It’s a piano concerto. No, it’s a percussion concerto. No, it’s the mother of all symphonies! — longer, at close to 80 minutes, than Beethoven’s Ninth, and with 10 movements to boot, instead of a measly four.
Or maybe it’s an ondes Martenot concerto…?
“Turangalîla-Symphonie” by French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) isn’t like anything else in the 20th-century symphonic repertoire. Huge, ecstatic, complex, beautiful, it is, in the composer’s words, both a “love song” and a “hymn to joy.”
It was composed in 1946-1948 and premiered by Leonard Bernstein and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1949. The Seattle Symphony brings it to Benaroya Hall this week, with Ludovic Morlot conducting, Jean-Yves Thibaudet on piano and Cynthia Millar on ondes Martenot (more on that later).
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The title, as Messiaen explained, is a Sanskrit word.
“As with all words from ancient oriental languages,” he wrote, “its meaning is very rich. ‘Lila’ literally means play — but play in the sense of the divine action upon the cosmos, the play of creation, of destruction, of reconstruction, the play of life and death. ‘Lila’ is also Love. ‘Turanga’: this is time that runs, like a galloping horse; this is time that flows, like sand in an hourglass.”
If that sounds a little out there, it’s perfectly apt for the often otherworldly sound of the music.
“Turangalîla-Symphonie” will be the only work on the program, but Morlot will preface it with a 20-minute overview of piece with the orchestra and Thibaudet on hand, and Millar, who will introduce audiences to her ondes Martenot.
Invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot, the ondes is one of the earliest electronic instruments. It has a spooky, theremin-like sound, but with a little more versatility in its timbre and volume.
Morlot chatted at Benaroya Hall earlier this month about the ondes, Messaien and Thibaudet. This is the Symphony’s first crack at “Turangalîla” (last performed in Seattle by the Northwest Mahler Orchestra in 2007), and as Morlot became aware that the piece and Messiaen’s music as a whole were new to a lot of symphony-goers, he felt it deserved special handling.
“We decided to do a show in the first half,” he says, “where we actually introduce the sound universe of the ondes Martenot. … We’ll have Cynthia Millar on the ondes who will introduce the musical instrument herself. She will not only play a piece by herself, but she will also explain a little bit of the history of the instrument, because we don’t even build those things anymore. … Also I will pick up a few elements from ‘Turangalîla.’ I want the pianist, for instance, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, to play a couple of the bird songs that you hear in some of the movements. As you know, Messiaen was obsessed with transcribing bird songs, and many of them find their way into this piece.”
The character of the piece means as much to Morlot as its striking orchestral accomplishments.
“It’s a combination of joy, love,” he says. “It’s just post-war. Think about it: 1946, 1948. So it’s a huge massive optimistic love-message to the future. … I want to articulate this. But I also want to articulate the different elements that constitute all those different movements … the dance element. The fifth and last movements are just big dances.”
As the Sanskrit title hints, Indian music influences the piece. So do Asian percussion traditions, in general. At both concerts, 45 minutes before showtime, there will be gamelan demonstrations in Benaroya’s Grand Lobby, exploring where Messiaen may have gotten some of his ideas for the piece’s vast percussion section.
The sound balance between the orchestra and ondes can be tricky. In the piece’s gorgeous sixth movement, for instance, the ondes should combine with the strings to form a velvety cushion of sound, with the piano’s “bird-songs” floating above it.
“You don’t want it like electronic music,” Morlot says. “You want that match that creates a completely unique tone between the orchestra and the ondes. It’s nice if you hear it without really knowing where it’s coming from. And this is a challenge.”
While the ondes provides the exotic allure of the piece, the pianist’s role is just as crucial. Live performances and recordings of “Turangalîla” have multiplied in the 20 years since Messiaen’s death, and one reason is the number of keyboardists who are Messiaen fans.
“Many many pianists want to tackle it,” Morlot explains. “Not only this piece, but Messiaen’s music as a whole.”
Thibaudet himself recorded “Turangalîla” in 1993 with conductor Riccardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra: a magnificent recording reissued on Decca last month.
Still, if there’s any piece in the orchestral repertoire that demands to be heard live, this is it. It’s great that there are so many recordings of it out there, Morlot says. But even the best recordings, he feels, have only half the emotional impact of a live performance.
“It’s a piece by a young Olivier Messiaen,” Morlot explains. “He’s only 40 or so when he writes the piece. … It’s obviously the piece of a very exuberant young man.”
“Turangalîla” is sometimes played too loudly, Morlot adds, and he’s working to avoid that: “There should be beauty in the sound. It’s like fireworks of colors.”
Messiaen could see colors in sounds, and that poses a challenge to anyone playing his music.
“He writes in the scores: ‘This should be purple and gold. This should green and yellow, with a little red.’ And it’s fascinating. … Those dance movements must be like a sparkle of all those magnificent colors. So I think that’s what we need to bring to it,” Morlot concludes with a laugh. “Find the colors — and kill the volume.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com