On Saturday, November 29th, the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Seiji Ozawa delivered two French masterpieces of orchestral sound-color. Though separated by over one hundred years, each work, in its own way, demonstrates the vast expressive capabilities of inspired orchestration.
Olivier Messiaen’s Trois Petites Liturgies (1944) for women’s choir, strings, percussion, and assorted keyboards is a three-part sonic realization of cosmic time inhabited by divine joy and brilliantly speckled with crystalline birdsong. Time is expressed through richly colored, nearly motionless passages of gentle legato. Ozawa beautifully captured the varied hues of these sections, such as the movingly simple chant-like gestures that bookend Part I. As it happens, these gestures also intermingle with the most frenetic depiction of birdsong’s glorious cacophony in the piece. A tour de force for piano (colored with celesta), it is typical of Messiaen’s vivid sound-animation of birds, as if he were trying to force the whole of the avian universe to burst forth from the instrument. This feat was nearly accomplished by pianist Peter Serkin, whose intensely tactile command of the part created a palpable energy, allowing him to almost literally take flight.
It is the divine joy that is often a stumbling block for performers. The syncopated and asymmetrical rhythms that characterize much of Messiaen’s music are often intended to express sheer rapture, both figuratively and biblically. Sections such as the opening of Part II need to be performed with free, joyous ebullience. However, perhaps because of the nature of these rhythms-unusual for Western-trained musicians-the elasticity needed for true revelatory abandon is often sacrificed to simply getting the notes right. Accuracy seemed to have been the main concern for Ozawa in these sections as well, resulting in a somewhat stilted delivery. Nonetheless, the prismatic complexity and beauty of the work shone through, clearly reflecting Messiaen’s intent to create “a dazzlement of colors” that speaks to the soul.
While Messiaen’s descriptive background for Liturgies is about moods and images associated with the divine, Hector Berlioz conceived a very detailed narrative for his Symphonie Fantastique (1832) involving an artist’s desperate descent into the devilish. In this piece for large orchestra, sound-color plays an important role as well. Rather than being the main expressive device, though, it is used instead to enhance a brilliantly moody work of contrasting tonal melodies and harmonies. Modern orchestras, especially fat-sounding US ones, are somewhat handicapped in delivering these colors, however, since orchestral sound in Berlioz’s time was brighter and edgier. This problem can be at least partially mitigated through interpretation; but it seemed that Ozawa was not too concerned with this aspect of the music. As a result, the dreamy waltz was a bit hobbled, the rustling trees a little damp, and the nimble witches a tad overweight. Still, the conductor’s energy was high and the orchestra played solidly-especially the brass, which delivered a powerful, perfectly balanced sound that shook the hall and resonated to the core of one’s body.