There's an Olivier Messaien festival going on, and I don't know why, it's not (to my knowledge) a special anniversary year or anything - - but hey, he's one of my favorite composers, I'm thrilled to find any excuse (or no excuse) to celebrate him.
His music is unique and distinctive, more than any other composer I know. He combines the abstract/wacko with the straight-up beautiful/transcendent. You hear a piece of his and you instantly know it's his.
The first stop on my Messaien double header was a performance of his *Turangalila Symphony* by the New York Philharmonic on 3/10. I've been trolling the NY Phil and Carnegie Hall websites since I moved here, looking for a performance of this piece, and was thrilled that the day finally arrived. I've had a recording of it for years, and was anxious to hear it live.
He wrote it between 1946 and 1948, it was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Koussevitsky told Messaien that he could write whatever he wanted, for whatever forces, at whatever length. What an inspiration for a composer! He delivered an 80-minute, 10-movement symphony for a huge orchestra and solo parts for piano and ondes martenot, a new (at the time) electronic keyboard instrument. The title is a combination of two Sanskrit words: "turanga" which translates as love song or hymn of joy and "lila", which translates as time, movement, rhythm.
Koussevitsky was of course slated to conduct the premiere, but had to withdraw due to illness. So who conducted the premiere? His 31 year-old assistant conductor, Leonard Bernstein.
The NY Philharmonic performance I heard was conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The piano part was played by Yuja Wang and the ondes martenot by Valerie Hartmann-Claverie. Salonen made some introductory remarks which were not necessary. He said that he wasn't going to tell us how to listen to the piece, and then told us how to listen to the piece. His instructions/suggestions were not really helpful.
I made a big deal above about how unmistakable Messaien's music is, so I was a little surprised to be reminded of other composers and other pieces. One passage sounded quite a lot like a bit from *The Rite of Spring*. And what a puzzlement - - the endings of the middle and final movements have a big major chord starting quietly and very gradually building momentum and volume, culminating in a crashing release. Messaien seemed to be aping, of all people, George Gershwin.
Some moments had such a bizarre combination of harmonies and orchestral textures, I had a hard time figuring out what I was hearing. I get that every now and then with Messaien, and never with anyone else. And I like it.
My favorite movement is the sixth, the "Garden of Love's Sleep." The recording I have (the Orchestra of the Opera of the Bastille, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung) is hushed and tender in the extreme. Salonen conducted it with the same tenderness, but not as quiet, more earthbound. I would say the Chung performance is a dream of love, or a fantasy of love - - Salonen and the NY Phil made it sound like actual love.
The orchestra played the piece beautifully, and Salonen clearly has a deep love and understanding of the style. It seems a little disloyal for me to say this, as a lover of modern music in general and Messaien in particular, but I think it can be many years before I hear it again. It was a little too much clinking and clanging for me.
The second stop on my Messaien double header was a performance of his *Quartet for the End of Time* by musicians from the NY Philharmonic, performed at Rockefeller University on 3/11. This piece has the most extraordinary composition and premiere history, of any piece ever. Messaien was drafted into the army at the start of World War II, was captured and put in a German prisoner-of-war camp in June 1940. He met a fellow prisoner, a clarinetist, on their way to the camp, and Messaien started writing a solo clarinet piece for him, based on birdsong. Two other prisoners played violin and cello, and Messaien started conceiving a piece for the four of them, with him playing piano.
He was given paper and a pencil from a sympathetic guard, Carl-Albert Bruell, who also acquired instruments for them to play. I imagine he also must have found time and a place for them to rehearse. The quartet was performed outdoors, in the rain, for an audience of about 400 prisoners and guards. Messaien later said, "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension." Bruell (according to wikipedia, forging papers using a stamp made from a potato) arranged for the four performers to be liberated shortly after the performance.
The performers on 3/11 were Alan Gilbert on violin (artistic director of the NY Phil), Carter Brey on cello (principal cello of NY Phil), Anthony McGill on clarinet (principal clarinet of NY Phil), and Inon Barnatan on piano (inaugural Artist-in-Association of NY Phil). I'll discuss their performances one by one, starting with the best.
I can't imagine the piano part played more beautifully than by Barnatan. Rock solid, flexible, delicious coloring, glorious playing, a real joy. McGill is a divine clarinetist, he has a lovely, full tone and plays with artistry. I felt like he took his solo movement a little too slow - - the piece lost its sweep at his tempo.
Carter Brey played the cello part very well. I have issues with many of the choices he made in his solo movement - - too much scooping and slurping for my taste. This is music that should be played cleanly, without any trace of sentimentality. Plus his bowing was a little disjointed - - there are many long sustained notes, and his bowing interrupted the line. But all was forgiven with the way he played the final line. Oh it was sublime.
The rotten apple in the bushel was Alan Gilbert. I thought maybe he was putting on a childlike, naive tone for the first movement, which has a lot of birdsong. But then I realized that's the way he PLAYS. It's not just that he wasn't as good as the other three, though that was true in a huge way: he doesn't sound like a seasoned violinist, he doesn't sound like a pro. He sounds like a really talented high school student.
This was most troubling (you guessed it) in his solo movement, which is unfortunately the final movement. It's a twin to the slow, ecstatic cello movement, and should have the same sense of repose and lifting your eyes to the hills. He played out of tune a fair amount, his playing was tentative, and the final phrase was a travesty. The violin line goes up and up, ending on a quiet, high, blissful, long, sustained note. This should be the entrance to heaven that was awaited since the first note of the whole piece. It should go like this:
Gilbert had some weird bouncy issue going on with his bow, so it sounded like this:
Whee - jee - whee - jee - whee - jee - whee - jee - whee - jee - whee - jee - whee - jee - ...
It was what we used to call God Awful. So the question is: what the hell was he doing there? The answer: he's the boss. As artistic director of the NY Philharmonic, he probably came up with the idea for this Messaien festival, and understandably wanted to include a performance of this piece with musicians from the NY Phil. And since he's the boss, he gave the violin part to himself. And who's going to tell him he's lousy?