In the first of three evenings devoted solely to Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, the combination of Esa-Pekka Salonen and the New York Philharmonic proved riveting and exhilarating. Somehow its remarkable oddities have found a place in the not-quite-standard repertoire, and there’s certainly something to be said for that, particularly considering the initial reaction to the work among critics, in 1949: no less than Virgil Thompson said it was “straight from the Hollywood cornfields.” There’s no denying that the music is cinematic – indeed, it evokes colors at times in a synaesthetic way. And that’s one of its glories. In a five minute, pre-concert speech, Maestro Salonen referred to the fifth and last movements as dances; the three “Turangalîla” movements  as “more austere, static and on an exotic landscape;” and remarkably, invited us to “hear the fragrance of the garden” in the sixth movement.

© Clive Barda
© Clive Barda
The work is huge – almost 80 minutes broken into 10 movements – and can seem unwieldy, even random. Even knowing that its title is a combination of two Sanskrit words, one meaning “the movement of time and rhythm” and the other, “creation, destruction, life, death and love,” will not really help except in a very hip and “wow” way. Messiaen referred to it as a “song of love,” but clarified (?) it by adding that it is a love that is fatal/cosmic – he was intrigued at the time by Tristan und Isolde. If that escapes the listener, the work’s unique sound world will not. It’s just important to listen for recurring musical themes: Statue, Flower, Love and a fourth, which consists of a sequence of chords and shows up in the second half of the symphony.  

Unlike almost any other work in the repertoire, Turangalîla is not open to interpretation; Messiaen has orchestrated and notated with great specificity. The conductor’s job therefore, is to choose tempi and to lead with clarity and attention to balances and rhythm, so that each instrument is present, audible and doing its part. Salonen did that ideally, leading a weighty reading that never seemed bogged down, with big climaxes that were terrifying – and so gloriously played by the NY Phil – and gentle passages that hypnotized. From the first appearance of the giant-footstep-like chords that comprise the Statue motif – announced by a wild swoop on the strings and ondes Martenot – Salonen led the work as if it were a thriller with ten chapters, each telling a different part of the story.

Placed in front of Maestro Salonen, pianist Yuja Wang, just 29 years old, proved her worth in the first movement’s wild jumble and went on to further heights. She played the stunning cadenza in the fourth movement (Love Song 2) with remarkable virtuosity, its lead-up to a chilling upward lunge on the ondes Martenot. And after the restatement of the Statue and Flower theme, which the piano underpins gently and tonally, she ended the movement on a whisper. As if this proof of the work’s manic-depression isn’t clear enough, the whopping fifth movement, named “Joy in the Blood of the Stars,” presents a hectic, frenzied dance with more than a hint of George Gershwin. It is the emotional center of the work, a tour-de-force of the first order, with the rhythms clashing, the piano coming to the fore and the Statue theme popping up at the last moment to end the brief movement with a smash. Valerie Hartman-Claverie, playing the ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument that manages to sound both sexy and creepy, had no trouble making the special effect the instrument is capable of, from bizarre zooms, to subtler, sensual suggestions.  Messiaen at his most tender is what the sixth movement is all about – “Garden of the Sleep of Love” is its title. The dreamy strings, lightly tinkling piano and celesta and general sense of well-being seems to be a purposeful way of bringing the listener back to his or her own peaceful place after the orgy of sound that comes before. Hear the fragrance, indeed. It says something – I’m not certain what – that this is the longest of the ten movements. It is a meditative, well-needed rest before the brief, dissonant nightmare of the second Turangalîla movement, a ticking clock of a time bomb if ever there was one.

And so it went at the newly named David Geffen Hall, gaining power and coherence, to the end, with its consonant, long-held, huge crescendo on an F# major chord that almost makes one forget the dark moments, the cacophony, and the frenzy. Messiaen referred to it as “glory and joy without end.” Indeed.