This year, the Ultima festival music celebrates 25 years at the forefront of Norwegian and international contemporary music. It was therefore odd that Thursday’s opening concert consisted of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, a piece nearing its 70th anniversary. While Turangalîla stands as one of the 20th century’s most life-affirming, glorious (not to mention gloriously loud) pieces, it seemed out of place in this festival centred around celebrating and showcasing new music.

Vasily Petrenko © Mark McNulty
Vasily Petrenko
© Mark McNulty

Turangalîla was written at the end of the 1940s, as a commission from Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Koussevitzky placed no limits on the size of the orchestra or the work’s duration, giving Messiaen the chance to write a huge piece, an opportunity he more than seized. Turangalîla consists of ten movements, lasts for over an hour and is scored for a massive orchestra, including no less than 11 percussion players, piano and ondes Martenot soloists. Its title is derived from the Sanskrit words turanga and lîla, which in English translate to “love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death. The piece is also heavily influenced the ideas of love and death expressed in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Messiaen’s music is dazzlingly colourful, orchestral timbres swirling around with an almost dizzying effect, sometimes ecstatically joyful, sometimes intensely terrifying. The alien sounds of the ondes Martenot, a sound today inextricably connected to science fiction films of the 50s and 60s, can at least on paper make it difficult to take the piece seriously, yet it comes together beautifully in the piece itself, the electronic instrument an otherworldly voice. It is music of wild contrasts, yet it is joy that first and foremost comes across in the piece, a wild celebration of life itself, a kind of joy that can only be felt by someone who has undergone deep tragedy. While conductor Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic’s performance was on the enthusiastic side, it felt overly cautious at times. The music requires almost reckless abandon, complete emotional involvement without a trace of irony. It must be played with utmost sincerity.

Petrenko kept the tempi brisk overall, constantly balancing of the knife edge between joyous ecstasy and profound terror, especially evident in the fifth movement “Joie du Sang des Étoiles”, yet the next movement, “Jardin du Sommeil d’amour” proved a haven of meditative calm. The acoustics of the Oslo Concert House are far from good, but a renovation this summer, moving the stage back a couple metres or so, seems to have helped somewhat. The strings sounded fuller, even though the usual issue of the brass overpowering every other instrument still remained. The fullness of the string sound might also have been due to their sheer number, almost double their usual size.

In an attempt, no doubt, to add something or other to the performance, lighting effects were added throughout the piece, the colour of the light changing for each movement, sometimes mid-movement, to show the work’s contrasting moods. While representing moods through the use of colour and light can be an interesting and exciting touch, this particular performance devolved into a rather unseemly Scriabin-like synaesthetic extravaganza, more distracting than anything else. Seeing the orchestra bathed in the normal, white light was surprisingly relieving. Not content with only overhead lighting, giant floodlights placed on the floor were also used, sometimes pointed outwards, adding further distraction by effectively blinding the audience. In addition, lights were blinking periodically at the back of the hall, creating the impression of a low-budget rave.

Messiaen’s sincere joy and enthusiasm can be difficult to take seriously in our cynical day and age, yet its life-affirming ecstasy shone through, creating a uniquely powerful experience. It could have been played with even more reckless abandon, but it still stood clearly as one of the strangest, most unique pieces of the last 100 years. The attempts to drown out the powerful music with distracting lights and effects were altogether regrettable. Surely Turangalîla, of all pieces, should be able, and be allowed, to speak for itself?