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September 1, 2009

Music we've been missing (Part 8): Messiaen

A survey of music we don't get to hear live around here -- at least orchestrally speaking -- would have to include the works of Olivier Messiaen. And the item I think of first is "Turangalila-Symphonie," one of Messiaen's most audacious creations.

Finished in 1948 and lasting nearly 80 minutes, the symphony sums up just about everything of the composer's style and ideals. It is a mesmerizing work, "a hymn to joy," as he called it, "joy that is superhuman, overflowing, blinding, unlimited."

There are references in the music to birdsong, of course, a Messiaen trademark, and there's also the exotic use of the ondes martenot, an instrument we tend to associate with cheap horror movies, but which fits perfectly with the composer's vision of transcendence.

Needless to say, I don't expect to

spot "Turangalila" on a Baltimore concert anytime soon, especially in such restrictive financial times -- the score calls for a gargantuan orchestra, not to mention an ondes martenot virtuoso (they're never in great abundance) and a massively talented piano soloist. I'm grateful that Leonard Slatkin programmed it with the NSO some years ago; what an uplifting experience that was.

Even if it's too expensive an undertaking to contemplate now, "Turangalila" should be on the back-burner, ready to boil over the minute money starts to flow more easily. If you're not already a fan of this audacious symphony, I hope the clip I've included here will hook you.

And speaking of Messiaen, let me put in a plug for something even more unlikely here, his daunting opera "Saint Francoise d'Assise." I've had only one chance so far to experience it live, in a riveting production by the San Francisco Opera.

It's hard to absorb all the elements and ideals in the time-stopping work, yet you can feel totally gripped by something incredibly beautiful and real in this music. A scene of St. Francis overcoming his fears and embracing a leper gave me chills unlike any I've ever felt in an opera house. (The clip of that scene I've attached doesn't come close to duplicating how the music came across in person.) I know it would be more than any local company in Baltimore or DC would even dream about tackling, but a presentation of "Saint Francois d'Assise," even in concert form, sure would be a major event.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:12 AM | | Comments (2)


I consider myself very fortunate to have heard Turangalila performed live at Carnegie Hall after I moved to New York; I'd gone more than a decade without hearing it in Houston—though ironically Christoph Eschenbach, then the much-loved music director there, badly wanted to do it. Now that he's at the NSO, perhaps you'll hear it again there?

As for Saint Francoise, you might have to come up to New York; I know Alan Gilbert's got a mind to do it. I'll save you a seat.

Cool. I'll hold you to that. TIM

I envy Steve & you -- I've only experienced "Turangalila" through recordings, and while they're good (Chung, Chailly), hearing the piece _live_ would really be the only way to let the work hit you squarely over the head (as you can both obviously attest ;^). The sound in the hall would be positively all-consuming, I imagine.

Pittsburgh performed "Turangalila" two seasons ago, but the reviews were lukewarm (the more I read about the conductor Andrew Davis, the less-impressed I become). I'm glad I skipped it!

Messiaen: what an interesting sound-world! He was a true original, though I don't find that I can "take" his stuff unless I'm ready and eager for it. Of course, I could (and do) listen to his piano & organ works at any given time, but his transcendent orchestral essays require a stronger stomach. (But the limitations of recordings surely dull the experience...)

I agree that Messiaen's sound world is best experienced live. I like the fact that Alan Gilbert is opening his NY Phil tenure with Messiaen on the bill (and a vocal/orchestral piece at that). Cool. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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