Time-play

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Video projections by Rose Bond for the OSO performances of Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie. Photo: Jacobe Wade.

This past weekend I played Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, a piece that I will, in all likelihood, never get to perform again. That’s not something that one says lightly, for the career of an orchestral musician, by necessity (and for better or worse), involves playing a relatively small core of works over and over again. For lovers of this epic, ecstatic, and gargantuan piece, this is the second time to hear this work in this decade, as the Seattle Symphony performed the piece for the first time in its history back in 2013.

For me, it was only on our third performance Monday evening that I felt like I could truly enjoy this piece. Why? Well, it presents many challenges to the performer. First is its sheer length. The viola part is 66 pages long. The piece has 10 movements, of which the fifth, entitled Joie du sang des étoiles (Joy of the blood of the stars), is fully 14 pages long! Second is the harmonic complexity and the complexity of the rhythmic writing. Due to his theory of Modes of Limited Transposition, Messiaen takes his motives and repeats them on several different pitch levels (or modes). Messiaen also enjoys taking his motives and sliding them off of the beat, usually by a small amount (a sixteenth-note or eighth-note, depending upon the meter and tempo), and this keeps one on one’s toes constantly. Combine these two factors, and you’ve got a lot of music to keep track of, and it means you are learning essentially the same material over and over again, and need to remember which is coming up when (and often it is coming at you a breakneck speed).

But once you get through all of this, what an amazing journey it is! As Oregon is one of the states where recreation marijuana is legalized, I’d say this piece is one that might be best enjoyed in an altered state, especially with Rose Bond’s video art that was projected around the hall for these performances. I’d highly recommend against performing the piece in an altered state, however! The sheer orchestral color, texture, and volume (!) is truly unmatched in the orchestral repertoire (except perhaps for Varese’s Amériques). We had the exceptional soloistic talents of pianist Stephen Osborn and ondes martenot player Cynthia Millar, and a crack team of 10 percussionists that made everything sparkle. I may never again hear the tam tam played so loudly in my life! It was a spectacular run of performances, and one I will fondly remember.

If you’d like to learn more about the Turangalîla Symphonie, I’d recommend this article from the LA Philharmonic’s website: http://www.laphil.com/philpedia/music/turangalila-symphonie-olivier-messiaen

4 thoughts on “Time-play

  1. John Hirsch

    Like making sand castles. The beauty is there but not to be seen again … except in the mind’s eye. Thank you for the wonderful picture. I saved and it will prompt my memories, living on in my head. I was memorized for 80 minutes. What is also worth remembering is the fabulous cooperative relationship between OSO, PNCA and PAM.

    Reply
  2. Bob Priest

    Thanx for a fun read here, Charles. It’s good to know that you were able to relax a bit more by the 3rd performance & enjoy the Turangalila thrill ride!

    This was my 5th “T-Rex Experience” (LA, NYC, Paris, Seattle & Global Village PDX) & I had a jolly fine time with the musical component – your rendition was rousing while the percussion & brass sections were particularly “on tusk!”

    As for the visuals . . .

    Well, uh, first off, Messiaen would never have authorized such a project. Had he actually been there, he would’ve said, “C’est affreux. Il faut fermer les yeux!”

    Sitting in the balcony & having to struggle through the wall of projector fan whoosh (particularly during the gorgeous 6th movement), I was deeply offended & annoyed. Never mind that the imagery was ugly, uninspired & unnecessary, the fact that both the piece AND the audience were “soundly” dissed amounts to nothing less than egregious trespass.

    Hopefully, those that encountered Messiaen’s massive monster-piece for the first time will seek out a recording to which they might create their own visuals in the mind’s eye – try Ozawa’s with the Toronto Symphony (Ozawa was Messiaen’s fave conductor for his music).

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    1. Jeff Winslow

      I rather enjoyed the visuals when they were (semi-)abstract and colorful. But there were two big problems. I’m totally in agreement on the projector fan noise. In the upper mezzanine, middle of section E, I was moved to keep a hand cupped over my right ear most of the time, to get as much stage sound and as little projector noise as possible. Even then the total sound had a “grayer” aspect than in the Seattle Symphony’s performance, where Cynthia Millar’s Ondes Martenot was also much more audible.

      The second problem was the use of recognizable objects in the visuals – and such childish symbolism too. Flying screws and nuts for a piece inspired by the many natures of romantic love… REALLY?? Why not trains entering tunnels, or collapsing smokestacks in reverse? But it still would have distracted rather than enhanced if it had been, say, flying toasters.

      Still, all in all, much kudos to the OSO for bringing such glorious musical mayhem to Portland finally! Next time I’ll sit right down in front. There will be a next time won’t there? 🙂

      Reply
  3. Tim

    I’m glad you posted a response to this piece. I was at the Sunday performance, and didn’t realize until it was introduced that it was one of the Sound-Vision things. I admit, I was pretty dubious about the video (I was expecting to have a response like Bob Priest, above, except that I didn’t have to suffer through projector fan whoosh from my balcony seat) but I was pleasantly surprised. The video was sufficiently abstract that it didn’t take the focus off the music, and I thought it helped hold the long unfamiliar piece together for me. (Perhaps if I had known the work better I’d have been less patient with the video, but it worked for me.)

    You guys played with great energy and commitment, and to my ears, at least, really brought the piece to life. I left the performance exhilirated by the experience; I really applaud the organization’s willingness to take chances with the 20th century repetoire and ability to bring it off convincingly.

    Hearing a recording is fine, of course, but there is something different about being in the hall when the percussion and brass are hitting a crescendo that is hard to replicate in earbuds – and something too about the energy of a live performance that doesn’t always come off in a recording.

    Great show – thanks!

    Reply

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