Tumultuous, Technicolour Turangalîla in Birmingham

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Varèse, Muhly, Messiaen: Joanna MacGregor (piano), Cynthia Miller (ondes martenot), National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Vasily Petrenko (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 1.8.2012 (JQ)

Varèse: Tuning Up
Nico Muhly (b. 1931):  Gait (BBC Commission, world première)
Messiaen:  Turangalîla-Symphonie

I first heard – and was baffled by – Messiaen’s vast Turangalîla-Symphonie over four decades ago when I was a similar age to the musicians of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (NYO). It’s a measure of how far standards have risen since then that in those days the thought of a youth orchestra tackling such a score, let alone a complete programme such as this, would probably have been met with incredulity. Nowadays youth orchestras and choirs perform complex and demanding contemporary scores seemingly as a matter of routine and do so to incredibly high standards.

Tonight the orchestra appeared under the leadership of Vasily Petrenko, their principal conductor since 2008. Actually, Petrenko only joined them a few minutes into the programme. Edgar Varèse’s Tuning Up was described in the programme as “a playful reinterpretation of the sounds an audience hears as an orchestra prepares to begin a concert”. Appropriately, therefore, proceedings began under the direction of the NYO’s 16-year-old leader, Robert Ruisi. One of the NYO’s violists, James Keasley, commented in the programme that the piece “tends to leave audiences with baffled looks on their faces!” I’m not surprised. Clearly the players had huge fun in performing the piece – I wonder how much of it is left to improvisation. However, to my ears it was nothing but a hideous cacophony. Mind you, it had one thing going for it: it was mercifully short.

After all that noise it was simply beyond a joke that just as Vasily Petrenko raised his baton to begin the new piece by American Nico Muhly a mobile phone could be heard in the auditorium! Muhly’s piece, he writes, was inspired firstly by his love of watching animals walk and run and observing how changes in rhythm contribute to speed. His conception for the piece moved on from this “to explore a stranger bestiary: many-tentacled creatures all blissfully writhing and working in teams with and against each other.” So, unlike some contemporary pieces, where the title seems to bear little or no relation to what one actually hears, Gait was an entirely apt title – and was amply justified by the music.

The piece was cast in three sections, I believe – the programme notes were disappointingly superficial about all three pieces – beginning with a section that reminded me of minimalism. Lightly scored at first – the opening featured violins, harps and high percussion – the textures of the piece were gradually built up while underlying the music was a strong if discreet rhythmic impulse, mainly in the form of figurations played by the strings. The music, which was attractive, seemed to be, above all, a study in repetitive and/or irregular rhythms. It seemed, however, that Muhly relied a little too much on recycling material around the orchestra, the material ricocheting around the various sections. After about ten minutes the pace slowed and, without a break, we were into a more relaxed, lyrical section which included a ripe trombone solo. This was warmer music, imaginatively scored, though I came to feel it was a bit repetitive as the section progressed. At one point it seemed that the percussion section was depicting the hoof beats of horses.

After some seven minutes the slower section gave way to brisker music. At the start of this section there seemed to be a deliberately awkward gait to the music, which was an interesting idea. Once the new tempo had been established the music was busy and strongly rhythmical – there was a conspicuous use of accents, especially in the bass instruments, to propel the music forward. This episode seemed quite funky at times and the piece culminated in a brief coda – if I may use that term – which sounded akin to an exuberant dance. The composer was present and he and his piece were warmly received by the audience and by the players who had clearly enjoyed preparing it and giving it its debut. I thought it was an interesting piece. Though the orchestration is lavish the full forces are unleashed sparingly and the work contains many stretches that are lightly and imaginatively scored. Muhly has orchestrated the piece with assurance and flair. However, the piece, which lasted some 23 minutes, seemed a little overlong for its material once or twice in the first two sections. Vasily Petrenko did a superb job in guiding his young players through this complex score; his beat was crystal clear at all times and he provided them with copious cues.

Messiaen’s vast, ten-movement symphony is a huge test, even for seasoned professionals. Even nowadays the lavish scoring and the length of the piece mean that it is a relative rarity in the concert hall. Indeed, I’ve only once attended one previous live performance; that was in Manchester many years ago. Sadly, as I recall it there were many empty seats in the hall that night and there were a disappointing number of spare seats on this occasion too: no doubt summer holidays and the Olympic were partly to blame. It was disappointing, to put it extremely mildly, that for whatever reason several members of the Birmingham audience left early at various points during the performance of Turangalîla. Inevitably, this caused disruption, most notably at the start of the seventh movement, and these people showed a lack of consideration for the performers and for their fellow audience members.

It’s a compliment to the stature of the NYO that they had attracted two top rank soloists. Joanna MacGregor is a leading exponent of contemporary piano music – and notable also for the amount of work she does with young musicians – while Cynthia Miller is one of the world’s leading players of that strange and exotic instrument, the ondes martenot; she has taken part in over 100 performances of Turangalîla. Both soloists were superb.

As it happened I’d spent a large part of the day listening to the piece on CD, preparing a review of Juanjo Mena’s new recording of the work – in which Miss Miller takes part – and listening to several comparative versions as well as the Mena performance. However, even immersion via CD can’t prepare you adequately for the sheer physical impact of Turangalîla in live performance. And this performance certainly had impact. In fact, if I have a criticism of the performance, it had too much impact at times. The NYO deliberately fields a large orchestra in order to maximise opportunity and that’s entirely understandable and right. However, though Messiaen’s scoring is lavish to the point of being over the top even he can’t have envisaged involving 10 French horns, 8 trumpets and 8 trombones! The size of the forces meant that some of the climaxes were truly ear-splitting – the Theme of Statues, declaimed by the trombone section, was even more massive than usual.

However, I must immediately correct any impression that this was merely a “blast” through Messiaen’s score. True, there were several occasions when one feared for the stability of Symphony Hall’s roof but there were also innumerable moments when the delicacy of the orchestral writing was splendidly realised. For example, the quiet playing by the woodwind and by the gamelan members of the percussion section in alliance with the ondes at the start of the third movement, ‘Turangalîla I’, was superb. And here one registered the presence in the scoring of a solo pizzicato double bass; that’s a detail that doesn’t usually come over on CD.

Speaking of sensitive playing, I can’t overlook the sixth movement, ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’. Here the strings played the Love theme in a simply gorgeous manner, combining with the ondes really beautifully. Meanwhile the piano, some of the percussion players and extremely sensitive woodwind soloists delivered magically and with great finesse what Leonard Bernstein, who conducted the symphony’s first performance, referred to as the “quiet commotion” of birdsong and insect noises. What was most remarkable about all this was that all the players involved sustained their concentration and hushed dynamics over the 12 minutes or so that it took to play the movement.

We needed that repose after the tumult of the fifth movement, ‘Joie du sang des étoiles’. Petrenko set a sensible yet buoyant tempo for this riotously colourful movement. In this movement Joanna MacGregor was working flat out at the piano keyboard but so full is Messiaen’s scoring that much of what she played was all but inaudible. That’s not a criticism of the NYO, by the way; one realises when one hears the work live the extent to which in such passages the piano is “miked up” on radio or CD. The other great exuberant showpiece in this work is the last movement, ‘Final’. After some seventy minutes of demanding performance the NYO still had reserves of energy, enthusiasm and, one suspects, pure adrenalin, to deliver a performance of this movement that was full of vitality and sheer joie de vivre. Petrenko, conducting with the clarity and energy that had galvanised his players throughout the evening, inspired them to bring the symphony to a triumphant conclusion. The ovation from the audience was richly deserved.

The NYO brings this programme to the BBC Proms on Saturday next, 4 August (19:30). The concert will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and will be well worth hearing.

John Quinn