Gimeno Conducts Messiaen’s Epic Turangalila

Roy Thomson Hall was quite full tonight for the first of two Toronto Symphony concerts undertaking Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie. But for such an event one wants a full house. The response from the audience was as rapturous as the music we had heard.

pianist Marc-André Hamelin (photo: Sim Cannety-Clarke)

My headline is no exaggeration, as I replicate the title the TSO put on our evening, including the stunning pianism of Marc-André Hamelin and the subtler contribution of Nathalie Forget via the ondes Martenot in front of a very large orchestra. It’s like a piano concerto. Hamelin is such a cool customer that he seems to be totally at ease while playing such an amazing range of sounds from soft to percussive clusters, touching seemingly every note of that piano, while offering a measure of reassurance to the rest of the performers as though he were a lifeguard. I suppose part of that is technique, that there’s no sign of effort even as he’s making amazing sounds.

Gustavo Gimeno, TSO Music Director

Gustavo Gimeno is still relatively new in his position as the TSO music director, but he’s beginning to show us who he really is. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the TSO themselves are showing us who they are, in their response to his leadership, fearless in their willingness to play anything.

In 1948 when this work appeared, it certainly appeared to be the most important creation of the century if not the most impressive use of serial composition techniques yet heard, a fabulous meeting of cultures and methods.

Nathalie Forget (photo: Mathilde Assier)

Sometimes it’s tonal with layers of dissonance fluttering about over top, like birds gathering on top of a solid statue. There are places where the clusters in the strings underpinning the quick piano music remind me of George Gershwin, had he lived longer.

There is so much joy and ecstasy in this piece, yet also painful drama. There’s a soft nocturne-like section that reminds me a bit of Wagner’s Tristan even if it’s much calmer, more like Berlioz’s nuit d’amour in his Roméo et Juliette. It’s a hypnotic array of stunning sounds.

And yet Messiaen’s sound is not one that has been emulated: at least not yet. I’m reminded of the conversations I’m hearing about the Ontario Science Centre, a modernist building that will be taken down if the Premier of Ontario has his way even though it’s one of the most beautiful examples of modernist architecture I’ve ever seen. I can’t think of any current composers using anything as complex –or as beautiful—as what we heard tonight. Like the Science Centre (dating from over 50 years ago), the futuristic sound of the ondes Martenot is in its way, an antique, an image of a future that never was. Oh well. Post-modern scores are more pragmatic, while minimalism is also a practical choice, easier for the composer and perhaps easier on the audience as well. The density of the score Messiaen created, layer upon layer, the challenges to the soloists (not just Hamelin & Forget, but also throughout the orchestra, particularly Eric Abramovitz, principal clarinet, and the percussionists), is unique. In a sense Messiaen is himself a virtuoso composer, daunting in the density of the challenges printed on the pages of the score. Did he leave every other composer behind in the process? No it’s not a competition, but even so one might wish that more would attempt something so ambitious.

Roy Thomson Hall is really ideal for this sort of work. There’s so much to hear, layer upon layer: and it could be perceived, the sound transparent.

The two concerts are a joyous celebration that’s one of the highlights of the TSO’s 100th season, but they’re also making a live recording from these two performances, which I’ll be eager to obtain once it comes out. We were asked to refrain from applauding, although there was a lot of coughing unfortunately. I suppose that’s inevitable when it’s live.

If there’s any way you can get to hear it Friday May 5th you should do so. They sounded amazing.

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