Dudamel, Thibaudet, Millar / Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar
Olivier Messiaen: Turangalîla Symphony

KKL Lucerne, 2016-09-11

4-star rating

2016-09-22 — Original posting

Gustavo Dudamel (© Adam Latham)
Gustavo Dudamel (© Adam Latham)


On 2016-08-13, this year’s Lucerne Festival opened with a big splash. The new Music Director, Riccardo Chailly, conducting the Symphony No.8 in E♭ major (a.k.a. “Symphony of a Thousand”) by Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911)—the one symphony by this composer that Chailly’s predecessor, the late Claudio Abbado (1933 – 2014) hadn’t performed in Lucerne.

Mahler’s symphony doesn’t really involve a thousand people (musicians / singers), but typically still several hundred. The closing concert, also in the white hall of the KKL Lucerne (as also the opening concert, of course) didn’t require any singers, but at least in terms of orchestra size, that event could still compete with Mahler’s opus summum: the festival had invited Gustavo Dudamel (*1981) and “his” orchestra, the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar de Venezuela to perform the Turangalîla Symphony by Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992).

The Artists

Orchestra and Conductor

The Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar de Venezuela goes back to 1975, when José Antonio Abreu (*1939) founded the ensemble. In 1999, Gustavo Dudamel (*1981) became the orchestra’s artistic director. The young conductor was an excellent fit to the orchestra, which back then was a youth orchestra, part of Venezuela’s famous system of youth music education, “El Sistema“. As the orchestra members grew older, the ensemble officially is no longer a youth orchestra, since 2011.

Gustavo Dudamel started learning the violin at age 10, then soon began studying composition. In 1995 (at age 14!) he began studying conducting, first with Rodolfo Saglimbeni (*1962), then later with José Antonio Abreu. After his appointment as artistic director in 1999, he attended master classes with Charles Dutoit (*1936), and 2003, he worked as assistant for Simon Rattle. Dudamel has since launched a very successful conducting career, both in the area of opera and concert. Besides his position with the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, he became Music Director with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009, succeeding Esa-Pekka Salonen (*1958). For more information on Dudamel see also Wikipedia.

Piano — Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony requires two soloist: for one, there is a very virtuosic piano part. This was played by the French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, born 1961 in Lyon (see Wikipedia for additional information). After initial studies at the conservatory in Lyon, Thibaudet moved to the Conservatoire de Paris, where he studied with Aldo Ciccolini (1925 – 2015) and Lucette Descaves (1906 – 1993). He is since pursuing a successful career, both as soloist and as chamber musician.

Ondes Martenot

The other solo instrument in the Turangalîla Symphony is rather special (as central to the symphony as the piano): the Ondes Martenot. This is an electronic instrument with a keyboard for producing simple melodies on the chromatic scale (one hand is playing, the other hand controls the volume and the tonal quality). The instrument also permits playing a vibrato, as well as tones on a continuous scale. The sound is singing—maybe more than any other instrument that I know.

At times (in Messiaen’s symphony), it sounds like a singing bird, ethereal (some may call it esoteric!). At the same time, the sound is clearly “artificial” and synthetic, maybe often sterile: after all, the waves it generates are pure sinoidals. They lack the overtones of a “real” instrument (string or wind). At the same time, the sound lacks the individual characteristics of a human voice.

Adding that instrument appeared rather unusual and exotic. People have asked the composer why he wanted to include the Ondes Martenot in this symphony, and his only and simple answer was “It’s a love song”.

The Ondes Martenot were invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot (1898 – 1980). The sound of the original Ondes Martenot is similar to that of an even weirder instrument, the Theremin. Later versions added possibilities to form the sound using several registers. Production of the Ondes Martenot apparently stopped in 1980. I suspect that there aren’t too many playable instruments still in existence (outside of France, at least). Similarly, the number of musicians playing it must be very small.

Cynthia Millar

In this concert, the Ondes Martenot were played by one of the few specialists in this field, Cynthia Millar. She is an expert on this instrument. Millar also seems to have a near-monopoly on this part in Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony: I found a number of recordings of this symphony on YouTube, and she is playing that part in several of them, see the addendum below for two examples.

Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992): Turangalîla Symphony

The Composition

The conductor Serge Koussevitzky (1874 – 1951) commissioned a symphony by Olivier Messiaen for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Messiaen had complete freedom in terms of duration, instrumentation, etc.; he wrote the work 1946 – 1948. The result was a symphony with ten movements, for a very large orchestral setting: besides piano and the Ondes Martenot (see above), it asks for around 70 string players, two dozen wind instruments, a dozen percussionists, and celesta. In this performance, the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar de Venezuela was present with its full staff, filling the podium entirely.

The symphony premiered in 1949. The young Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) stepped in as conductor, replacing Serge Koussevitzky, who had fallen ill. In the premiere, Yvonne Loriod (1924 – 2010), later to become Messiaen’s wife, played the piano. Ginette Martenot (1902 – 1996), sister of the inventor of the instrument, played the Ondes Martenot.

Name and Theme

Messiaen’s inspiration for this work was—for a change—not religious, but stems from the composer’s interest for the saga around Tristan and Isolde (Tristan and Iseult), or more widely, for romantic love and death. Messiaen derived the name from two words in Sanskrit, turanga (love song) and lîla (hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death). The “action” in the symphony remains abstract. Still, while listening to this music, my (the listener’s) mind spontaneously evokes scenes, pictures, situations.

Even lay persons should be able to enjoy this music, directly and without explanation / educational background. Messiaen helped here by bracketing the composition with common themes. He introduces two key themes in the first movement, and these accompany the listener throughout the symphony.

In the text below, I’m “digesting” my spontaneous notes from the performance, movement by movement—sorry about the occasional repeat! For more general remarks see further below.

The Performance

I. Introduction: Modéré, un peu vif

This movement confronted and impressed the listener with the sound of the giant orchestral apparatus. But it wasn’t just the volume that impressed, but equally the large dynamic bandwidth. Also, the string sound was very impressive, strong and homogeneous (note that there were 10 double basses!). My spontaneous thought with this piece was “spring (or love?) is entering the stage with force“. Besides all the force, there were also those serene moments (predominantly with the Ondes Martenot), as well as some very virtuosic & impressive piano parades.

II. Chant d’amour 1: Modéré, lourd

Spontaneous thought (inspired by the title of the movement, of course): “Love makes its sudden appearance, then flourishes in all its beauty“. I really enjoyed the Ondes Martenot, with their sound interchanging between ethereal, beautiful singing and fervent emotions. The score is very complex for the orchestra, especially in rhythm: I liked the discipline, the excellent coordination in the orchestra. The movement ends forceful, a strong dissonance changing into a beautiful major chord. Actually, by that time, my ear had adjusted to this music enough to perceive a dissonance as “beautiful”, to enjoy it, really.

III. Turangalîla 1: Presque lent, rêveur

A lovely interplay between clarinet and double bass at the beginning! The movement evolves into complex polyphony, almost fugue-like, a kind of “baroque, polyphonic sound structure”—fascinating!

IV. Chant d’amour 2: Bien modéré

Here and throughout the symphony, I really enjoyed the excellent, flawless intonation in the orchestra, e.g., between the oboes and the brass section. Other things that I enjoyed in this movement: the excellent precision in the percussion section, the ethereal sound carpet that Jean-Yves Thibaudet created on the piano, and the virtuosic cadenza near the end. And finally, the “flower” theme between clarinet and bassoon, pure and ppp.

Messiaen is playing with dissonances, often alternating, switching between harsh dissonances and “nice”, tonal sounds. It is in the dissonances which really exposed the qualities of the orchestra! Dissonances aren’t “just dissonant” (some might call it “awful”, “odd”, etc.)—quite to the contrary. Just like consonant intervals such as major or minor thirds, dissonances, such as minor or major seconds, are defined exactly, have a specific sound. Where Messiaen lets two clarinets, or a clarinet and a bassoon, approach each other in pitch, but does not end in unison, rather leaves the voices at a very narrow interval instead, one can easily tell whether the instruments are tuned well.

This was a movement of pure enjoyment and pleasure. To me, it describes how love is evolving gradually, heating up, establishing itself, “continuing on forever”, almost transcendental in the last decrescendo into ppp.

V. Joie du Sang des Étoiles: Vif, passionné avec joie

The “Joy of the blood of the stars”: a real fun movement, growing into a lively market scene, sometimes forceful, sometimes almost chaotic, always accompanied by the Ondes Martenot, which periodically interjects a theme that sounds almost American, sometimes wildly jazzy, reminds me of music / themes by George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) or Leonard Bernstein. An excellent performance, full of drive / momentum, growing into a final series of sound clusters, then a crazy piano cadenza, and a closing chord that brings to mind the “harmony of the spheres”.

VI. Jardin du Sommeil d’amour: Très modéré, très tendre

A true idyll, with the “love” theme in strings and the Ondes Martenot, at the border of being too sweet. The piano, assisted by the vibraphone and tube bells, imitates amazingly lovely bird songs—everything is in pure harmony, sounds of the spheres, fading away in eternal, endless harmony. Without the bird song, this would definitely be too sweet and too long. But with the birds singing, this feels like part II of the climax in the symphony.

VII. Turangalîla 2: Un peu vif, bien modéré

This movement is described as “completely atonal”. The piano part plays sequences that could originate directly from Messiaen’s “Catalogue d’oiseaux” (bird catalog), for which Messiaen developed a very specific idiom, in which the pitch is cleverly obscured by narrow clusters: one might even be able to identify specific birds, but listeners may have trouble singing the melody. Later, the movement is rather violent, with lots of action from the percussion section, a short brass fanfare—more bird songs, and an ending in a dry shot.

VIII. Développement d’amour: Bien modéré

Another wild, almost violent movement, with very virtuosic piano solos in the first part. The earlier themes all appear here. The brass section makes me (remotely) think of “The Great Gate of Kiev” from “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881), but at the same time also reminds of music by Gershwin or Bernstein again. And also here I enjoyed the clean intonation of the “flower theme” by clarinet and bassoon. The Music grows in complexity, gets rhythmically very intricate, sometimes also jazzy. Dudamel clearly is intimately familiar with this music: his control over coordination, tempo and rhythm is excellent, the result compelling and enthralling, even with very economical conducting gestures.

The movement builds up in waves. Harmonic and dynamic progression, almost into overwhelming infinity—up to a big bang in the tamtam. The only thing that I resented here was that the wobbling of the vibraphone (inherently) was asynchronous, not coordinated with the rhythmic pattern.

IX. Turangalîla 3: Bien modéré

This movement stroke me with its spatial plasticity (in this hall). The first part is almost intimate, with single woodwind instruments, a small string ensemble—almost chamber music. The piano appears as percussion instrument; growing polyphony, mostly in the percussion section, up to an abrupt ending.

X. Final: Modéré, presque vif, avec une grande joie

The final movement features brass fanfares, enthralling rhythms, as they could appear in musicals, sounding popular: very virtuosic for all musicians in the orchestra, enthralling, very motoric. Actually, the music is so catchy that it sticks to one’s mind, is hard to forget (it followed me for days!). The ending really overwhelming in its glory, a both enthralling and touching apotheosis of love.


Conductor & Orchestra

For most listeners, Gustavo Dudamel remained largely hidden behind the lid of the piano. However, he left no doubt that he knows this music and kept control throughout the evening. The orchestra playing was really firm and clean in intonation, rhythm, and coordination—evebn where Dudamel asked for a rather refreshing tempo.

The conductor achieved a rounded, harmonic, even “natural” performance & soundscape. He did not try pointing out individual features / structures (e.g., by using dry articulation of extra-rhythmic playing). His focus was on the musical flow. With this, he completely captured the audience. I should add that the orchestra score is very demanding. With the acoustic transparency of the white hall in the KKL (the concert was essentially sold out), even minute inaccuracies in the percussion section would be clearly audible.

Piano, Ondes Martenot

The part of the solo piano is percussive almost throughout, and extremely virtuosic. The piano score is full of fast, percussive tremolos, as well as virtuosic, “flying” passages over the entire keyboard. There are occasional, melodic elements, too, but Messiaen placed these mostly in the orchestra, and even more so on the Ondes Martenot. Jean-Yves Thibaudet mastered his part brilliantly. Cynthia Millar‘s contribution at the Ondes Martenot was omnipresent throughout the symphony. With such an experienced player, one simply took her part as a given: she knows her “business”, and I was happy to get a live introduction to this instrument. That probably applies to numerous members of the audience, too.

The Music

I really liked Messiaen’s music! The lively parts, such as the movements I (Introduction), III (Turangalîla 1), V (Joie du Sang des Étoiles), VII (Turangalîla 2), IX (Turangalîla 3), and X (Final) are rhythmically enthralling, captivating, ravishing. Those devoted to love, i.e., II (Chant d’amour 1), IV (Chant d’amour 2), and VI (Jardin du Sommeil d’amour) expose wonderfully melodic, catchy themes—melodies with a potential to turn into “ear worms”. The final movement combines the catchy parts of all preceding movements—it is almost too catchy.

Despite all the dissonances, Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony is easy on the listener, catchy overall, almost too nice. Almost automatically / inevitably, I started thinking whether Messiaen was making concessions to his “customer” (Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra) and their audience. However, I think that the symphony expresses Messiaen’s genuine musical thinking and mind. It is sincere and truthful, genuine, original from the composer’s point-of-view.

We live in a time of so much war, social unrest and other global threats to humanity. By sheer coincidence, this concert happened exactly 15 years after the attacks on the World Trace Center in New York in 2001. This led to the thought whether performing this music in its beauty in theme (love), melodies and harmonies (and as closure for a prominent music festival) could be seen as escapism. But I instantly came to the conclusion that exactly at such times, the message of peace and (abstract) love and beauty should (also) be sounded and heard.

Addendum 1:

For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.

Addendum 2:

As mentioned above, there are several recordings of Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony available on YouTube. I picked two of these here. First, one with Gustavo Dudamel, also with “his” orchestra, the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar de Venezuela, with Yuja Wang (*1987) at the piano, and Cynthia Millar at the Ondes Martenot. This live recording is from the Luxemburg Philharmony, the concert was on 2016-01-10. With the exception of the pianist, this is virtually the same setting & performance as what I witnessed in the above concert. My impression is that the performance in Lucerne was better than the one in Luxemburg. [Video no longer available.]

Here’s a second recording, with Paavo Järvi (*1962) conducting the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, with Stewart Goodyear (*1978) at the piano, and (again) Cynthia Millar at the Ondes Martenot. Also this is a live recording from the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, 2013-06-13 (Paavo Järvi’s farewell concert with this orchestra):

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