Sunday, December 14, 2008

Olivier Messiaen and His Tricked-Out Interstellar Love Symphony

So at the front end of this somehow charmed weekend was an incredibly good performance, back on Friday night, of Messiaen's Turangalila-Symphony, with the university Philharmonia and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. The orchestra knocked this performance out of the park, and de Leeuw had a phenomenal control on the piece. Tempos were generally quick, and even in the slower places (like the luxuriously slow 6th movement) there was a sense of the gamelan-inspired rhythmic impulse underpinning the music. Textural contrasts were excellent, even with the concert hall muddying up some of the overlayed music.

So the details were all good; but it was the up-front excitement that made this performance special. Fast, loud, urgent, and possessing an exultant joy in instrumental color and sensuousness. This concert really lit me up; I haven't felt this energized from an orchestra concert for a while, and it's easily the most exciting concert I've heard on campus since moving up here.

Wei-Yi Yang, the pianist, matched the orchestra impressively, with the same intensity and physicality of bold sweeping phrases. He's a friend of my ex-roommate Charlie, and I've met him on several occasions. Actually I met Charlie and a few of his friends for this concert, and we staked out a nice spot at the front of the acoustically satisfactory second balcony together.

Some of the sci-fi moments of this piece made me think of Messiaen himself, off somewhere or other, twirling dials and speaking from the beyond through an orchestral medium. In this the centenary was, I think, successfully observed.

Reinbert de Leeuw is known as a top-notch conductor, and I think this is finally starting to sink in for me. If I'm not forgetting anything, I have heard him conduct three orchestra concerts, and all of them were unforgettably good. (Besides this one, two of the best performances I heard while living in New York: a 2005 Juilliard Symphony concert matching Shostakovich's 15th Symphony with Sofia Gubaidulina's majestically sculptural multimovement symphony "Stimmen . . . verstummen . . ."; and the 2004 Lincoln Center complete concert performance of Louis Andriessen's singularly bracing "De Materie.") And, looking back, one of the first Messiaen CDs I remember really getting into in college was a sharp recording of de Leeuw conducting "Reveil des Oiseaux." So let me advise you to hear Reinbert de Leeuw conduct an orchestra at any such opportunity you are presented with.

Kyle Gann wrote an excellent post last month about generosity in composition. In that meaning of the term, Turangalila is about as generous as it gets: the recurring themes, in development or just dropped in as unexpected familiar moments; the catchiness of the big splashy 5th and 10th movements.


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