Thursday, April 14, 2011

Curtis Symphony Orchestra: Turangalila-symphonie

On Tuesday I had the too-rare privilege of attending a performance I knew I would thoroughly enjoy. Olivier Messiaen's epic work demands not only unfaltering virtuosity from all performers but a unique instrumentation. I once saw this piece struck from a university program because it calls for the electronic keyboard instrument ondes Martenot in addition to the composer's customary arsenal of percussion.

What do I love about this piece? Of course Messiaen leaves a legacy of color, but that means little on its own. He creates in each piece a fantasy world: laws of materials physics reinvented, transitions as dramatic as scenes cut in film, mammoth layers of soundcraft like fine masonry; the brass Statue Theme, the full-ensemble Joie that bursts out singing and dancing, the Garden of Sleeping Lovers, and his masterful blocks of contrasting textures and themes. I think most of all I admire the "ten thousand worlds" of passions and tenderness it holds as a mortal's expression of the infinity and contradiction of divine love. Love is simple. How one arrives at its power -- through life and the troubling world that shapes ours -- is complex.

Some describe the Turangalila-symphonie as a piano concerto; I think of it as a double concerto for ondes Martenot as well. Although the ondes Martenot produces only one voice, the part is wildly expressive and varied. It was curious to watch Thomas Bloch's quiet poise through the piece. For years I have giggled at extravagant gestures by Western string players -- it's refreshing to examine options for stage presence developed by theater, folk, experimental, noise, and pop artists.

Another memorable moment was the closing of movement 5, Joie du sang des etoiles (though I'd have to check the score), when pianist Di Wu* lit fireworks of chords in enormous leaps and rapid succession all over the keyboard. My seat was two tiers up but quite close to the orchestra so my eyes feasted on her lightning placements.

I should mention eight years ago the Swarthmore College gamelan opened for the Philadelphia Orchestra when they gave this piece. Christoph Eschenbach conducted those performances as well, and though my ears are something else now I dare say the Curtis Orchestra was at least as tight. From my seat the glockenspiel (sometimes two doubling!) and remainder of the orchestra usually overpowered the piano solos. That may be an artifact of many hearings of recordings with balance adjusted, but I hesitate to fault the composer.

Before the feature, Curtis Institute of Music faculty member Alan Morrison gave brief introductions to organ pieces by Messiaen's contemporaries Louis Vierne and Charles Tournemire. I found it unfortunate they programmed Curtis student Bryan Anderson to play Messiaen's organ pieces after the symphony, when my head was exploding from spent neurotransmitters and the hall rapidly emptied. Yes, I want to hear that music, but at the time, my ears could only hold ambience.

*[EDIT 4/22] This post helped me frame the question: can an East Asian woman wear her hair permed without being accused of assimilation? Conversely, can one avoid being offered a perm every time she enters a salon?

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