Turangalila Symphony

Posted by: Anonymous

Turangalila Symphony - 03/19/11 11:59 AM

I keep forgetting to mention that ten days ago I went to the University of York's Symphony Orchestra performance of Olivier Messiaen's enormous Turangalila symphony.

It was preceded by about 20 minutes of gamelan music, which involved 20-odd percussionists, innumerable instruments (including a musical saw, which looked quite like one of those great big saws used for sawing tree trunks), an amplified solo singer and, earlier, a repetitive chorus. Curiously mesmerising.

Anyway, I've seen Turangalila (commissioned by Koussevitzky, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, premiered in Boston in 1949) once before, in Leeds Town Hall. This time it was in the somewhat smaller Central Hall of the University of York. William had cleverly booked seats in the front row - good for seeing what was going on in the gamelan orchestra and terrific for Turangalila....

In Leeds, maybe 15 years ago, we'd sat near the front of the stalls, but the orchestra there was up on the platform, both the piano and ondes martenot soloists (the latter was Messiaen's sister-in-law, Jeanne Loriod) were some way away to our left, and it was difficult to see much of the brass and percussion up at the back through the forest of strings and the overly prominent conductor. Plus the LTH acoustics are echoey and Victorian.

At the U of Y, quite different. We were slightly above the orchestra (105 musicians!), most of whom were located on the hall's floor and the rest on risers at the back and (xylophone, vibraphone, tubular bells) on a platform on the left. We could see everything except a few of the cellos and basses.

After the gamelan and the interval, I chatted to a lady on my right while we were waiting for Turangalila to start, and discovered that she and her husband were the grandparents of the piano soloist, Joseph Houston, who played directly in front of them (and thus pretty close to us). Cynthia Millar, who played the ondes, was on the right of the piano and much more clearly audible to us than Loriod had been. And the conductor was situated beyond the piano, so didn't get in our way.

Well, it was terrific, and as far as I could tell, the entire University Symphony Orchestra were students. The conductor, John Stringer, is a lecturer at the University, Miller is a professional ondes soloist (she's played in more than 100 Turangalilas) - and Houston, a York graduate, is studying for a Masters at the Royal College of Music in London. He had an enormous part, playing in (I think) all ten movements and turning all his own pages, which he'd organised so that at times there were six open pages spread across the piano. It was a real tour-de-force and the conductor (who couldn't see him) obviously had every confidence in him. Unsurprisingly, Houston specialises in 20th/21st century music. A name to watch.

It was also good to watch the orchestra, especially the 13 percussionists (counting furiously while waiting to come in) and the wind instruments. They must have had a tremendous number of rehearsals.

The music (about 90 minutes) is very varied - pastoral (imitation birdsong, too), rhythmic, mystic, jazzy (there was a drum-kit), you name it. My neighbour was a little anxious in advance about whether she'd enjoy it, as she's suspicious of "modern" music - she might have been a bit put off by Houston previously having played some if it out of context to her - but she looked exhilarated at the end, as did we, the students in the audience and everyone else who was there.

Recommended to anyone who hasn't seen or heard it - it really isn't any more "modern" than The Rite of Spring. If there's a performance anywhere near you, go!
Posted by: Barbara

Re: Turangalila Symphony - 03/29/11 02:58 PM

Andrew, you seem to be the only person here who has ever witnessed a performance of the Turangalila. I've never even seen a performance announced. But I'm going to ask about another work, surely performed more frequently than Messiaen, but nevertheless new to me. Is anyone familiar with Telemann's Concerto for Three Trumpets? It was the first number in a concert of baroque music in Sacramento this past Sunday, and I was a little bit dubious. (Three trumpets?) Not to worry; I loved it. Melodic, high-energy...and joyous.

Back to Andrew's post. The mention of the musical saw brought back a memory. I've seen/heard a saw played only twice, both times in movies I saw as a child. The first was a short solo piece in some Saturday afternoon cowboy movie. What a marvel that was, hearing such gorgeous sounds from an instrument normally used for cutting down trees. The second time was in a novelty band. In addition to the saw player, there were guys playing a scrubboard, spoons, Jew's harp, jugs, an inverted washtub with broomstick and string, cigar-box banjo, a couple of other things I don't remember -- probably a kazoo and a drum of some sort. I think that was in a Fibber McGee and Molly movie, but I'm not sure. It was great fun.