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.