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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Pianist Jason Hardink

"Suppose for example that we can find a certain resemblance between the music of Bach and the sea; the music of Debussy and a forest glade; the music of Beethoven and (of course) great mountains; then who has written of the desert?

"In the desert I am reminded of ... the bleak, thin-textured work of men like Berg, Schoenberg, Ernst Krenek, Webern and the American Elliott Carter. ... Their music comes closer than any other I know to representing the apartness, the otherness, the strangeness of the desert. Like certain aspects of this music, the desert is also atonal, cruel, clear, inhuman, neither romantic nor classical, motionless and emotionless, at one and the same time — another paradox — both agonized and deeply still."

In "Desert Solitaire," Edward Abbey attempts to describe the music of the desert. But while Krenek and the composers of the Second Viennese School certainly depict the desolation and harshness of the desert landscape, it is only a partial portrait.

Their music fails to capture the lushness of the desert in spring, the wealth of life found crawling in the hot sand or hiding in the cool shade of a lonely juniper tree. Nor does it adequately portray the beauty of the desert's natural wonders.

One needs to look beyond the Vienna of the 1930s to find a composer who comes closer to Abbey's love and almost religious passion for the American Southwest.

Olivier Messiaen, though a composer steeped in European musical traditions, stunningly captures Abbey's vision of the desert in his work "Des canyons aux etoiles. ... (From the canyons to the stars. ... )."

Commissioned in 1972 by Alice Tully to write a work for the American Bicentennial, Messiaen and his wife, Yvonne Loriod, traveled from their home in France to southern Utah to find inspiration. They were there for a week exploring and experiencing firsthand the wonders the area held before returning home, and before Messiaen felt he could turn to the task of setting what they saw to music.

"'Canyons' is the fulfillment of Abbey's prophecy that there is music that can describe the desert," said Utah Symphony pianist Jason Hardink. "When Messiaen heard music (in his mind), he saw colors. That's why it was so important to him to come here and experience the landscape in person."

"Des canyons aux etoiles. ... " will be played by Hardink and the Utah Symphony under music director Keith Lockhart next Friday and Saturday.

The work is scored for a chamber-size orchestra with piano, horn and percussion soloists. Joining Hardink will be hornist Stephen Kostyniak and percussionists Craig Fineshriber and Douglas Wolf.

Messiaen described "Des canyons aux etoiles. ... " as "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."

"It's an honest depiction," Hardink said. "Especially in the beginning, Messiaen portrays the harshness and emptiness of the desert. It gradually moves into something of an atonal landscape, but you realize it's going to go somewhere celestial. He frontloads the piece. The harshness is at the beginning, and then it becomes richer and more lush. It contains some of the most beautiful music you'll hear, and some of the most beautiful music we'll play all season."

"Des canyons aux etoiles. ... " will be the concluding work in a weeklong festival celebrating Messiaen's music. The brainchild of Hardink, the festival is unprecedented in Utah. "It's a great idea being able to immerse yourself in one composer's music," said Corbin Johnston, director of the NOVA Chamber Music Series. He and Jeff Bram, the Utah Symphony's director of artistic planning, joined Hardink in discussing the festival with the Deseret Morning News.

NOVA will open the festival today at 3 p.m. in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts Auditorium. On the program will be the early "Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time)," played by Hardink and symphony colleagues Joseph Evans, violin; Noriko Kishi, cello; and Lee Livengood, clarinet.

On Tuesday, Hardink will play the "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jesus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus)" in Libby Gardner Concert Hall. This recital is sponsored by the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation.

"This will be the eighth time I'm playing 'Vingt Regards,"' said Hardink, who initially became aware of the work while at college. "I first heard it when my teacher played it and I was his page-turner."

The impact the work had on Hardink was immense. "I was speechless, shocked, stunned." Yet he didn't want to learn it. At around two hours, it requires a pianist with phenomenal stamina. "I checked out other piano pieces that were more manageable in length."

But as Hardink delved further into Messiaen's music, he discovered there was no way around "Vingt Regards." "When I decided to write my thesis on Messiaen, I realized I had to learn 'Vingt Regards."'

At Tuesday's recital, Hardink will be doing the impossible. "It's a 177-page score, and I'm going to be playing it from memory."

The final concert takes place Wednesday in the Cathedral of the Madeleine. Joining Hardink there will be soprano Tracy Rhodus in the "Chants de terre et de ciel (Songs of the Earth and Heaven)."

Cathedral organist Douglas O'Neill will also perform. He'll be playing "Apparition de l'eglise eternelle (Vision of the Eternal Church)," "Livre du Saint Sacrement (Book of the Holy Sacrament)" and selections from "Meditations sur le mystere de la Sainte Trinite (Meditations on the Mystery of the Holy Trinity)."

As anyone can gather from even the most perfunctory perusal of his titles, Messiaen was a deeply religious and spiritual man. "Listening to his music is a transcendent religious experience," Bram said.

"Central to Messiaen's music is his Catholicism," said Hardink. "But his music is 'catholic' with a small 'c,' because it is universal. His Catholicism is mixed with Eastern mysticism, and his spirituality is unlike that of any other composer.

"Messiaen's music can cross religious boundaries. That's one of the reasons it's important to present Messiaen in this cultural landscape we have in Utah."

Hardink noted that Messiaen's music isn't performed very often today. "It's a generational thing. We (musicians) don't play much music written after 1945. And Messiaen came into prominence in the '40s, and his works tend to be long and hard to play."

The very nature of Messiaen's music has also hindered his music from being played. "I think Messiaen is a victim of his singularity," Bram said. "He is one of the most important 20th-century composers, and he taught all of the important European composers of the '50s and '60s, but we don't have the tools to describe his music."

Among people who know Messiaen's works, there is a misperception as to what it's about. "There is a complexity on the surface, but underneath that there are simple forms and a simple harmonic language. It's easy to grasp," said Hardink.

"People need to look beyond its complex facade and its emotional depths," Bram said. "His music is really guileless and natural, and I hope people will be able to see that."

The noted Messiaen scholar and critic Paul Griffiths will also be in Salt Lake City during the festival. He will be part of a panel discussion Thursday in the Salt Lake City Library that Bram will moderate. He will also speak before some of the concerts.

Hardink, Bram and Johnston believe the festival will put Utah firmly on the musical map. "Personally, I love this kind of thing," Johnston said. "You can throw yourself into something and go for it. You find these mini-festivals in larger cities, and I'm happy that we finally have been able to put something like this on here."

Bram hopes that Salt Lake City will take to the concept, because all three are interested in collaborating on future festivals devoted to other composers. "When I came here, I was told that Salt Lake City is culturally way bigger than its population would indicate," Bram said. "And a festival of this kind cements Salt Lake's cultural reputation."

If you go . . .

What: "Quatuor pour la fin du temps," NOVA Chamber Music Series

Where: Utah Museum of Fine Arts Auditorium, University of Utah

When: Today, 3 p.m.

How much: $5 - $15

Phone: 463-5223

Web: www.novachambermusicseries.org

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Also . . .

What: "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jesus," Jason Hardink, piano

Where: Libby Gardner Concert Hall, University of Utah

When: Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $15

Phone: 297-4250

Web: www.bachauer.com

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Also . . .

Comment on this story

What: "Chants de terre et de ciel," "Apparition de l'eglise eternelle," "Livre du Saint Sacrement," selections from "Meditations sur le mystere de la Sainte Trinite"; Tracy Rhodus, soprano; Jason Hardink, piano; Douglas O'Neill, organ

Where: Cathedral of the Madeleine, 331 E. South Temple

When: Wednesday, 8 p.m.

How much: Free

Phone: 328-8941

Web: www.saltlakecathedral.org

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Also . . .

What: Panel discussion with Paul Griffiths, Franz Goller, Gregory A. Glenn

Where: Salt Lake City Main Library auditorium, 210 E. 400 South

When: Thursday, 8 p.m.

How much: Free

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Also . . .

What: "Des canyons aux etoiles. ... ," Utah Symphony; Keith Lockhart, conductor

Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple

When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.

How much: $12-$48

Phone: 355-2787 or 888-451-2787

Web: www.arttix.org

E-mail: ereichel@desnews.com