by Jen Graves
on Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 5:19 PM
Courtesy of the artist and Greg Kucera Gallery
MESSIAENIC This is a detail from a new watercolor painting by the Seattle artist Jeffrey Simmons, now showing at Greg Kucera Gallery. I think the late French composer Olivier Messiaen would like it. He was a famous synaesthete. Who knows what he'd have heard while looking at this.
If you want adventure, go to Benaroya Hall tomorrow (Saturday) night at 8. (Details.) Sit down in any seat and you will hear something historic: Seattle Symphony doing its second-ever performance of Olivier Messiaen's inordinately exuberant, sobbing, cosmic, tangled 1949 symphony Turangalila.
The first performance happened last night, and it was the occasion for that rarest thing in Seattle—a genuine standing ovation. The kind of standing ovation where you're standing before you've even had a chance to think about it, where the whole theater jumps up as if animated by a magical force—and sheer unanimity is a pretty magical force—and then everyone refuses to stop clapping even though our hands hurt and it's the third curtain call already. It was good. And weird.
Messiaen wrote it to feature an early electronic instrument called the ondes Martenot as well as the piano. In Seattle, visiting pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet has ties to Messiaen himself. The pianist told the story from the stage last night that he'd practiced the piece on Messiaen's wife's own copy of the score, sitting in their home, with Messiaen always nearby but behind closed doors. The composer of legendarily otherworldly music was "there but not there," Thibaudet said. SSO music director Ludovic Morlot described Turangalila as "the universe spinning through time." In the program notes, Paul Schiavo wrote:
One cannot leave a discussion of the Turangalila Symphony without some consideration of its aesthetics. This is not easy, for Messiaen's music generally, and this work especially, defies nearly all accepted canons of musical propriety and good taste. Messiaen, to a degree quite unmatched in history, was unashamed of grandiloquence, lavish sonority and the inflation of transparent musical ideas through reiteration and sheer volume. Harmonies that could sound embarrassing in a Holllywood film score troubled him not at all, and he allowed the ondes Martenot [an early precursor to the theremin] to wail with abandon.
Yet these qualities cannot be dismissed as mere kitsch or naiveté. Messiaen used them too consistently and with too much conviction, forcing us to accept them as legitimate expressions of heightened emotion. Indeed, it is the immoderate quality of the Turangalila Symphony—its extreme rapture, extreme violence, and extreme lushness—that gives it authenticity.
Rather than write a reasoned, chronological accounting of my experience last night, I'll just share with you my crazy notes. My notes are not always like this. Looking at them today it seems almost like I was infected by "the immoderate quality" coming from the stage.
Is that the sound of a shooting star?
Those strings swaying and leaning—20th-century anxiety.
Super-super-super playful against big-big-big.
The orchestra just keeps breaking open over the room.
The way the piano chord hangs in the air, alone, against the wall [of the orchestra], followed by winds, thin, startling, then brass. Plus gamelan. Plus waves. Plus Copland.
Blossoming and then re-blossoming! This movement!
Calder. Air. What is the home key? Is that sound even happening? Am I hearing things?
Why is there no dancing with this? Think of the costumes!
Huge, huge bath of a climax. Thank you. Where are we?
The players still respond to him [recently appointed SSO music director Ludovic Morlot] as a new lover. The bath of the climax again! Strings. Tutti. Scatter scatter scatter rush. BEAM BEAM BEAM.
Then, I was standing before I knew it.
To give you some idea of the sounds you're in for, here's one of my favorite movements from the piece, featuring the Filarmonica della Scala and a younger Thibaudet: