By Leslie Kandell
NEW YORK — Thanks to the imagination and conducting skill of resident composer Esa-Pekka Salonen and the creativity of music director Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic treated its hometown to a week of Olivier Messiaen. The March 10-12 centerpiece was the French composer’s colossal Turangalîla-Symphonie, which received three performances in David Geffen Hall. With more than 100 players, the almost 80-minute piece (no intermission), in a week starting and ending with chamber concerts, amounted to a musical Dagwood sandwich.
The small works, in a March 7 Contact! concert at Brooklyn’s new National Sawdust space, were by composers whom Messiaen influenced (or tried to: Pierre Boulez was among them). The concluding chamber concert, March 13 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, featured the haunting Quartet for the End of Time — an extended work for instruments that happened to be in the prisoner-of-war camp where Messiaen spent a year in captivity. (Gilbert, playing violin, joined Philharmonic first-chair players and pianist Inon Barnatan.)
Turangalîla was commissioned after World War II by Serge Koussevitzky, who said, “Make for me the piece you want, in the style you want, of the length you want, of the instrumental makeup you want.” Messiaen took him at his word, writing a 10-movement Mahlerian panorama that could be subtitled “Love and Landscapes.” Among its differing elements are the pentatonic optimism of Dvořák, the period jazz synthesized by Gershwin and loved by Ravel, Messiaen’s beloved birdsong, and a regular beat kept by immensely textured percussion.
“Sprawling, ecstatic madness” is how Salonen described the work to the audience. Its wide embrace encompasses the doomed love of Tristan and Isolde, with Wagner present, although Messiaen says he used a different plot. Acknowledged or not, Wagner was in the sonorous brass, which the Philharmonic section projected with the power and accuracy that Salonen can elicit.
According to the program notes, the symphony’s title is from the Sanskrit “turanga” meaning time, and “lîla” meaning “love/play.” Yet another subtitle could be “double concerto” because of its ubiquitous percussive piano part, contrasting with the sweet, spooky tone of the ondes Martenot. This odd electronic keyboard, somewhat suggestive of a theremin, was wisely introduced in a solo, so it could be heard and later distinguished. Other passages resembled a group conversation, with a few winds — major characters — against the rest. The dazzling pianist Yuja Wang played her brains out, with absolute command and awesome precision — at speed. She has performed the piece often, most recently in January under Gustavo Dudamel in Spain. (Here is that performance on YouTube.)
The ondes Martenot was played — too modestly in the first of the performances — by Valerie Hartmann-Claverie, a student of Jeanne Loriod, who had played in the 1949 premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Two celestas and a vibraphone were also positioned nearest the audience.
Messiaen, born in 1908 (as was Elliott Carter), was a church organist from age 22 and taught at the Paris Conservatoire. Profoundly religious, he composed in an original, distinctive style. His visceral intensity is felt in some of the movement titles: “Song of Love,” “Hymn of Joy,” “Joy of the Blood of the Stars,” “Garden of the Sleep of Love.” Intricate, precise, and chromatically dissonant, it is in no way serial. Boulez, who died in January, is said to have called it “brothel music.”
It is certainly a vigorous conglomerate. There is plenty of low brass in thirds, plangent clarinet lines that recall Quartet for the End of Time, birdsong in love sections, and a jubilantly diatonic finale with Americanoid syncopation. Listeners may run out of energy, but Turangalîla doesn’t.
By 1948, Koussevitzky was no longer up to conducting the premiere, so he handed it over to his young assistant, Leonard Bernstein. Boston didn’t like the piece, and it languished in this country. The Philharmonic got around to performing it in 1988, under Zubin Mehta, for Messiaen’s 80th year. But it also commissioned his final work, Eclairs sur l’au-delà, composed after a trip to Australia. Maybe someday the orchestra will revive this sleeping giant.
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.