Sunday, March 27, 2011

CSO’s glorious ode to joy: Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie
Written by J.Gelfand
March 26, 2011

Everything about Olivier Messiaen’s “Turangalila-symphonie” is epic – starting with its massive force of more than 100 musicians, its 10 movements, its 80-minute duration, its seismic climaxes and its monumental, knuckle-breaking part for the piano soloist.

Then toss in its name – “Turangalila,” which is Sanskrit for “time and love” — or what the French composer called a “hymn to joy.” Combine that with the inspiration that sparked his vision and represents transcendent love and ecstasy – the love story of Tristan and Isolde.

What you get is a work that is a life force all its own, an orchestral spectacle of sight and sound like no other you’ve ever witnessed. And we haven’t even mentioned the eerie timbre of the ondes Martenot.

Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra mounted the orchestra’s second-ever performance of “Turangalila” on Friday night in Music Hall. It was, to say the least, an impressive undertaking and an endurance test for the musicians, who received well-earned cheers from the audience at its conclusion. Adding to the performance was Stewart Goodyear, who fearlessly tackled the punishing piano part. And Cynthia Millar performed on the strange little ondes Martenot, a sort of back-to-the-future music synthesizer that arrived Monday from London.

The Toronto-born piano soloist, Goodyear, played triple-duty in this program. The evening opened with a fanfare of his own composition, and he was also soloist in J.S. Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D Minor.

Messiaen wrote his “Turangalila-symphonie” for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Leonard Bernstein premiered it in 1949. It calls for no harp or timpani, but the orchestra had seven percussionists (including emeritus principal percussionist, William Platt), expanded winds and brass and three keyboards. (Michael Chertock played celesta.)

Because of Messiaen’s vast interests, the score includes complex Hindu rhythms, birdsong, moments of almost religious mysticism, arching love themes, an organ-like “statue theme” in the brass, the gamelan sounds of celesta, glockenspiel and vibraphone, and moments in the winds that remind of Stravinsky.

For the pianist, it is a monster of a work, with tumultuous, keyboard-spanning cadenzas in nearly every movement. Stewart handled its percussive virtuosities brilliantly and with flair. The variety of sonorities he summoned, from massive to delicate, the precision of attack and depth of his musicianship were stunning.

The speakers for the ondes Martenot were placed in front of the orchestra, to allow it to glimmer through the immense orchestra. Millar expertly provided glissandos and colorings to the music. One of the most beautiful movements was “Garden of Love’s Sleep,” in which muted strings, ondes, “birdsong” in the piano and a haunting flute solo (Randolph Bowman) created glowing atmosphere.

Järvi propelled the music authoritatively, leading clearly through raucous build-ups, sharp cut-offs and the languorous love music. The “Joy of the Blood of the Stars” had a jaunty tune that grew to a phenomenal, overly bright finish.

The softer movements were exquisite – such as the Asian-tinged ninth movement, scored for piano, winds, cymbals, gamelan instruments, ondes and 13 strings. If only there had been more variety of dynamic in the louder ones.

In the first half, Bach’s Concerto in D Minor was timeless music of a different kind. It’s believed that Bach reworked a violin concerto for harpsichord between 1730-33. In this, the pianist played with beauty, refinement and impeccable technique, respecting the Baroque style even though his instrument was the orchestra’s new Steinway concert grand.

Järvi, leading a reduced orchestra, led with a light touch. Tempos were a bit too rushed; I would have preferred more time in the slow movement, one of Bach’s most profound. But Stewart’s singing tone was lovely.

The pianist wrote his fanfare, “Count Up,” in honor of Järvi’s 10th anniversary as music director, as well as for the 50th anniversary of WGUC classical radio. (Before the concert, one of the founders of the station, Bruce Petrie, spoke about the early days of the station.)

The fanfare had celebratory drum rolls, bold writing for the brass and displayed the composer’s gift for melody.

The concert was dedicated to the people of Japan, and people were encouraged to give donations to the Red Cross.

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