Love, Death, and Volume: National Symphony Orchestra, March 10, 2011

The National Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie on Thursday night, with music director Christoph Eschenbach on the podium, Cédric Tiberghien on the piano, and Tristan Murali on the ondes martenot, took me back to when I fell in love with Turangalîla as a teenager — it was that heartfelt and intense, a statement of ambition and a respect-worthy achievement at once, and hopefully a harbinger of similar programming to come in upcoming seasons.

The symphony's name is pronounced exactly the same as this character's. Yes, I am a nerd.

What made me love Turangalîla so much as a young person? Thanks for asking!

  • The Sanskrit title, which Messian says “means all at once love song, hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death.” I appreciated the comprehensiveness.
  • It’s a massive (ten-movement, 80-minute) work that you can get lost in from moment to moment, but there’s always eventually a signpost to guide you back to the larger structure.
  • It uses heart-on-sleeve melodies, atonal clusters, and purely percussive interludes, embracing all modes of expression, big enough to sound like the world.
  • The constant play of rhythm, standing aloof of the main goings-on, creating giant structures in back of the music, or both at once. Messiaen’s preoccupation with rhythm even exceeded my own.
  • Turangalîla gets really loud really quickly and stays that way for a good portion of the symphonie. If you’d just spent a bunch of your hard-earned teenage savings on speakers, you’d want something worthy to pump through ‘em too.
  • Most of all, though it offered all these things to a listener, Messiaen seemed to be working out his own logic in Turangalîla, yet his principles came across clearly and passionately. You had to make an effort to understand it, but once you did, understanding came a-thundering down.

The liner notes to the recording I had were 100 percent uncut Messiaen discussing the work, and the discussion mostly baffled 15-year-old me, which ultimately posed no barrier to my appreciation. The NSO apparently decided Turangalîla warranted a little more help, so they brought in Joseph Horowitz to lead some context-giving for a half-hour before intermission.

This time provided an opportunity to hear actual music: Tiberghien played a pair of Messiaen piano preludes, Murali gave an explication/demo of the ondes martenot (it doesn’t just make noises that sound like UFOs landing—it’s got feelings too), and Tiberghien and Murali unexpectedly played the “Louange a l’éternité de Jésus” from the Quartet for the End of Time, after which words seemed kind of pointless. The talking itself mostly rehashed the program notes, a practice I will never understand. Anyway, if Eschenbach, Tiberghien, Murali, and the NSO did anything in this performance, it was communicate.

You heard this immediately when what Messiaen refers to as the “statue theme,” a series of brass chords on which you could break a two-by-four, first appeared; the NSO played it loud, with a massive wall of sound projecting out into the Concert Hall and pinning me back in my seat. That physical thrill kept returning whenever Messiaen called for it, a purely sonic reminder of the ambition of his concept, and the only time I didn’t enjoy it was when Murali’s ondes was on the verge of blowing out the right speaker above the stage in the last movement.

Eschenbach and the percussionists got almost all the rhythmic detailing right, with accents as slightly off place and surprising as Messiaen wanted them. The massive superimposition of rhythmically independent themes in the second “Love Song” movement came off without a hitch and sounded great. Eschenbach showed a particular affinity for codas, shaping the end of the same second “Love Song” into a tender lullaby with Tiberghien’s piano and a vibraphone spilling diamond-like notes onto a bed of quiet trombones. (Indeed, the NSO’s brass played admirably even when doing things other than blasting.)

Only in two of the ten movements did focus seem to wander: the fifth, “Joy of the Blood of the Stars,” and the following “Garden of Love’s Sleep.” In the former, the repetitions of the main theme, rather than renewing themselves to a new exhausting joy through dance, felt effortful. In the latter, Eschenbach adopted a pace so slow that it was hard to hear the transformation of the “love theme”—I had to make an effort to remember the previous notes in the phrases, which usually means something’s wrong.

In the “Garden of Love’s Sleep,” I ended up mostly listening to Tiberghien playing birdsong on his piano as the strings unwound their melody. The piano part in Turangalîla demands a lot of the pianist, who must perform linking cadenzas, support the orchestra at its most frenetic, serve with the vibraphone plus a glockenspiel and celeste as a kind of gamelan-ish ensemble, and embroider melodies atmospherically, and Tiberghien had the stamina and chops to do it all. Murali, for his part, did a splendid job modulating his tone and volume on the ondes martenot; from my seat, it enriched the string melodies without overshadowing the older instruments’ tone, and when he figured more prominently in the mix, Murali made deft, thoughtful contributions.

After the over-stasis of the Garden, Eschenbach, the soloists, and the NSO barreled through to the finish, with two “Turangalîla” movements lush with orchestral color and implacable in their rhythms, the “Development of Love” movement that separates them full of momentum and drama as well, and the Finale providing the revelation Messiaen promised in those liner notes, that “Glory and Joy are without end.”

The constant trickle of people leaving the Concert Hall during these proceedings was a reminder that such a work as Turangalîla will not be to everyone’s taste. I hope everyone who is vaguely intrigued by such a thing will check it out, though—it’s not like Turangalîla comes along often (the last NSO performance was in 2001), it’s unlike anything else you’ll hear in the DMV this year, and this performance had enough sincerity and skill to make me feel like a kid again.

ADDITIONAL NOTES, AS IF THESE ARE NECESSARY

The concert was presented as part of the KenCen’s “maximum INDIA” festival because Messiaen sometimes used Indian rhythmic concepts. I really hope Eschenbach wanted to do Turangalîla anyway and was just looking for an excuse, because that ain’t much of one.

Close reading of the program notes indicated that, in addition to the lighting effects on the Concert Hall stage walls that changed with each movement of the symphony, we were supposed to get super-titles of some kind, but the latter did not show up on Thursday. The idea seemed unnecessary, but who knows.

I find it kind of bizarre that on Thursday I heard Joseph Horowitz discuss Western music that sounds like a gamelan for the second time in six days. I live a little over a mile from my parents, and I saw Joseph Horowitz more during that time than either of them. Obviously, that’s not his fault, though.

Other People’s Perspectives: Robert Battey, Charles T. Downey, Terry Ponick.

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5 Comments on “Love, Death, and Volume: National Symphony Orchestra, March 10, 2011”

  1. John Says:

    I attended the riday evening performance. My comments as follows:

    The NSO under Eschenbach played superbly, this is really a first-rate major orchestra. Eschenbach exerts firm control without squeezing the inherent artistry out of the performers.

    Joseph Horowitz’s pompous, condescending, bloviating was a waste of the audience’s time and annoying to boot. His French accent is not very good either.

    Tristan Murali on the ondes martenot consistently (about 80-90% of the time) played one dynamic too loudly. The piece is not a concerto for ondes martenot and orchestra. Murall needlessly obtruded himself over the rest of the performers rather than joining his voice to theirs. This was not only annoyingas musicianship, it significantly detracted from the rest of the performance. By contrast, Cédric Tiberghien on the piano was perfect, assertive when the score requires it and otherwise joining in with the other voices with perfect balance

    I’ll confess that I have a hard time liking Messiaen; it seems to me that despite their often beautiful moments, many of his pieces become endurance contests from a lack of artistic discipline (it says a lot that the author fell in love with it as an adolescent). Artistry sometimes consists of knowing what is too much, as well as not enough, and often Messiaen not only beats an idea to death, he jumps up and down on it afterwards. There’s always what seems like a lack of discipline fueled by intense mysticism. This was particularly true of the “Garden of Love’s Sleep,” which felt interminable. And unlike the reviewer, I can only listen to overly loud birdsong for a limited duration before I start tuning out. I understand that Messiaen was a devout Roman Catholic, but listening to music should not be an act of penance

    • Andrew Lindemann Malone Says:

      Thanks for commenting. I understand your reaction to Messiaen, really. However, I do think classical music could do with a little more adolescent enthusiasm — to my mind, it’s got quite the excess of sober judgment.

  2. jcd Says:

    I loved parts of the piece, and other parts left me a bit cold. I’m more impressed by the amount of effort and skill the work requires, and applaud the NSO for programming it. I also found the ondes martenot deafening.

  3. Eli Bensky Says:

    Eschenbach is becoming a Turangalila specialist, having led a performances when he was music director in Houston as well as other Messiaen works including the piano part in Quartet for the End of Time.

    Bravo Christoph!!!

  4. Eli Bensky Says:

    Eschenbach is becoming a Turangalila specialist, having led performances when he was music director in Houston as well as other Messiaen works including the piano part in Quartet for the End of Time.

    Bravo Christoph!!!


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