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Monday, May 6, 2019

Concert Review: Mister Lovejoy

David Robertson brings the Turangalîla-Symphonie to Juilliard.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
David Robertson leads the Juilliard Orchestra. Photo by Jennifer Taylor.

It is one of the seminal symphonic works of the 20th century but  Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie has always struggled to find its audience. Of massive length and requiring an army of skilled musicians, this hybrid of symphony and concerto has in the past cleared halls of would-be listeners or been avoided by concert subscribers altogether. On Friday night conductor David Robertson led the expanded forces of the Juilliard Orchestra in this huge ten-movement work. Despite the technical difficulty of music this was a performance brimming with love, joy and the enthusiasm of an orchestra come priced entirely of conservatory students.

Although the size and scope of this work may be bewildering at first, its design is relatively simple. Messiaen began by writing a four-movement symphony around three thematic ideas. These movements have titles like "Joy of the Blood in the Stars" and "The Garden of Love's Sleep." The composer expanded his design, adding intermediary movements. These are labeled Turangalila I, II and III. This portmanteau word comes from Sanskrit. It means ""love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death." Three more movements centered around the idea of love complete the work, which is about 85 minutes in length.

When this symphony was commissioned Messiaen was given no limits on the orchestral instrumental forces required for its performance. So he wrote for a monster orchestra, supplemented with 11 percussion players and two soloists. To the left of the conductor, at a long black Steinway was virtuoso pianist Tengku Irfan. Opposite him sat that even rarer bird: ondes Martenot player Cynthia Millar. This peculiar, archaic electronic instrument is an early keyboard-controlled oscillator, operating on the same principle as the Theremin. Its eerie voice indicates the presence of the divine in Messiaen's score, whether heard in rising moans or ethereal, wordless choirs.

Mr. Robertson led a performance that brimmed with energy, from the first shattering noises of the introduction to the first sounding of the ondes, a low wailing that probed at the senses and added a hard modern edge to the flock of massed strings taking flight. Then came the introduction of the "statue" theme, menacing brass chords that owe something to the medieval Dies irae. This theme's struggle for dominance against the rest of the music formed the drama of the first half. Eventually it loses out to the happier musical ideas of love and ecstasy that are Messiaen's ultimate musical goals.

Although it is given a share of cadenza passages and is called on to imitate the calls and trills of birds, the piano is forced into a supporting role for much of this piece. Mr. Irfan was up to the work's stringent requirements, shifting between moods as the movements climbed slowly toward a heavenly apotheosis. Mr. Robertson led his orchestra in explosions of joy, with piano and trumpets sounding triumphant over the twitter of woodwinds imitating still more birds.  Halfway through, the slow lyric movement Jardin du Sommeil d’amour ("The Garden of Love's Sleep") offered a respite from the struggle, a haven of peace like the musical eye of a hurricane.

The piano resumed the struggle in the frantic Turangalîla II movement, which pits the piano against the efforts of the expanded percussion section. This movement has a ritualistic quality, reflecting the composer's interest in Asian musical ideas. Mr. Irfan's piano danced and wove through the singing of the "birds." The surging, grinding rhythms of the statue theme suddenly took flight in the " Développement de l’amour", in an ecstatic rhythm that burst on the listener like flocks from the treetops. The main theme here is derived from Wagner's Tristan music, taking that composer's famously unresolved chords and giving the sense of longing a happy resolution that the older composer might have envied.

Everything culminated in the ecstatic final movement, a last exploration of the dance ideas in the eighth movement. The stuttering, high-stepping rhythm is a challenge for conductors, brass players (forced to play staccato lines) and the omnipresent percussion section which features three celestas and the piano working in concert against the howl of the ondes. (Oddly, that most prominent of orchestral percussion instruments, the timpani, is missing entirely from the orchestra) As Mr. Robertson led these young conservatory players in this ecstatic, challenging and sometimes frustrating finale, there emerged a genuine sense of triumph for all involved. Not just the young virtuoso at the piano or the veteran ondes players or the Juilliard students. All were welcome in this feast of love, and all left David Geffen Hall with the sense of triumphant achievement over this challenging work.

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