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NSO Turangalîla a Wild Ride

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Messiaen, Turangalîla-Symphonie / L'Ascension, F. Weigel, T. Bloch, Polish Radio Orchestra and Chorus, A. Wit

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Messiaen, Turangalîla-Symphonie, Y. Loriod, J. Loriod, Orchestre de l'Opéra Bastille, M.-W. Chung
It was disappointing to see what is perhaps the jewel in the crown of Christoph Eschenbach's first season with the National Symphony Orchestra, Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie, play to a tragically undersold house on Friday night. The sales results should remind those responsible for programming decisions, and not just here in Washington, of two apparent truths. The first is that crossover programming may sell tickets to one concert but will not necessarily translate into further sales: the crowds of Indian listeners who came to hear last week's concerts featuring three popular Bollywood musicians were nowhere in evidence this week, although Turangalîla's connections to Indian music were ostensibly performed in connection with the Kennedy Center's maximum INDIA festival, too. The second is that packaging a work like Turangalîla, which some conservative listeners think, rightly or wrongly, that they should dislike, with something a little easier to swallow would have been a wise choice.

The sprawling Turangalîla-Symphonie is a dazzling, even stultifying piece that merits all of the epithets, kind and unkind, leveled at it over the years: most famously, Boulez dismissed it as "bordello music" for its obvious orgasmic moments (inspired by Messiaen's love for Yvonne Loriod, who would become his second wife) and Stravinsky said the work contained more embarrassment than riches ("plus d'embarras que de richesses") adding that "little more is needed to write such music than a copious supply of ink." Like so much of Messiaen's music, it binds together an impossible number of references and influences -- Indian rhythmic patterns, bird song, Tristan and Isolde, and much more -- with a vast orchestral palette, almost too large, too loud to absorb with the human ear. To hear it in live performance, even a less than perfect one like that led by Eschenbach, is an unforgettable experience.

A surreal paean to cosmic love, both celestial and terrestrial, it swoons and shrieks with the sound of the Ondes Martenot, played expertly in this performance by French composer Tristan Murail. Murail's sound was sultry in places, but could also be piercingly loud, with a slight dull ring in my right ear the following morning indicating that the amplification level was set too high for comfortable listening. On the virtuosic piano part, central enough to the work that it is sometimes considered a piano concerto, Cédric Tiberghien was both suave and manic, if at times too reserved when he needed to be crushingly loud. The orchestra was at its best in the more savage parts, like the low brass's rocky solidity in the "statue theme," which Messiaen said reminded him of ancient Mexican sculpture. I think of the tzomplanti, the skull rack, at the Aztec Templo Mayor, which resonates with the wild clatter of percussion in the creepy seventh movement, evoking the horrors of Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum.

The slow passages were appropriately suspended beyond time, especially the sixth movement ("Jardin du sommeil d'amour"), which Eschenbach took at an especially glacial tempo, allowing the bird songs (nightingale, blackbird, garden warbler, according to Messiaen) in the piano an almost languorous lack of affect. (In the conversation with members of the audience after the performance, Eschenbach said he wished that this movement was twice as long, which explains his tempo choice. It left at least one child in the audience sound asleep, as her father carried her out of the hall.) Only the dance movements, especially where there were many shifts of meter like the tenth, sounded off-kilter occasionally -- at least some of the problems were minor conflicts between the glockenspiel, celesta, and piano, grouped together at the front of the stage but not always in sync with one another. It was a significant achievement, a sign of just how big Eschenbach's thinking is for the NSO's future, if not quite a great performance.

Other Articles:

Robert Battey, 'Turangalila's' majestic sweep soars above the flaws (Washington Post, March 11)

Terry Ponick, Where Messiaen and Radiohead converge (Washington Times, March 10)
More of an audience may have turned out if, instead of a rather boring, didactic round-table discussion on the first half, the concert had opened with some music easier to sell to the subscription base. Perhaps featuring pianist Cédric Tiberghien, already here to play the fiendishly difficult piano part in Turangalîla, in one of the shorter Mozart concertos? A quick look at his repertoire list shows that he plays no. 11 and 12, both a little over 20 minutes long, for example. In fact, there are many good options on that list: perhaps more programmatically appropriate would be Les Djinns of Franck, about twelve minutes long -- or less satisfyingly, Symphonic Variations, a couple minutes longer. Of course, rehearsal time was already at a premium, and Tiberghien may not have wanted to play anything more than the two Messiaen preludes and arrangement of part of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, with Murail on Ondes Martenot, that he contributed to the round-table introduction. As it was, not much was said among Murail, Tiberghien, Eschenbach, and facilitator Joseph Horowitz to have made it worth sacrificing the chance to attract more listeners with some other music.

This concert will be repeated this evening (March 12, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.


jfl said...

What a shame this wasn't sold out. I would have never guessed... but I suppose I should have.

In part a failure on our and the media's part, I reckon. After all, this kind of Messiaen *can* be translated to make sense to 'casual listeners'... but it takes effort.

Difficult to send the Messiaen DVD "The Crystal Liturgy" to every potential listener's household. That disc--not the least to hear Messiaen with corresponding images--does wonders, I've found.

Michael Lodico said...

I will never forget Eschenbach, in his first season with the Philadelphia Orchestra, leading a magnificent performance of the Turangalîla Symphony with Jean Yves Thibaudet at the piano. However, that program was complemented by a performance by a gamelan troupe. Perhaps the NSO should have opened their program with unfused Indian Classical music, which might have drawn in a larger audience and given the orchestra more time to rehearse the Messiaen.

Robert Valente said...

I concur with Mr. Lodico - to really place Turangalila squarely in the Maximum India theme it would have been interesting to feature a short Indian classical piece. I think that opening with such a piece would have brought a lot of Indians to the show, but whether or not they would have stayed for all 10 movements of the Turangalala is anyone's guess. I am so pleased that I had the opportunity to hear this magnificent piece of music right here in my hometown - sorry it was not appreciated by more people. The live experience of hearing this music outstrips the recordings I have heard by a longshot.

jcd said...

I am also glad to have heard this live, and agree the performance was imperfect--many individual segments played very well, but not connected together. And I too was almost deafened by the ondes martenot. I thought they tried to cram too much into the introductory talk, which was indeed repetitive of the program notes.

jcd said...

I agree with much of what has been said above. I really enjoyed hearing this piece, despite a somewhat flawed performance--I found individual sections to be beautifully played, but they were sometimes not connected together well. I too found the ondes martenot to be nearly deafening. I'm glad they omitted the supertitles mentioned in the program--too much going on already.