The Northwest Mahler Orchestra presents Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony


On September 9th, the newly-renamed Northwest Mahler Orchestra will be performing the Seattle premiere of Olivier Messiaen's Turangalîla Symphony at Benaroya Hall.

I first heard this piece back in the 1990's in a live performance by the San Francisco Symphony. It's a large, sprawling work, and I was wise to have attended the pre-concert lecture. With music as with language, I have a particular affinity for structure, and knowing how the piece is put together greatly improves my appreciation. There are unifying themes and devices, but it's a big help when somebody points them out to you ahead of time so you can recognize them when they appear.

The Turangalîla Symphony is unique among all the works of Messiaen in that it is the only one that doesn't suck.¹ I tried to be generous in my overview of the 2006 Seattle Symphony season and described Messiaen's L'Ascension as polarizing, reserving the possibility that somebody might actually like it. (Nobody in my group did.)

But Turangalîla is different somehow. Not only does it not suck, it's actually pretty neat.

One of my colleagues wrote to me that he attended a performance of this piece about ten years ago by the Houston Symphony Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach. "The performance was outstanding. About a third of the audience ran from Jones Hall with their fingers in their ears, and the rest stayed transfixed."

That sounds about right. I'll be one of the people sitting there transfixed. Here's the fifth movement if you want to see how you'd react. (By the way, that's the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, maximum age: 19.²)

In that video, the strange piano-like contraption played by the older woman is the ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument that produces an etherial theremin-like sound. (Get to know it up close and personal in another YouTube video.) Jensen Harris calls it "one of the most unlikely musical contraptions ever." He tells me that an ondes Martenot and soloist are being flown in from France at great expense for the concert. (Incidentally, the pianist is also flying in from France.)

Trivia: Performances of the Northwest Mahler Orchestra are pretty much the only times you'll find me and Jensen Harris in the same room. I'm in the audience; Jensen is on stage.

Nitpicker's Corner

¹Although this statement is presented as fact, it is actually my personal opinion. I do not know whether Microsoft Corporation officially takes the position that Messiaen's music, with one exception, sucks, though if it were put up to a vote, I'd definitely vote in favor.

²The maximum age applies to the orchestra members themselves, not to the conductor or guest soloists.

Comments (13)
  1. Anonymous says:

    The fifth movement sound often like something from a tom & jerry cartoon when there’s a crash and tumble down a staircase.. Or some "gotchya" moment in a suspenseful Hitchcock movie or a more classical slasher movie [like Psycho] when the knife comes out and the blood flows. Jarring, and shrill, and it almost creates a stressful reaction hearing it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It should be noted that this symphony is the basis of Turanga Leela’s name (from Futurama).

  3. Anonymous says:

    I submit that Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps doesn’t actually suck.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hmmm.  After listening to a couple minutes of that youtube video, I think I’d be one of the people running away with my fingers in my ears.  Not for me, c’est la vie.  

  5. Anonymous says:

    OK, I am a Messiaen fanboy. As Edwin says Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps is great. Seeing a live performance of Saint François d’Assise is one of my great musical experiences. But I do love the Turangalîla Symphony.

  6. Anonymous says:

    It’s about time that Microsoft took an offical position on Messiaen’s music.  What are they waiting for???

  7. Anonymous says:

    I first heard the piece in 1969, in the same The Proms http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Proms concert series as that 2001 video. It blew away my conception of what a symphony orchestra is and can do, and I’ve wanted to play in it ever since. Now, I will – I’ll be the guy playing the contrarian woodblock part.

    Small computer speakers don’t help. A live hearing does wonders for sorting out the dense aural complexity in places. Some other places are pure melody, and some sound like fragments of Debussy filtered through Stravinsky. And the finale comes across to me as large-ensemble modern jazz, except it’s in pure sonata form.

    If you’re a string player with the chops, we still have room for you onstage. Just register http://www.nwmahlerfestival.org/OrchestraRegistration2007.htm. (Raymond, assuming you approved this, thanks for the chance to advertise).

  8. Anonymous says:

    Catalogue d’oiseaux?

    Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus??

    Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps???

    I guess I could’ve expected this opinion from a Mahler fan.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Although this statement is presented as fact

    Okay, this is seriously disgusting–every post having a disclaimer attached that consistently makes me cringe and reflexively reach to close the window.  On a gut distaste level, this ranks with interstitial ads and spam.  In the continuing battle of Legal Division vs. World, the world takes another loss–I can’t read this anymore …

  10. Anonymous says:

    Paul, you are a total and complete dweeb.  Raymond’s disclaimers at the end of EVERY post are a commentary on the need for such disclaimers!  It’s no-humor nitpicky morons like you who necessitate them.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I am curious how you find the finnish Cello-quartet Apocalyptica. They became famous when they released and album of Metallica-covers, but they also have an interesting array of original music.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I’ve seen and HEARD Apocalyptica at dour festival 2006 (Belgium). First song they play you think: "Hmmm this is a nice way of looking at <enter Metallica song here>". Second song you think: "Hmmm this sounds almost exactly like the first song". Third song: didn’t hear it, went to look at a better band playing at the festival.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I’ve played the Quatuor pour le fin de temps (piano part) a couple of times, heard it live performed by others, and I love the work dearly. Nonetheless I’m also a Mahler fan.

Comments are closed.