continued to have a lot to do with the Chamber Music Festival, and this summer we’ll all be there. My sister, Jennifer Gilbert, is a violinist with the festival, as is her husband, Harvey de Souza. They will both be playing in the Messiaen ensemble, and so will my wife, Kajsa William-Olsson, who is a cellist.
Pasa: Have you visited the places Messiaen references in Des canyons aux étoiles ...?
Gilbert: I am familiar with it in a general way. I have driven the loop from Santa Fe up to Utah, but I’ve never actually been to Bryce Canyon.
Pasa: You will be conducting a large group of musicians, many of whom haven’t worked with you or with one another before, and most of whom have probably never played this Messiaen piece. How much rehearsal time do you have scheduled?
Gilbert: A lot. A very ample amount. The individual parts are challenging, but the musicians can only practice up to a certain point. They have a lot of rests, rather than playing straight through measure after measure, so the hardest part is how everything fits in. Following the beat, the tempo pattern, the relation of tempo — this all has to be sorted out in rehearsal. For the individual musicians, it’s like they’re only given a little piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and they don’t know what the whole picture will look like until it’s all worked out in situ. This is new for me, too. It’s the first time I have conducted this piece.
Pasa: Do you, as the conductor, have a lot of leeway about how everything coordinates in this work?
Gilbert: Messiaen is very specific about tempos, about metronome markings. Sometimes it can be pretty hard to figure out just how everything has to come together, but you can really trust Messiaen’s markings.
Pasa: Many listeners think of Messiaen first and foremost as a colorist. Are there some approaches to sonority that you find particularly exciting in this score?
Gilbert: It’s such a distinctive sound. One mark of a great composer is how the sound is recognizable even through a short snippet of music. All the great composers have that, and Messiaen absolutely does. There is something instantly recognizable about his harmonies, his instrumental voicings, his balance of sounds. That’s part of the fun of such a piece for a conductor: sorting out the important notes in a chord, balancing the different voices so the right harmonies emerge and recede in a certain way.
Pasa: Messiaen often cites colors in his descriptions of this and other pieces. In fact, he was endowed with synesthesia, a mental sensation that correlates specific sounds to specific colors. Do you sometimes find yourself “hearing colors” in a piece like this?
Gilbert: I can’t say that I do, as I don’t share that attribute of synesthesia. But there are definite emotions that he evokes. There’s nothing random in his music. He does try to create an emotional storyboard — at least that’s how it seems to me. I try to bring real feelings to any piece, and Messiaen, for his part, brings me to a very powerful, evocative place.
Pasa: The two works you’re conducting here are as different as can be, with the Messiaen employing a huge variety of resources and the Mozart Serenade being sonically centered on the winds.
Gilbert: What is amazing to me is how Mozart keeps that wind sonority so interesting that long. It is genius to sustain that tonal interest for that long, but he does it. And the piece is much more than that. It is a profound piece, definitely a masterpiece.
Pasa: Wind players all know it well. Is your task for this essentially one of refinement?
Gilbert: Yes, we all know it quite well. I have done it here at the festival before. This is an amazing group of players that I’ll be conducting in the Mozart. I think I know all of them personally, and I love working with them. But there is always stuff to work out. ◀