By Ted AYALA
Special to the CV Weekly
If the ultimate worth of a work of art is measured in the amount of criticism it arouses, then Olivier Messiaen’s “Turangalîla Symphony” must be regarded as one of the immortal masterworks of Western music. Premiered in 1949 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, the Turangalîla inspired some of the most potent invective from musical critics of the time.
“Straight from the cornfields of Hollywood,” snarled the New York Herald-Tribune’s dependably crusty critic Virgil Thompson.
“That’s not music,” sputtered composer Morton Feldman. “It’s Walt Disney!”
Many of Messiaen’s European colleagues were no less divided over the symphony’s worth. Messiaen’s own star pupil, Pierre Boulez, was particularly disdainful of his teacher’s symphony and dismissed it as “bordello music.” Messiaen’s extravagant, fluorescent neon paean to love (both carnal and divine) was bound to shock and offend the sensibilities of audiences who had lived through the austerity of the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Indeed, dispelling austerity with a show of Technicolor extravagance seems to be part of the Turangalîla’s raison d’être.
A prisoner of war in Stalag VIII-A and a witness to France’s occupation under the Nazis, it’s no wonder that the joy expressed in this symphony borders on the hysterical. Messiaen himself said that he intended the symphony to express “not the respectable, calmly euphoric joy of some good man of the 17th century, but joy as it may be conceived by someone who has glimpsed it through sadness: in other words, a joy that is superhuman, overflowing, blinding, unlimited.” To this end Messiaen spared no expense.
A sprawling, 10 movement work that totals some 80 minutes, it requires a veritable army of musicians – over a hundred are required – and at least seven percussionists, not to mention the use of the ondes martenot (a keyed electronic instrument that sounds similar to the theremin) and a ferociously virtuosic concertante part for piano. Stylistically, the Turangalîla embraces an entire world of sound: bird song, Javanese gamelan, Catholic liturgical music, and Gallic lyricism.
The symphony’s all-embracing use of musical language is also attributable to what Messiaen sought to express in this work: his illicit love for his pupil the late Yvonne Loriod (the piano part was written expressly for her), the love he still felt for his wife Claire Delbos who had become severely mentally disabled after suffering a miscarriage in the late 1930s, and his devotion to God – specifically as viewed through the lens of Roman Catholicism. All this called forth from Messiaen a wildly exuberant symphony that would endure as his best-loved work.
Under less capable hands, Messiaen’s Turangalîla can easily sound distended and brutally excessive. However that was not the case last Saturday night with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. With Jean-Yves Thibaudet as piano soloist and Cynthia Millar on the ondes martenot, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played what I consider one of the very best performances of this gargantuan work I have ever personally heard. It would have been easy for Dudamel and the LAPO to just milk the symphony’s triple forte exultations and simply pound the audience into submission. But Dudamel and the orchestra were better than that. Not only were they able to thrill (their performance of the Joy of the Blood of the Stars movement was astonishing in its propulsive vigor), they were also able to expose the gentleness and poetic romance that beats under this gnarly work’s exterior – a facet that is often overlooked by many other conductors.
The rapt pianissimi of the strings in the Garden of Love’s Slumber movement were breathtaking. Thibaudet’s gentle bird song figurations glimmered and sparkled in this movement that can often sound too long in lesser hands. Cynthia Millar’s ondes martenot was simply perfect.
Leaving Disney Hall, I was left with no doubt that the Los Angeles Philharmonic is truly one of the world’s finest orchestras. Their continued partnership with their current music director Gustavo Dudamel is perhaps the most exciting in the world of the symphony orchestra right now. I only hope that Deutsche Grammophon, Dudamel’s record label, recorded the concert for a potential future release on their DG Concerts series. If not, shame on them. It was truly an unforgettable concert; one that deserves to be preserved for posterity and enjoyed again and again.