Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra: Whistling Messiaen

Classic Arts Features   Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra: Whistling Messiaen
Over two nights at Carnegie Hall, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra received enthusiastic ovations. Eddie Silva recounts his experience.

For audiences, critics, and musicians alike, the February trip to Carnegie Hall was something special this season. John Adams's Doctor Atomic Symphony received its New York premiere, with the composer in attendance. After the frenetic finale reached its crashing silence, and the crowd reached its feet, one concertgoer was heard saying to another, "Wasn't that exciting?" Perhaps the greatest applause went to Principal Trumpet Susan Slaughter, who found all the poetry of a long solo that sings‹as J. Robert Oppenheimer does in Adams's opera Doctor Atomic, from which the symphony is derived‹standing on the precipice of a new, terrifying world about to come into being.

The previous night, the SLSO performed Messiaen's TurangalêÎla Symphony, a monumental work if there ever was one. Eighty minutes in length, TurangalêÎla was performed as part of Carnegie's Discovery Series, and included a 40-minute introduction into the piece, with slides and musical excerpts, presented by Music Director and Conductor David Robertson. On a weekend of special nights, the TurangalêÎla event was extraordinary, with members of the audience and the orchestra speaking of it in terms usually used for mystical experiences. Alex Ross, author of the bestselling book on 20th-century music, The Rest Is Noise, posted this account of one concertgoer's experience on his blog "I'm not even going to try to describe the effect it had on me, other than to say there are a few cultural encounters that have marked me forever‹understanding C_zanne for the first time, my Merce Cunningham epiphany, my first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth viewings of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flowers of Shanghai‹and the TurangalêÎla now joins their company."

Marked forever.

What follows is my own account of that night in New York City, written the morning after, excerpted from the SLSO's blog:

An SLSO fan wrote in after the TurangalêÎla performance at the Touhill in January, marveling at how she found herself singing some of the melodies after she left the hall. She didn't think Messiaen would ever have that kind of effect.

But last night, after David Robertson's discussion of the work, with slides and musical excerpts, I heard many people in Carnegie Hall whistling and humming and singing Messiaen. Those are some pretty wonderful melodies to have stuck in your head.

David Robertson gave an introduction before the orchestra played the full work. To better convey Messiaen's use of rhythm and color, or rhythm as color, David selected paintings by Sonia and Robert Delaunay, in which color and line achieve a visual rhythm on the picture plane. With the orchestra playing excerpts, the images projected on the back wall of the stage, it all came together, with a greater understanding of Messiaen's synesthesia. Messiaen actually heard color, and David shared an anecdote of talking with the great composer when David was in his mid-20s. With a projection of the stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle on the wall, David said he asked Messiaen what he heard when he saw those windows: "A symphony of color."

At intermission, with people whistling TurangalêÎla melodies, I headed to the bar and, there he was, holding forth with some friends, Alex Ross. The author of The Rest Is Noise, in bookstores everywhere, the whowouldhavethunkit bestseller on music in the 20th century, right there, saying, oh, I am sure the most witty and smart and perceptive things. I had one of my Wayne and Garth moments‹you know, when in Wayne's World Alice Cooper asks them to come along and party and they kneel down and cry "We're not worthy. We're not worthy."

The concert: I have had few experiences in which the sheer excitement of an orchestral performance was so palpable. When David gave the audience "permission" to applaud at the end of one of the most thrilling movements, it was as if he'd popped the cork of a celebratory bottle of champagne. You could feel the audience erupt with a sense of relief; the joy that had been building could be released.

And joy was the theme of the evening, in many ways. Messiaen is one of the few artists who has managed to express joy, happiness, ecstasy‹the non-brooding subjects‹and to do it with such intelligence and craft and taste.

And David Robertson radiated joy on the podium. I had a good view of him from my seat, and he anticipated every moment of beauty with a wide, happy grin. He was supremely confident, and he knew the orchestra was playing TurangalêÎla with the generosity and skill and understanding that only the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra could bring to it. It's a wonderful quality in this ensemble of musicians‹their ability, even in a massive work such as this, to draw the audience in, to bring the audience closer. They achieve an intimacy that is rarely found in the concert hall.

And last night, they knocked TurangalêÎla out of the cosmic ballpark.

Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

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