Thursday, April 17, 2008

Turangalila Symphony


Got back late last night from the Toronto Symphony performance of Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphonie, one of my favourite works ever. Performances of the work are few and far between, for practical reasons as much as anything else. First, you need a huge orchestra that can play at a high technical standard for eighty minutes. Then, you need a virtuoso-caliber pianist who's willing to learn an extremely difficult part and then blend unobtrusively into the orchestra with the rest of the musicians - there are only a few spots in the work where the pianist's technical wizardry is clearly audible. Then, you need to book one of the very few professional Ondes Martenot players in the world, because the ondes part in the symphony is extremely prominent. Then you pray that someone will come to hear the piece, because otherwise you've just wasted a heck of a lot of money.

To their credit, the TSO bit the bullet and put on this rarely heard work. As far as I know, this is the first time the orchestra has played a major Messiaen piece in my concertgoing career; ironic when you consider that its 1968 recording of the work under Ozawa is considered one of the definitive readings of the piece. But how fitting that this orchestra should complete the circle by performing the work again forty years later, in the centenary of the composer's birth.

Is it a cliche to say that you don't know Turangalila if you've only heard it on a recording? That's true of any piece of music, but it's true in spades of Messiaen's symphony. I've listened to my recording of the piece enough times to wear it out; I knew exactly what was around every corner when I heard the piece live, but still it overwhelmed me. At the most intense moments in the piece, I could barely breathe. I've obviously drunk the Kool-Aid and become a full-fledged Messiaen fanatic, but I don't care.

The work paired with the Messiaen on last night's programme was the recently composed Organ Concerto of Jacques Hetu (one of our best living Canadian composers and, incidentally, a Messiaen pupil) with Olivier Latry as soloist. If the pairing had been any other work in the orchestral literature, I would have gone home raving about this concerto; it's one of the best contemporary concertos for our instrument that I've ever heard, and deserves to enter the repertoire alongside the Poulenc and Jongen concerti. Hetu, a non-organist, writes for the instrument as a sort of Swiss Army knife of solo instruments, and the organist's solo lines enter into fascinating dialogues with the orchestral woodwind section. In this way, he deftly avoids the usual trap of the organ concerto repertoire (that is, having the organ's sound blend into the orchestral wind section and turn into mush). The central Passacaglia, the longest movement of the concerto, has tremendous emotional power, ending in a massive orchestral climax with the full organ blazing away; when the orchestra drops out to reveal the organ alone, the sound could practically flatten you against the wall. This is basically tonal music, and the audience seemed to genuinely enjoy it. Latry, as always, was splendid.

But the Messiaen was what made my evening. Superstar pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin, who rarely plays in Ontario, ripped off the solo piano part like it was nothing; I've never heard anyone play the cadenza at the end of the fifth movement so fast. Jean Laurendeau made the Ondes Martenot sing beautifully, although I would have liked more volume from the ondes to hear him through the full orchestral texture. (I'm inclined to blame this on where I was sitting.) The TSO musicians acquitted themselves beautifully; the score is extraordinarily long and difficult and I heard no slips or mistakes anywhere.

All of which is to say: good job, TSO! You made this Messiaen-lover's evening; the performance was absolutely worth the drive to Toronto.

Which was why I was so annoyed to read this Toronto Star review by John Terauds. Terauds, whose writing I generally enjoy, doesn't seem to get contemporary music. In this review, as in his review of the previous concert in this Messiaen series, he seems to spend most of his time talking about the number of people that left during the concert. Reviewing last night's concert, he tells us that "half the audience sat riveted up to an ending that sonically raised Roy Thomson Hall's roof in fortissimo ecstasy", while "others fled as soon as they could."

Folks, this is not good classical music reporting. Here's why.

1) He suggests that approximately half of the audience stayed till the end, while the other half left the theatre. Roy Thomson Hall, which seats over 2,600, was practically full (so let's say there were 2,400 in the audience). I saw about fifty people leave from where I was sitting. There were probably more than fifty people who walked out, but there certainly weren't over a thousand.

2) He suggests that people walked out "as soon as they could", put off by the "complexity of the content" of Messiaen's piece. In reality, I didn't notice anyone leave until after the sixth movement, which is one of the least complex and most tonal movements. This means that the vast majority of the audience sat through the hyper-complex, modernist Turangalila I and Chant d'Amour movements. Why did they leave after the sixth movement, the beautiful Jardin du sommeil d'amour? Because it was a twelve-minute slow movement with almost no variation in mood. In other words, they weren't put off by the work's modernity; they just lost interest in listening. The movement also ended at exactly 10:00; by this time the concert had been going on for two hours and many of the people who left were carrying small children. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how Terauds came to the conclusion that a significant proportion of the audience "[left] as soon as they could".

3) But here's the broader problem: Terauds is writing from the perspective of a traditional classical musician, writing for a traditional classical-music audience. When he uses Italian terms like fortissimo or technical terms like "contrapuntally", he assumes we'll know what he means. He also assumes that we'll agree with him when he states that new music is challenging and its performance is not normative. I can't help wondering what a musician from outside the classical world would think of something like this:
The composer, who died in 1992, explained that Turangalîla is all about the tension of love. But you'd hardly know it from listening. Instead, it presents itself as an intricate study of rhythm and overtones layered on overtones that use Western instruments in conventional ways and augmenting them with the percussion of gamelan.
I tread lightly over the grammatical problems in this last sentence; newspapers have notoriously tight deadlines. But listen to how he analyses the piece. What lay listener, walking in off the street, would hear Messiaen's symphony as "an intricate study of rhythm and overtones"? This is the work of an analytical mind, trained in Western music, trying to apply traditional classical values to a modernist work, and getting hung up on the asymmetrical rhythms and odd sonorities. But I think an inexperienced listener would understand the "tension of love" in Turangalila in a way Terauds doesn't seem to; he'd simply allow the music to wash over him like a film score. He might love it or he might hate it, but he'd understand it on a much more fundamental level than just a "study of rhythm and overtones", which is in the end a very superficial and misleading description of the work.

The bottom line is this - we will never find a large audience for classical music as long as the critical establishment caters to the thought patterns, prejudices, petty snobberies and elitism of the traditional symphony audience. We need writing that allows for no preconceptions, drawing in people who know nothing about classical music. And, I firmly believe, it all starts with the way we write about new music. The rest of the repertoire branches out from there.

One more question before I sign off: where were all the organists? One would think that a programme with a new organ concerto and a major work by Messiaen - the contemporary composer most associated with the organ - would draw all of my Toronto colleagues out of their churches. Instead, as I walked around the lobby I recognized dozens of people I knew from the Toronto musical community, but not a single one was an organist. And they couldn't be going to the Thursday performance, because that's choir night for almost all Canadian churches.

Why don't organists support these sorts of events? I noticed the same thing earlier this year when Christopher Herrick performed here; only about six of the organists in town showed up. If Herrick's recital couldn't drag us out on a Tuesday evening, what will?

Oh well. I don't have any answers, and so I'm re-posting the fifth movement of Turangalila which always makes me happy again:


Anonymous said...

indeed: wow! I went back on Thursday and the orchestra sounded even better, crisper. I especially enjoyed the Hétu concerto the second time around. Like you said, it's a remarkable piece that unfortunately doesn't fair so well in the company of Turangalila. Rodolphe.

Alice said...

I wondered if you would be there when I heard what was playing. Glad you got to hear one of your faves!

Bruce said...

I've known of Messiaën for decades, having "Éclairs sur l’au-delà" in my library for that legnth of time. I come to the Turangalîla only lately (via the Ozawa recording)as an avid Wagnerite (yes, I said it). It is the Tristan link that M. was into for a while. I envy your TSO experience! I must say upon 1st reading, that the work to me does not sound all that contemporary. To me it seems from another time, now in the past. (I revel in the music of that time, however).

Anonymous said...

where is the dowmload link :(

thedevilcorp said...

For your consideration.