Almost 70 years after its premiere, performances of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie are still rare in Australia. By my count, there have been about five – in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane – several conducted by Simone Young.
Over her illustrious career, Young has made Messiaen’s sprawling, gargantuan mammoth one of her signature pieces. She conducted it at her inaugural concert with the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra in 2005, a performance which, according to one commentator “ignited fireworks full of colour and passion”.
Those same qualities ignited the performance of Turangalîla in Melbourne last night. For this, Young directed an orchestra of around 120 players comprising members of the Australian World Orchestra and young players from the Australian National Academy of Music. It was thrilling to see ANAM youngsters sitting alongside some of the world’s leading players; in the trombone section, for instance, young Sung Kyu (Pius) Choi sat next to Michael Mulcachy, principal trombone of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Jacob Abela, Simone Young, Timothy Young, the Australian World Orchestra and students from the Australian National Academy of Music. Photo: supplied.
In just on 80 minutes, Messiaen leads his orchestra on a wild ride, encompassing some of the most sensual and carnal music ever written. Young had those very qualities at the tip of her baton, inducing at times, the most sublime hush, barely audible, only to be shattered by a brace of brazen cosmic dances. At times, she appeared to be milking the orchestra to produce ever more sound, almost to breaking point, but that glorious closing F sharp major chord at the very close – where “glory and joy are without end” – could have lasted a longer eternity.
Young must now be acknowledged as a leading Messiaeniste. Not only does she know how to draw out his sumptuous near-operatic sonorities, but she tosses off those perilous rhythmic quirks – all those added value notes! – without batting an eyelid. She is known as a hard task-master and was clearly the perfect conductor for the AWO and its young ANAM colleagues.
Turangalîla is not only a colossal symphonic work, it is, in effect, a piano concerto, which Messiaen created for his future wife Yvonne Loriod. Timothy Young (no relation to the conductor) set off torrents of keyboard flourishes, at the same time tending Messiaen’s aviary of bird song with poise and precision. Facing him on the other side of the stage was one of his former ANAM students, Jacob Abela, who is now making a name for himself as Australia’s foremost exponent of the Ondes Martenon, an early electronic keyboard too often associated with horror film effects.
Messiaen was quite enamoured of this instrument, incorporating it into several of his works; one of my favourites is the Fêtes des belles eaux (1937) for a sextet of Ondes, an extravagance we are unlikely to experience in this country. And while on the subject: a pity that the lavish souvenir programme book contained no information about this intriguing instrument. Was this Ondes the legacy of Messiaen’s visit to Australia in May 1988, the French government’s gift for our Bicentennial? It was telling to observe both keyboard players performing from tablets: would it not be possible to fabricate the sounds of the Ondes on more sophisticated electronic instruments? That way we may indeed get to hear Messiaen’s Fêtes! In the event, Abela showed he was a true maître of an instrument that may well have gone the way of other musical dinosaurs.
There were many highlights in the playing. I shall relish the gossamer sheen of the violins, all 32 of them, led by Daniel Dodds, leader of the Festival Strings of Lucerne. Equally, the assurance of the 11 percussionists whose batterie could have gone all the way to Geelong and back, especially the deft keyboard playing of Claire Edwardes from Ensemble Offspring. The French horns, led by Andrew Bain, currently principal with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, laid out a plush carpet of sonority, over which other brass and winds created exotic solos and textures which were sometimes not entirely immaculate. Overall, though, this was playing of a première ordre, rewarded at the end by an extended standing ovation.
Despite being assigned seats which were less than optimal, I could not escape the overall sweep and splendour of Turangalîla, and a sense that I had witnessed a historic concert. Moving out into the cold Melbourne night, I began to tote up my own census of Turangalîlas: at least six, the first of which was with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. Has the piece stood up over the decades? Has it been subsumed by film music? (Virgil Thomson once carped that it came “straight from the Hollywood cornfields”.) Do I need to hear it again? Perhaps not, but I would certainly purchase a CD of the AWO’s performance, should one be forthcoming.
No, this performance was not for old Turangalîla-hands like myself. It was primarily for the performers, especially the ANAM youngsters who will remember the experience of playing this piece with Simone Young for their entire lives.