Utah Symphony to Travel to Zion National Park to Perform Messiaen’s Extraordinary 1972 Work Inspired by Southwestern Utah Landscapes

Performance and Recording of From the Canyons to the Stars Continues the Orchestra’s Legacy of Championing Music that Celebrates Nature


SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH (December 9, 2021) – If there is any work in the classical canon that the Utah Symphony could uniquely claim as its own, it is Olivier Messiaen’s 12-movement orchestral epic, Des canyons aux étoiles… (“From the Canyons to the Stars…”), written in celebration of some of the most majestic landscapes of Utah—Cedar Breaks, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park. 

Recognizing an opportunity for the Utah Symphony to embrace the work inspired by the beauty of its own state,  Music Director Thierry Fischer has been programming individual movements on Masterworks Series concerts since 2019—all leading to the culmination of the project on June 2, 2022, when the orchestra will perform From the Canyons to the Stars in its entirety at O.C. Tanner Amphitheater adjacent to Zion National Park.

“It will be incredibly unique to hear Messiaen’s music performed in one of the locations that inspired it—and by musicians who live in, know, and love the natural beauty of Utah,” says Fischer. “This is a monumental work that is rarely performed, and the breathtaking setting of Zion National Park will make it an unparalleled experience.”

Citizens from across Utah and across the world are invited to join for this melding of music and nature  as the Utah Symphony showcases its extraordinary artistry in Messiaen’s masterpiece, performed against the stunning backdrop of red-rock cliffs. To deepen concertgoers’ understanding of the music and to create an immersive experience, the Utah Symphony, together with partner organizations, will offer activities in the Southwestern Utah landscapes that inspired Messiaen, including Dark Skies stargazing, guided hikes, an exploration of Utah’s native birds, and pre-concert talks with the artists. Additionally, in advance of the performance, the symphony will release multimedia materials to help guide listening.

The story of From the Canyons to the Stars  began in 1971, when arts patron Alice Tully commissioned French composer Oliver Messiaen to write a work celebrating America’s upcoming bicentennial. Messiaen, enchanted by photographs of Bryce Canyon, traveled with his wife to Utah, where he found boundless inspiration in the otherworldly cliffs, canyons, and rock formations. The work was completed in 1972 and premiered two years later.

The task had been to celebrate the United States—but the composition of From the Canyons to the Stars  became a deeply spiritual experience for Messiaen and he avowed that it was written to “glorify God in the beauties of His creations.” The work is in three parts, each concluding with a depiction of one of the landscapes he visited. In the natural amphitheater of Cedar Breaks, he was overwhelmed with its “wild and colorful beauty” and a feeling of “immense solitude.” In Bryce Canyon, which he felt convinced was the most beautiful place on the planet, he heard bright E-major chords in his mind as he gazed upon the red rocks (Messiaen had a condition called synesthesia, meaning that he “heard” colors and “saw” sound). Zion Park inspired the “ultimate joy” and he translated this into a triumphant finale.

Throughout the work, Messiaen evokes the stars of the desert’s night sky and the songs of birds he heard in Utah, filtered through his imagination. (He was an accomplished amateur ornithologist and birdsongs play a part in many of his works.) Reflecting how one might experience the striking natural beauty of the vast landscapes, he juxtaposes monumental boulders of sound and intimate, serene moments—creating music that, while not conventional in its melodies and harmonies, is always intensely colorful, with moments of startling beauty. Messiaen’s work, in turn, inspired the renaming of a mountain in Southwestern Utah as “Mount Messiaen.” 

From the Canyons to the Stars is unusual in its instrumentation, with only 13 string players but huge woodwind, brass, and percussion sections. Messiaen utilizes uncommon percussion instruments, from a whip, to gongs, to crotales (small cymbals that are struck with a mallet). He even incorporates a wind-machine and an instrument that he invented specifically for this work—the geophone (or sand-machine), a flat drum filled with beads, imitating the sound of shifting sand.

The ambitious work—with a performance time of about 90 minutes—requires exceptional virtuosity from every player. Four orchestra musicians are featured in prominent solos: Jason Hardink on piano (Principal Keyboard and an expert on the music of Messiaen), Keith Carrick on xylophone (Principal Percussion), Eric Hopkins on glockenspiel (percussion and Associate Principal Timpani), and Stefan Dohr (one of the preeminent champions of this work, joining from the Berlin Philharmonic, where he is Principal Horn). 

An immense artistic undertaking, From the Canyons to the Stars  is infrequently performed and has seldom been recorded. The Utah Symphony will add to just a few existing recordings, with an album planned to be released on Hyperion Records. 

The performance and recording of From the Canyons to the Stars continues the Utah Symphony’s commitment to exploring the intersections of music and nature. In August, the orchestra gave its third statewide tour in recent years, performing at five outdoor locations in rural Utah including Bryce Canyon. This season alone, the orchestra gives the world premiere of Bird Symphony  and the US premiere of Nature Symphony  by 2021-22 Composer-in-Association Arlene Sierra, as well as the Western US premiere of The Maze by Nathan Lincoln de Cusatis—a violin concerto commissioned by Utah Symphony Concertmaster Madeline Adkins and inspired by Utah’s most pristine desert wilderness.

Tickets for this remarkable opportunity to hear the Utah Symphony perform Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars  at Zion National Park will go on sale at noon tomorrow, Friday, December 10—just in time for Messiaen’s 113th birthday—at utahsymphony.org

For lodging, activities, and other resources to plan your trip to Zion National Park this June, click here.