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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Concert Review: Listening to Ecstasy

The Cleveland Orchestra plays Messiaen.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Ecstasy: Franz Welser-Möst (on podium, back to camera), Jean-Yves Thibaudet (left) and Cynthia Millar (right)
and the Cleveland Orchestra play the Turangalîla-symphonie.
Photo by Roger Mastroianni © 2018 The Cleveland Orchestra.
The music of Olivier Messiaen has never been an "easy sell" to the average concert-goer. Performances of his works remain infrequent, partially because of his own status as an outlier among the creative minds of the 20th century and partially because of the massive demands these pieces place on both performers and audience. It is a state of unfortunate neglect, one that the Cleveland Orchestra corrected on Wednesday night with a performance of Turangalîla-symphonie, the huge ten-movement piece commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1949.

This performance, under the exacting baton of Cleveland music director Franz Welser-Möst was placed in a kind of artistic context, coming during a week-long festival exploring the "music of ecstasy" at Severance Hall. (The Orchestra is also offering concert versions of Tristan und Isolde this week and the large black acting platform for those shows remained on the stage at Wednesday night's concert.) There is also a connection between Wagner and Messiaen, as Turangalîla (the title is a portmanteau of two Sanksrit words and can loosely be translate as "the game of the speed of life") was directly inspired by the Tristan legend.

However, this is not a straight re-telling of the tale of the medieval knight and his unfortunate extramarital affair with an Irish princess. Its movements evoke the love, confusion, danger and final transcendence of this tragic pair, augmented by Messiaen's own musical interests: slab-like orchestration (an influence from his organ playing), the chattering songs of birds (transcribed for the orchestral musicians and evoked by the two soloists at piano and ondes Martenot) and the Catholic theology that infused and shaped his entire career. Turangalîla is the first orchestral benchmark of his mature period, and his best known cration.

Messiaen chose to combine traditional symphonic structures with three movements labeled Turangalîla I, II and III. These are like talas, evoking rhythm and movement as in Indian classical music. The symphonic movements have elaborate titles ("Joy of the Blood of the Stars," "The Garden of Love's Sleep") and the development of the first movement comes eighth in the structure of the piece. The orchestra requires huge sections of brass and wind, and a giant percussion section, although Messiaen eschews the use of timpani. For this performance, the soloists were Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano and Cynthia Millar at the ondes Martenot, the 1925 French electronic instrument that can evoke both a woman's soprano voice and otherworldly sounds that suggest some sort of divine presence.

The muscular Cleveland brass section created the first impression with the "statue" theme, a ponderous, descending figure that interrupts the bliss of the symphony with its repeated appearances. It evokes the medieval Dies irae idea with its unrelenting appearance. It was answered with a high trill from Mr. Thibaudet and the strings and the first moaning utterance of the ondes, evoking a chattering flight of birds rising in response to the summons of the brass. The orchestra then lurched into a pounding, almost tribal rhythm, supplanted by tuned percussion, although one virtuoso celesta player replaced the usual three. The movement ends abruptly, although its ideas are returned to i in the eighth movement.

Mr. Welser-Möst repeatedly showed his understanding of this arcane and sometimes frustrating work. The "Joy of the Blood of the Stars" was the scherzo movement, evoking movement and dance with its swift, upward currents played by the small arsenal of trumpets and horns. The "Garden of Love's Sleep" is the slow movement, and Mr. Welser-Möst produced a searching, dreamy texture of sound that evoked the temporary shelter of darkness and the promise of something of the great beyond to the listener. That idyll was shattered by the next Turangalîla movement and the rude return of the doom-laden "statue" idea.

There's a certain sense of accomplishment to attending a performance of Turangalîla.  especially as the orchestra plays Turangalîla III which sets the table for the muscular and joyous finale. The audience sat rapt by Messiaen's tendrils of orchestration, a combination of instruments that still sounds like nothing that came before it and nothing that followed. As the orchestra climbed through the final sequence of chords, Mr. Welser-Möst spread his arms as if to fly on the huge waves of sound. When the wave crested, the audience rose to its feet with transcendence temporarily achieved. 

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