Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Joie du sang des étoiles.

Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of the first human spaceflight, a milestone which should still inspire us to greater humility regarding our place in the universe as well as awe at the human drive to do what once seemed impossible and to know what once seemed unknowable. For most of our history, the night sky remained tantalizingly beyond the reach of human beings; thanks to Yuri Gagarin and all the others who followed him into space - and thanks to the engineers and scientists who made human spaceflight a reality - the realms of the 'impossible' and the 'unknowable' are just a bit smaller.

I reached a personal milestone of my own yesterday, attending my first live performance of Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie. Though I have admired Messiaen for a while and have collected recordings of his works, I haven't had many opportunities to hear his music live for the simple reason that it hasn't been performed much in the places I've lived. Accordingly, I jumped at the chance to hear the Turangalîla-Symphonie performed at the Kimmel Center by the Curtis Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Christoph Eschenbach (who seems to conduct this infrequently performed piece as often as he can, including last month in Washington), with soloists Di Wu (piano) and Thomas Bloch (ondes Martenot, of which I'll say more later).

(As an aside, last night's concert was also the first I had attended featuring current students from Philadelphia's world-renowned Curtis Institute of Music. Hearing these virtuosic student musicians for the first time, I regretted having waited so long to attend a Curtis concert while also realizing that, had I done so earlier, I probably would have lost many afternoons and evenings to the free student recitals that Curtis offers on a regular basis. Knowing what I've been missing, I will probably start attending some of these recitals as time allows.)

Though it was written a decade before Sputnik, the Turangalîla-Symphonie belongs to the Space Age. Produced by the fusion of two Sanskrit words, the title Turangalîla was interpreted by Messiaen to mean "love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death." This ten-movement, eighty-minute work pulls together all of those themes and more, creating a sonic universe that encompasses everything from the dissonant and perhaps a bit menacing opening movement (which may be heard above) to some gently seductive inner movements that seem to promise infinite tranquility.

Messiaen's pupil Pierre Boulez may have been thinking of the more tranquil "love" movements of the Turangalîla-Symphonie when he described the piece as "bordello music." When I heard the Turangalîla-Symphonie for the first time, I thought of it as "alien invasion music": to my ears, the opening movement sounded like the soundtrack of a 1950s creature feature (which isn't to say I was repelled by the piece - on the contrary, I was hooked instantly).

Part of what gives a distinctive sound to the Turangalîla-Symphonie - and, for that matter, to many other Messiaen compositions - is the use of the ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument that resembles a conventional keyboard but produces undulating notes that first-time listeners most often describe as "eerie." To get a sense of what the ondes Martenot sounds like and what it brings to the Turangalîla-Symphonie, watch and listen to the above video of the first movement of the work as performed by the Orchestre philharmonique du Radio-France under the direction of Myung-whun Chung with Roger Muraro on piano and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie playing the ondes Martenot. As you listen, consider whether or not you agree with me about the "alien invasion music" element.

Partly as a means of justifying the title of this post, here is the fifth movement of the Turangalîla-Symphonie, entitled Joie du sang des étoiles, taken from the aforementioned performance by the Orchestre philharmonique du Radio-France. The ondes Martenot does a lot of work in this fifth movement, so listeners who are now captivated by this special instrument may gain a better sense of its capabilities. I hope, too, that I've given enough of an introduction to the Turangalîla-Symphonie that some will be tempted to seek out and listen to the entire work. You've made it this far - why not hear the rest? AMDG.

ADDENDUM (4/14/11): In case you're interested, a review of Tuesday night's concert by Philadelphia Inquirer music critic David Patrick Stearns is now available online. The Inquirer website also features a video of the start of the concert which is worth watching.


At 4/14/2011 2:41 PM, Blogger Robin said...

I listened to the first one; definitely eerie.

At 4/14/2011 8:07 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


I wish I could have posted some of the more tranquil movements, which are also eerie but in a different sort of way - quiet, meditative, mysterious.


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