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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 8, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 6
Wrangling with Turangalîla
Arts & Entertainment
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Wrangling with Turangalîla

SSO rises to the challenge of a uniquely demanding symphony

by Alice Bloch - SGN Contributing Writer

SEATTLE SYMPHONY
BENAROYA HALL
January 31


Last week, music director Ludovic Morlot conducted the first-ever performances of Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Some of us who attended are still recovering from the experience.

Turangalîla is a huge, strange work that makes extraordinary demands on both orchestra and audience. For this reason, many symphonic musicians have never played it, and many classical music fans have never heard it performed live, even though it has been part of the concert repertoire since its 1949 premiere in Boston, under the baton of Leonard Bernstein.

For the initial SSO performance, Benaroya was packed with adventurous music-lovers. At the conclusion of this amazing performance, the usually staid Seattleites leapt to their feet and gave a long, thunderous, richly deserved ovation.

A PROPER INTRODUCTION
Morlot wisely devoted the first part of the concert to audience education. With the assistance of orchestra and soloists (Jean-Yves Thibaudet on piano and Cynthia Millar on ondes Martenot), he introduced some of the musical themes. Thibaudet then spoke about his personal encounters in Paris with Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod (Messiaen's second wife, for whom the insanely difficult piano part of Turangalîla was written, and who gave Thibaudet her own hand-annotated score to help him prepare for his first performances of the work in 1992). Finally, Millar demonstrated the ondes Martenot, an early electronic keyboard instrument with an eerie, wailing sound - a kind of cross between Theremin and organ.

The ondes wasn't the only unusual instrument on stage for this symphony. The percussion section was augmented by a vibraphone, celeste, glockenspiel, maracas - everything but the usual timpani. I counted eight percussionists, all of them constantly busy.

The 10-movement Turangalîla is a mystical work, an ecstatic meditation on time, love, and death. It features extreme contrasts of texture in which clean, transparent melodies alternate with ferocious orchestral sound so dense that it is nearly impossible to discern the components of the sonority.

During one long passage, I sat dumbfounded as chords accumulated until the thick wall of sound might as well have been a physical wall between the stage and the audience. Thibaudet was playing like mad, but I couldn't hear any of his notes. I hated that, and thought it a terrible waste, in a score that requires great piano-playing, to make the piano inaudible for minutes at a time.

BOMBAST AND BIRDSONG
I fault Messiaen, not Morlot, for those impenetrable walls of sound, because Morlot has demonstrated a keen instinct for clarity and subtlety. In all but the loudest passages, the performance sparkled with orchestral color. I particularly enjoyed the rapturous fifth movement (titled 'Joy of the Blood of the Stars') and the dreamy sixth movement ('Garden of Love's Sleep'), through which Thibaudet played birdsong sequences with exquisite delicacy against a plush background of string harmonies. (During Morlot's introductory remarks, he'd had Thibaudet demonstrate a few of the birdsong melodies, then stopped the music and said, 'It goes on like that for 12 minutes.') Only a supremely confident composer would dare the audience to stay awake during a long, sleepy movement like this one - but Messiaen pulled it off, with help from Morlot, Thibaudet, and the woodwinds that echoed the piano's birdsongs.

The score tended to shine the spotlight on one section of the orchestra at a time. The most prominent sections were brass and percussion. The tuba, expertly played by Christopher Olka, and the trombones, led by Ko-ichiro Yamamoto, grounded the orchestra and gave this disoriented listener something to hold onto during the most overwhelmingly dense passages. The percussionists, led by Michael A. Werner, managed to stay on top of rhythms so complex as to require superhuman focus.

Hearing this symphony in live performance is an experience not to be missed, even if it makes your head spin for days afterward. If you're a less-is-more kind of person, Turangalîla might not be your cup of tea. But if you're a more-is-more type, it could be your 20-ounce caramel-hazelnut-coconut-vanilla Mocha with extra whipped cream and chocolate syrup.

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