‘Turangalila’ gang-review: Illumination from many angles

ArtsWatch music writers and guest reviewers gang up on Oregon Symphony multimedia performance of Messiaen's mega-symphony


Photos by Jacob Wade

Editor’s note: a composition as ambitious, ginormous, and multifarious as Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalilla symphony demands more than a single journalistic response. ArtsWatch asked several of our stalwart music writers to weigh in on the Oregon Symphony’s December performances of the French modernist mystic’s mighty 1948 megalomusical creation. Two of those writers were laid low by travel difficulties and illness, but three survived to tell the tale, and we roped in a couple of distinguished guests to substitute for the missing mavens.

A Tapestry of Interwoven Polysensory Delight

The big trouble with this concert is that now I want every orchestra concert to be like this. Won’t Beethoven’s majestic old Ninth seem a little empty without animation projected on the walls? Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with no visuals? Unthinkable! We demand light shows at every concert.

The animation itself was deliciously surreal. Giant slabs of color rise up over the orchestra like ancient transdimensional beings out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs space opera; abstract lines and squiggly polygons play against the classical curves of the Schnitz‘s Renaissance balconies and plaster spandrels; nuts and bolts and screws dance an uncanny conga-line up the balustrades; and a sullen grey patch of dark clouds projected on the proscenium arch glooms periodically down on us like the cataracted eyeball of God.

I was worried that the projected animation would be all too dominated by CGI and CAD and other lazy pomo technological bogeymen, but quite a lot of it was hand-drawn. There were several movements animated entirely in black-and-white, with visible brush-strokes; one especially memorable passage featured a lovely evening forest, complete with moonrise. The animation style was also very nicely dimensionalized: scenes projected on the cyclorama used forced perspective and other animation tricks to imitate camera zooms, creating the illusion of movement through the forest, into the ground amongst the roots, and so on.

Rose Bond. Photo: Sam Slater.

The audience could barely contain themselves through all this overwhelmingly richness of sensuality and difficult joy. I did see several groups of people grumpily fleeing for the exits, and I understood but also pitied them. As Aleister Crowley says, “be strong! Then canst thou bear more joy. Be not animal; refine thy rapture!” We who remained sat stunned as the “intoxicating overabundance” (to quote Herr Nietzsche twice in one week) washed over us. The present author was strongly reminded of altered ontological states experienced with the assistance of certain psychoactive substances (e.g., potato chips), in which “synesthesia” stops being just another fancy Greek word and becomes the only term that can describe such a tapestry of interwoven polysensory delight.

All this lovely animation cycles through complex patterns repeated and laid on top of each other, reflecting the stratified and juxtaposed figures which characterize and unify the score. The great revelation of Messiaen’s music is the beauty and the spontaneous exuberance which can arise from dense, complex symmetry: there is a barely perceptible implicate order hiding just under the surface of Turangalîla’s radiant chords and mysterious melodies.

This tension between strict order and decadent sensuality appears throughout the work. Even the ondes martenot, which veteran pianist and ondes player Cynthia Millar demonstrated thoroughly and lovingly, embodies this dialectic. The early electronic instrument, which plays a prominent role in Messiaen’s score, sings in a way which even the venerated theremin cannot replicate. Despite the immediate, superficial impression which can come easily to a casual listener and dismiss it as mere ooooeeee sci-fi squealing, the ondes is capable of extremely sophisticated, expressive playing. That said, Messiaen still throws in a few TeslaFrankensteinHerrmann glissandi.

After the giant climax at the end of the fifth movement, “Joie du sang des étoiles” (“Joy of the Blood of the Stars” a typically Messiaenesque conflation of sensual, religious, and transcendent imagery), the audience erupted in jubilant applause. You’re not supposed to applaud between movements at The Symphony, a practice which even I observe (and I am far from conservative). But, to be fair, the fifth movement does sound very climactic, especially with all that hyper-expressive animation, and I’ll admit to applauding along with everyone else. It was just too fucking beautiful! Conductor Carlos Kalmar directed his serene, severe, conductorly gaze over his shoulder at us and we obediently hushed.

But later, after the long, difficult, virtuosic eighth movement (“Developpement de l’amour”), we couldn’t hold it in. The audience unanimously agreed to a collective “fuck that shit” and applauded away for a full minute. Kalmar indulged us, and two movements later at the work’s conclusion we took to our feet to express our gratitude in the only way audiences know how. We stood, we clapped, we roared, we went outside to smoke and talk about how we had all just experienced something Real, something Special, something beyond words, something we’ll talk about for years. — Matthew Andrews, Portland composer and percussionist.

Glitter and Corn

“The composer who wrestles with a composer as formidable as Messiaen is likely to find herself/himself in an artistic half-nelson.” – Livit Fishnard, 18th Earl of Worcestershire and leading British composer.

It was exciting to hear Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony in Portland. Messiaen was one of the gods of twentieth century music. Back in the mid-1970s when I went to college and discovered that there were still composers creating music far more exciting than Telemann trio sonatas, I frequently went to the library and put an LP of Messiaen’s music on the turntable. I read his book, Technique of My Musical Language and tracked down the Lavignac musical encyclopedia and made a photocopy of the Indian rhythmic structures called deci-talas, which Messiaen referenced. I wrote some chorales in his modes of limited transposition.

As much as I love some Messiaen — From the Canyons to the Stars, The Quartet for the End of Time, Chanson Pour Mi — I’ve never quite warmed to his magnum opus, the Turangalila. I’ve never quite been able to get past its pure cornpone to get to the core others so love. I find the sliding electronic sounds of ondes martenot over the Hollywood love theme to be silly, but not quite vulgar enough to be erotic or interesting. When I hear the love theme in Turangalila I can’t help but imagine Carole Lombard pursuing Cary Grant down the streets in some screwball comedy, but the punch line never arrives.

The Oregon Symphony’s “Turangalila” included projections created by Portland video artist Rose Bond.

Even worse, for me, is that Turangalila is rooted in all that Wagnerian Tristan love-death claptrap – and I find Wagner overall, and Tristan in particular, to be creepy and distasteful. I can’t hate life enough to love Tristan or Isolde. I find the idea of death as redemption of life to be repulsive, and THAT is what Tristan, Turangalila (and Christianity) are all about. It all goes against my nature.

I can’t listen to Messiaen without confronting Messiaen’s deeply felt music is about his religious beliefs. Stravinsky tried to convince others that music had no meaning beyond the notes. His own music proved the falsity of his claim. There is no avoiding the fact that Messiaen’s music is all about religion. Every phrase is a homily. I lack the religious gene. I find Christian mythology and the notion of death and redemption that is in every bar of Turangalila to be incomprehensible, unwholesome, and troubling.

Messiaen loved BIG and one has to go to Scriabin, Mahler or Messiaen’s idol Wagner to find bigger than Turangalila. He loved the ecstatic, whether real or imagined. It is impressive and I recognize it took a genius to concoct it. But it is a genius’s take on the purest Hollywood glitter and corn.  Sincerity doesn’t count in art.

Despite my unbelief, Messiaen’s music evokes emotional responses in me, which words will never suffice to describe. His Dionysian energy and the moments of paralyzed awe strike deep even in those, who like me, are content to remain unbelieving. Turangalilia is mightily impressive. But I’ll probably stick with his other works. — Antonio Celaya, California composer who was in town to hear several of his own works performed at Messiaen Melange Musique.

Marijuana, Masturbation, Megalomania

Rose Bond, the artist, was the ONLY thing that got me through the first 5 movements.  I slept through the second 5 movements, as did Bond, judging from her disinterested recycling of material through that 6th movement. Like I said to Jeff, teen-aged boys wanking off…  the male version of Cecile Chaminade.

Did anyone else catch the marijuana leaf that folded itself, like a bad poker hand, into a single feather in the 4th movement? — Maria Choban, Portland pianist and Oregon ArtsBitch.

Rousing Music, Irritating Imagery

This was my fifth “T-Rex Experience” (LA, NYC, Paris, Seattle & Global Village PDX) & I had a jolly fine time with the musical component – the symphony’s rendition was rousing while the percussion & brass sections were particularly “on tusk!”

As for the visuals . . .

Well, uh, first off, Messiaen would never have authorized such a project. Had he actually been there, he would’ve said, “C’est affreux. Il faut fermer les yeux!”

Sitting in the balcony & having to struggle through the wall of projector fan whoosh (particularly during the gorgeous 6th movement), I was deeply offended & annoyed. Never mind that the imagery was ugly, uninspired & unnecessary, the fact that both the piece AND the audience were “soundly” dissed amounts to nothing less than egregious trespass.

Hopefully, those that encountered Messiaen’s massive monster-piece for the first time will seek out a recording to which they might create their own visuals in the mind’s eye – try Ozawa’s with the Toronto Symphony (Ozawa was Messiaen’s fave conductor for his music). — Bob Priest, Portland composer, Messiaen student, and impresario of Messiaen Musique Melange.

Total Sensory Experience

Bad news first. There were plenty of things to be annoyed by in this performance of Turangalila. Something about the setup or the hall, or both, kept the ondes Martenot’s sound from carrying well into the balcony, so that I often missed its delightfully cartoonish wailing supercharging the various orchestral orgasms billowing my way. Another cartoon, unfortunately not missed, risible rather than delightful, was the mass of nails, screws, and nuts unleashed in the visual show at intervals. In a work inspired by the various experiences of romantic love, did Rose Bond think the teenage boys in the audience needed a cheap laugh?

On a more practical level, the fans in the projectors were so loud that I kept having to cup a hand over one ear in an only partially successful effort to hear the quieter passages over their white noise. Maybe it was this noise, maybe it’s just the Schnitzer Hall acoustics, but Messiaen’s wildly colorful score seemed to have a wisp of gray fog obscuring it much of the time, especially when I thought back to the Seattle Symphony’s performance I was privileged to hear last season in Benaroya Hall.

Still, despite all this, despite Messiaen’s habit of approximately repeating himself long after I feel I’ve gotten his point – and despite occasionally distracting myself by wondering how the packed hall was taking a work that, for all its broad strokes, amusements and entertainments, is larded with the most extraordinary sounds of the type that are generally believed to drive audiences away – the total sensory experience was glorious. After the Romantic anguish of almost-fulfilled love evoked by the first few minutes and grand finale of Wagner’s operatic conception of Tristan and Isolda, which under Kalmar’s baton bloomed tenderly in the orchestra, Messiaen’s idiosyncratic, high-spirited conception burst over the crowd like a three-ring trapeze act with shrieking fireworks thrown in for good measure. And the (thankfully) mostly abstract visual show worked with the sounds blasting off the stage far more than they fought, especially as the massive work trundled on and more and more bright colors showed up.

This was the first time Kalmar and the band have taken on Turangalila, but I dearly hope it won’t be the last. Next time I’ll be right up front. — Jeff Winslow, Portland composer and pianist.

As for my own take… as with so much of Messiaen, I often felt the music needed an editor. Spectacular passages and whole movements alternated with slack, overwrought, or melodramatic moments. There’s a wondrous 20 minute tone poem hiding amid that 75 minute extravagance.

One of ‘Turangalila’s’ legacies: Futurama’s Turanga Leela, the monovisual mutant created by Portland native Matt Groening.

I came away admiring the orchestra’s doughty performance but agreeing with another composer friend who’s heard Turangalila performed by some of the country’s finest orchestras: there were “blurry” patches that my friend attributed to its inability to quite muster the rhythmic and intonational precision Messiaen’s score demands. He also detected balance problems between the ondes martenot and the rest of the big orchestra. Of course, it’s not like orchestras get a lot of practice pulling off that particular trick, let alone in an unfriendly acoustic like Portland’s Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The videos, clearly the product of different artists using different styles, added variety at the expense of coherence. Each movement felt like we were starting a new movie, which made it hard to parse the work, which admittedly is pretty disparate anyway, as a whole. Still, the sporadically beautiful, sometimes breathtaking visual and musical moments were worth the experience, and I’m glad the Oregon Symphony challenged itself and its audience by bringing this oddball masterpiece to Oregon music lovers. — Brett Campbell

Watch a panel discussion with Bond, Kalmar and Portland Art Museum’s Brian Ferriso, including animation samples from First Movement, Sixth Movement, Tenth Movement.

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5 Responses.

  1. Bob Priest says:

    ” . . . teen-aged boys wanking off . . . ” ?
    Hey, I used to resemble that remark! :)))
    But, seriously now, folks, I have a rather succulent short story to share . . .

    My “T-Rex Cherry” was popped at age 21 via a life-changing concert 44 years ago this month by the LA Phil conducted by MTT. The morning after, I bought the Ozawa LP, played it incessantly & wound-up taking it with me to North Carolina School of the Arts in 1974.

    My first day @ NCSA, i met my dream ballerina. It was Patti’s 18th birthday & she became one of my life’s great loves. We had many an amorous toss-about with Turangalila tunes tickling our tenders & even talked about naming our daughter Turangalila! Yes, we were quite young & OMG, what FUN!!

    Patti & i remain friends & we still sometimes swoon on the phone a bit when we rewind our “T-Rex drenched” memories.

  2. Jack Gabel says:

    Bravo – memorable and sensual – we both fell into a twilight state after the first bar of Tristan and floated till the end of the show – nice outing for our first date in months

    RE: “…visible brush-strokes…” – cgi can deliver, but so what – images rich in nature chaos – thanks all for the detailed visuals and audio report from above – from under the balcony visuals were less impressive, but then we were spared the fans – first I’m hearing of it, right here – we got an unbalanced orchestra too – occasionally sounding like a re-arrangement of the Turangalila I know best (Ozawa) – can happen in any hall – but probably too little rehearsal and auditioning onde balance

    RE: “…now I want every orchestra concert to be like this.” – be careful what you wish for – 1. fan problem needs solving … sound-proof, glass-domed, media control/projection pod ? $6-figures deploys it (maybe) – could impact ticket prices – 2. a modern American symphony can nail a show in several rehearsals (usually); commissioned complex art movie … figure dozens of months – lucky if you’d ever get more than one a year

    good show OAW – so many voices on a single multi-media event – understood how getting lone multi-faceted critics to cover such shows can challenge – what fun – keep it up

  3. Gerhard Magnus says:

    In the words of the Kroll Show’s “Oh, Hello” skit: TOO MUCH TUNA!

  4. Gerhard Magnus says:

    …or perhaps: So… so Portland. Like the way the audience persists in applauding between movements because what they are feeling is just so much more important than the flow of concentration of the performers. Or the way Oregon Symphony concerts last year employed supertitles detailing the plot of “Cinderalla” and giving the “Orpheus” stage directions to distract the addled seniors from Stravinsky’s gorgeous music: “Orpheus enters, stage-right.” I mean, who gives a flying fuck about that ballet anymore? Or, my all-time favorite “so… so Portland” event, the Fear No Music performance of the “Rite of Spring” for four pianos that actually included… a dancer! Yes, one of those so, so Portland interpretive dancers, way too old to be a virgin in anybody’s imagination, who during the second part escaped from her cage and began vamping the pianists! It’s this adding of superfluous detail to art that stands on its own that grates so much. What’s it for anyway? Entertaining people in the audience who don’t “get” classical music?

  5. Bob Hicks says:

    It’s an interesting question: when is a cross-discipline performance a creative collaboration and when is it a distraction? I didn’t see “Turangalila” but thought the symphony’s previous event in the series, Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” with designs by Dale Chihuly, was brilliant. Of course, it’s an opera, if a scaled-down one, and we expect multimedia in opera: It’s integral to what an opera is. Dance and music and visual design go together like love and marriage and a baby carriage. I’ve done a slide-show visual design of paintings to go with Portland Chamber Orchestra’s performance of Sibelius’s “Pelleas and Melisande,” and found it a challenging and fascinating project, though I’m not sure whether it added to or distracted from the performance. As for Portland’s applause habits, I’ve made fun of them, too, but not mockingly: a performance IS for an audience, and the audience should feel welcome, and even entertained, which is not inherently a dirty word. My eyes were opened wide on this in the ’90s when I went to a symphony concert in St. Petersburg, Russia, and saw the vital link between performers and audience. The lights stayed up for the whole performance, so everyone could see everyone else: no shrouded mystery on the stage. Between numbers and sometimes between movements the audience applauded wildly, cheering and stomping and whistling; audience members would rush up to the stage with bouquets of flowers to lay at the feet of their favorite performers, who accepted them with a flourish. The connection between audience and musicians was electric: If anyone in the auditorium was there out of duty or habit, it didn’t show. Also: as a foreigner I paid the equivalent of about $50; Russians paid the equivalent of about two dollars. I liked that. Even with the loss of Soviet support, Russia had found a way to keep performances affordable, so that the prime factor in attending wasn’t that you were of a certain social and economic class, it was that you loved the music.

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