Messian tell us “This work is a love song,” while Richard Taruskin labels it “Sacroporn.”
The Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music (FCM) usually concludes in an evening of large orchestral works. Taking advantage of the sheer number of talented young musicians involved, programming has been ambitious of late. A few years back we had George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin; last year, all the symphonies of Ives; and this year, the gargantuan and profligate Messiaen Turangalîla Symphony. This masterpiece, perhaps Messiaen’s signal achievement, should be a source of deep pride for the BSO, as they commissioned it (one of Koussevitsky’s many efforts), and premiered it way back in 1949 under Leonard Bernstein. Since then it has only come back twice according to the BSO database: in 1975 and again in 2000. I happen to think both quotes above are right: and while Taruskin’s formulation is a little truculent, it does capture a sense of the work’s extremity and excess. I think Turangalîla is a masterpiece, a towering achievement; but I can’t say it is always in good taste. I’m very happy to report that this rare, precious experience was thrilling, ecstatic, ravishing and not excessively concerned with good behavior. The orchestra of Tanglewood Center Music fellows, plus the heroic piano soloist George Xiaoyuan Fu and feature ondes martenot player Genevieve Grenier, all directed by Stefan Asbury, provided the me with 60 of the most entertaining, moving and purely joyful minutes of my listening career.
The joke, of course, is that Turangalîla runs more like 80 minutes. The languors and dead stretches were equally attributable to orchestra and composer. Of the ten movements in this work, the hardest nut to crack is probably the eighth movement, the “Developpement de l’amour.” Up until then there has been an incontinent profusion of ideas, mostly developed through canny layering, uncanny juxtaposition, repetition, and combinations of timbre and texture. The eighth movement is Messiaen’s last attempt to digest it all, using the same material and the techniques, but this time grinding everything much finer than before. It takes a long time, coming after the hour mark, running nearly 12 minutes in recordings (I was too caught up to measure performance times but the tempos here felt typical). With leisure to think about it soberly, an architectural argument can be made for the excesses of the symphony in general, and the scale and struggle of this movement in particular. But in the sticky, humid Berkshire night, restlessness reigned in the crowd, and just the slightest sense of fatigue prevailed on stage. Players shifted in their seats; gazes wandered out into the audience during long rests.
But if one has any sympathy at all for Messiaen’s project—his desire to not just evoke eternity but to invoke it, to cause to come into impossible being— we forgave the occasional dead patches. So many spectacular moments counterweighed them. The first movement prefigured all, where the listener was suddenly plunged into one distinct sound world, then immediately into another, in a series of hot and cold baths. The composer gives no time to transition from place to place, instead, he processes those shocking changes in the ensuing nine movements.
The fifth movement (“Joie du sang des etoiles”, or “Joy of the Blood of the Stars”), reached the highest point of the evening. A piece of immense power and joy whose primary melody, it is also goofy and playful, a great puppy-dog of the Apocalypse bounding here and there. Although the middle section was a little muddy—suddenly all the musical material is fragmented and developed at once, and Asbury chose to dash through it with high spirits rather than to tease anything out—it never lost its headlong energy, and the final chord was sustained so long, with such a steady increase of energy, that it fairly tore shouts and a brief burst of applause from a handful of listeners. Asbury paused, then looked over his shoulder with a gesture that seemed to say, “yeah, I know, right?” which induced laughter and additional applause. I don’t know that I’ve before ever seen performers and listeners actually stop to marvel at the power of what they just heard. The he held up five fingers, and then ten, telling us we still had a good long way to go. It was a small moment of camaraderie shared with the nearly full Ozawa Hall.
Although each year’s contingent of TMC orchestra only lives for a short season, this one played remarkably well. As has been the case all weekend, individual and sectional performances were always excellent. Asbury coaxed out some interesting insights: for example, the “statue theme” in the first movement soundred surprisingly lithe and flowing on its first appearance, but as it recurred it took on a more monumental character, providing a sense of growth and change (“development”?) just through interpretive choice. The pianist has his work cut out for him: this work is almost a concerto, given how often the piano is featured, and the fearsome complexity of his part. With stunning virtuosity, Fu summoned an appropriately shiny, brilliant, hard tone that never flagged or lost its edge: a touch of Prokofiev inside Messiaen. The ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument that, like the theremin, can invoke memories of late-night horror movies, was stroked with suave sensuality by Grenier, though in places more aggression may have served. The brass found fury; the strings created a three-dimensional sound. I had heard Messiaen was known for the quality of his string writing; until now, I’m not sure I knew what that meant. It was a gossamer sound, but not fragile; quiet, but able to fill-in space completely: clear, but weighty, like water.
Turangalîla a trilogy of works from the same period that treat the topic of erotic love, inspired by the Tristan and Isolde story. We heard the first, the song cycle Harawi for soprano and piano, at the earlier prelude concert. Working with similar material but with much reduced forces, Harawi sounded like an X-ray of a predecessor of Turangalîla, replacing orchestral color with the sensuality of the voice and frankly weird poetry. On Monday the interpretive tasks fell to three singers who are TMC Fellows (sopranos Andrina Velinova and Cait Frizzell, mezzo Fleur Barron) and the iconic Lucy Shelton, now TMC Faculty. Joshua Marzan, James Maverick, and Eri Nakamura divided the pianistic duties. Four singers shafred the final song—something that isn’t justified by the text. As such, it was more of a series of excellent but individual realizations than a full interpretation. That said, the one singer granted two songs in a row (Barron) made the most of her opportunity, projecting “Montagnes” with a deep, almost forbidding tone and affect, before switching instantaneously to a much more open, inviting stance for “Doundou tchil.” Those constructed words are intended to evoke Andean ankle-bells but in this case they had a frankly seductive, come-hither air to them that caused this reviewer to break out in a light sweat.
I hate to come to George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song, the work that opened the concert, so late in this review, but it got a little lost among all the Messiaen. Written for very large orchestra, counter-tenor and women’s vocal ensemble, it sets six Andalusian Hebrew poems from the turn of the first millennium (translated into English), along with a couple of fragments of Lorca, which are themselves actually translations of Arabic writings from about the same time. A BSO commission in conjunction with three other major organizations, it was receiving its U.S. premiere. It reminded me in an oblique way of the Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings in its collection of diverse poems that don’t exactly hang together and in the combination of voice and exotic soloist (in the Benjamin, it is the women’s chorus). Of course, Benjamin’s sound world couldn’t be more different than Britten’s; and it lacks Britten’s theatricality, surprising in that Benjamin’s stage works are among his most celebrated. Perhaps I remain, even many years later, in the overwhelming thrall of Written on Skin, but Dream of the Song never seemed to get beyond its attractive surface. The eight-member Lorelei Ensemble sang the women’s’ chorus but they were difficult to hear except when getting their very attractive solo turn in “Cielos y campos.” Countertenor and TMC Fellow Daniel Moody was the very state-of-the-art in modern countertenor-ship, making a clear, confident, plangent sound that was still a touch otherworldly, but which never called attention to itself. Perhaps there is still some tinkering to be done: the work will appear on the BSO schedule in the coming year and is worth a listen. But when it finished, I was left thinking that the piece simply didn’t make the most of the opportunities available to its immense and distinctive forces. The work that followed it made up for that, of course. When the final chord of Messiaen finally came to its protracted, consuming and terrible end (the woman in front of me put her fingers in her ears), we sensed that everyone—orchestra, the conductor, the pianist, the composer, the audience—had put everything they had out on the table. The ovation that followed was grateful but also triumphant.