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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Concert Review: This is Your Brain on Ecstasy

Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Turangalîla-symphonie.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hear the hair: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Turangalîla-Ssmphonie
at David Geffen Hall this week. Photo by Chris Lee © 2014 The New York Philharmonic.
Since its premiere in 1949, Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-symphonie has stood alone. Consisting of ten enormous orchestral movements and spanning nearly an hour and a half, this piece that strikes terror into the hearts of conductors and concert-goers. In the wrong hands, this mega-symphony can be a lumbering beast, a composer's ego out of exploding in a flurry of orchestrated bird-song and strange chromatic ideas that can (literally) send patrons running for the nearest exits.

That was the challenge Esa-Pekka Salonen faced this week, conducting three performances of Turangalîla at the New York Philharmonic as part of a carefully curated series celebrating Messiaen's music. These were the orchestra's first performance of the work since 2000. Before taking the podium, Mr. Salonen, the current Philharmonic composer-in-residence took a moment to speak to the audience, sharing some insight and anecdote about Messiaen the man and the history of this great work. And then it was off into the jungle of sound as the orchestra burst into Messiaen's gigantic opening theme.

Mr. Salonen struck a perfect balance between the titanic orchestra (quadruple horns, triple wind, an army of strings and percussionists), the solo piano (played by the virtuoso Yuja Wang), the ondes Martenot (played by soloist Valérie Hartmann-Claviere and a second percussion section (two celestas and a vibraphone) played at stage right. Most importantly, he maintained a central narrative thread over the ten movements, showing the concise logic in each movement and how Messiean builds soloists, players and ultimately, the listener into an eventual state of ecstasy.

In the opening movement, Mr. Salonen laid out Messiaen's key thematic ideas: a descending series of heavy chromatic chords, a sweet, soft melody that featured winds and piano, and a bright, dancing figure evocative of Indian classical music in its sprung rhythms and tinkling percussion. Like a late Bruckner symphony, the music moves in massive blocks of sound with pauses in between, but Mr. Salonen made the blocks seem to float gently in mid-air, the descending chords landing with a kind of graceful force.

Ms. Wang's piano contributed bird-trills played at the upper end of the keyboard and lengthy written cadenzas that burst from her fingers with speed and power. She also added color and rhythm to the grinding, fortissimo movements labeled Turangalîla I, II and III. Clad in a jade-green sheath, the artist wrestled with her instrument and occasionally wayward sheet music on her desk, receiving assistance during a solo passage from concertmaster Frank Huang.

Designed in 1927, the ondes Martenot can be the trickiest element in this symphony. It's an amplified instrument, consisting of a keyboard, a metal ring controller and a set of timbre controls. An electronic oscillator produces the sound. The ondes has the potential to ruin any performance, drowning out the orchestra with its waves and whoops of sound, which lies somewhere between a police siren and the moans of sexual congress. Here, Ms. Hartmann-Claviere had the volume set correctly, with her instrument accenting the texture of the orchestra instead of overpowering it.

Messiaen conceived the Turangalîla-symphonie as a kind of epic love song, inspired by the medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde. The passion of the composer's discourse emerged in a slow movement, which built to a gorgeous, rising melody that bloomed from the orchestra. Moving up a series of major thirds, winds and horns took up the song, using the technique of repetition to emphasize its message. As the ten movements progressed, the heavy brass chords reversed direction, bringing the final movement to an ecstatic, orgasmic climax with the whole orchestra shouting in unison.

Only one woman walked out.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.