I got a healthy dose of conductor David Robertson's pedagogic prowess last month at the Concrete Frequency festival in L.A., where he offered straightforward, humor-laced intros to works by Berio, Ives, Feldman, Benjamin, Zimmerman, Boulez, and Gordon. It was left to LA Phil Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen to conduct Olivier Messiaen's From the Canyons to the Stars two days later, and while Salonen's performance was extraordinary in every way, I missed not having Robertson's insight, especially given his close relationship with Messiaen while he was music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in the 1990's.
New Yorkers had the chance to hear Robertson speak about Messiaen last night with his regular band, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, in a Carnegie Discovery Concert of the Turangalila-Symphonie. The Turangalila is a massive, exotic work from the middle of Messiaen's career, and has been polarizing audiences for nearly sixty years. As if to illustrate the point, Robertson came out during the introductory section of last night's concert and started up the work, without speaking. The hall soon filled with loud brass, clattering gongs, eerie glissandos and other not-very-pleasant sounds. After about two minutes, he abruptly stopped the orchestra and turned to face the audience.
"I have conducted this work on many occasions, and this is the point at which I can just feel in my skin the audience squirming in their seats, searching for the nearest possible exit."
So, for the next half-hour, Robertson, spoke about Messiaen and this odd masterpiece, interspersing his words with musical examples from the orchestra and soloists. He spoke without notes, but also without pause, as if he had his entire text memorized. And, he made sure to keep things down-to-earth: he introduced the Ondes Martenot player, Cynthia Miller, as a frequent musician on The Simpsons, and pointed out that creator Matt Groening is a huge fan of this work, having named one of the lead characters in Futurama "Turanga Leela."
The name "Turangalila" comes from a composite of two Sanskrit words that refer to both the passage of time and to play: "the play of divine action upon the cosmos, the play of creation, of destruction, of reconstruction, the play of life and death," as Messiaen described it. With regards to time, Robertson point out how Messiaen would take a single musical motif and either speed it up or slow it down beyond recognition. This, of course, was just Messiaen's latest paean to time: his Quartet for the End of Time had been written eight years earlier.
As part-explanation for the wild sounds in this work, Robertson pointed out that Messiaen was blessed/afflicted with the phenomenon known as synaesthesia: the ability to see color when hearing sounds, and vice versa. Robertson said he once asked Messiaen what it was like for him to look at the intricate stained glass windows of Paris Sainte Chapelle. He responded, "Like an almost unbearable symphony, an overpowering cluster of chords." During further musical examples, Robertson showed Sam Francis' "Polar Red," with its big red streaks across the canvas, and the circular figures in the paintings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay.
Here's what Messiaen said:
"It's true I see colors, it's true they're there. They're musician’s colors, not to be confused with painter's colors. They're colors that go with music. Like rainbows shifting from one hue to the next. It's very fleeting and impossible to fix in any absolute way."
Sound like the inspiration for the title of a recent album?
After intermission, the orchestra returned with a full performance of the symphony which, at 80 minutes, is one of the longest in the repertoire. It is also one of the most trying, filled with long stretches of soft, langurous playing, followed by convulsions of chaotic noise. The Ondes Martenot added an almost cartoonish quality to the mix, while the orchestra flirted with saccharine consonances throughout.
Before the start of the fifth section, "Joy of the Blood of the Stars," Robertson told us that we should feel free to applaud at the end, if we wished to. A good idea, given its overpoweringly triumphant conclusion - not to mention there were still another five movements to go. The audience took full advantage, stopping the show with a huge ovation. (They did the same with the next three sections.)
The SLSO sounded as tight and dynamic as any orchestra I've heard of late. After a few down years following the departure of Leonard Slatkin, Robertson clearly has them back playing at the top of their game. They seem young, fresh, and up for just about anything. Joining Millar onstage was the young pianist Nicolas Hodges, who nailed the tricky piano solo.
The work ended with a crescendo in the brass and percussion that rose to a deafening roar. The crowd responded with an immediate and unanimous standing ovation. And, not a single refugee in sight: a century after his birth, Messiaen might just be hitting his stride.