The Cosmic Grandeur of Love

Review of Morlot Conducts Messiaen at Seattle Symphony by Galen C.

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“In Sanskrit, Turanga means the universe spinning through time, and Lîla means the cosmic play of love and death,” explained Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot, discussing Olivier Messiaen’s (“MESS-yohn”) Turangalîla-Symphonie. This may sound excessively grand, but it describes perfectly Seattle Symphony’s first-ever performance of this 20th century masterpiece.

Turangalîla is rarely performed, and the reasons are evident; it’s long and physically exhausting, requires an uncommonly large percussion section, features a solo piano and the rare ondes Martenot (“ohnd MAR-ten-oh;” more on that later), and as a contemporary piece, is hard to market to wider audiences. However, judging by an almost-full house and the instant standing ovation, Morlot, the Seattle Symphony, and guest soloists Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Cynthia Millar did not have much trouble with these obstacles.

Instead of programming music in the first half of the concert, Morlot chose to give a brief introduction to Turangalîla. He presented the major musical themes, and pianist Thibaudet talked about meeting Messiaen and learning the part from Messiaen’s wife. Millar, one of the world's few ondes Martenot specialists, described the electronic, alien-sounding (think theremin) instrument and performed a piece she had composed. This conversation-performance format was charming and intimate—certainly a fresh experience even for those familiar with the piece.

After intermission, the first movement began with an intense orchestral introduction followed by the startling entrance of the ondes Martenot; with the ondes’ four speakers and the warm acoustics of Benaroya Hall, it could have easily overpowered the Symphony for the entire 80-minute piece. However, thanks to Morlot’s French ear and Millar’s experience with Turangalîla, the ondes and the orchestra (particularly the strings and low brass) were perfectly blended, bar solos. Messiaen had intended to create a “cushion” of hybrid sounds, and the ensemble was brilliantly balanced—more so than I can remember in any recording I’ve heard.

Thibaudet did a spectacular job with the piano part, at times playing with the adept virtuosity for which he is internationally renowned, often barely floating above the orchestra, and frequently returning seamlessly to the ensemble. Both he and Millar are veterans to this piece; Millar has given over 100 performances of Turangalîla, and her ondes enhanced the orchestra with an otherworldly, sci-fi sound quality that is, in Messiaen’s hands, incomprehensibly compatible with the acoustic symphony orchestra.

Interestingly, Messiaen had synesthesia, which meant he could see colors in music. While most listeners do not see colors as Messiaen did, the Symphony made the broad range of textures and moods apparent: laments of death and sadness from the strong percussion section, grandiose statements of joy played enthusiastically by the entire orchestra, and piano bird songs above a lush, rapturous love theme of ondes-strings. Juxtaposition was common in Messiaen's music, and particularly memorable was a schizophrenic five minute movement containing the following: Thibaudet punching the keys with his fists instead of his fingers (this happened several times throughout the evening), the percussion, strings, and ondes combining into a spooky sonority, and the brass chanting above a cloud of piano-ondes-strings. This was all led tightly from the podium by the inexhaustible energy of Morlot.

Through music, the orchestra and the soloists expressed the passing of time, the ecstasy of love, the sorrow of death, and the joy of dance. Even if the colors weren’t visible to all, it was a deeply moving experience that brought to mind the universal concepts of life. Seattle Symphony’s take on Turangalîla-Symphonie, if nothing else, was as Messiaen envisioned: one grand, cosmic love song to the universe.

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