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S & H Concert Review

Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie and Music from Northern and Southern India, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Sam-Yo! Indian Youth Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Birmingham 24th January 2004 (BK)

This concert was the first of the CBSO’s Classic Asia series in which western works influenced by oriental sources are presented. On the 24th January, some particularly innovative programming paired up a performance of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie with three pieces played by the Sam-Yo! Youth Orchestra, the UK’s first national ensemble dedicated to performing music from the Northern and Southern Indian traditions.

Sam-Yo! was created in 2002 with a grant from the National Foundation for Youth Music to the South Asian Music Consortium whose constituents are South Asian Arts -UK, based in Leeds, Milapfest (Liverpool) and Sampad (Birmingham.) Under its Artistic Director Dharambir Singh, who is also the Artist Director of SAA-UK, Sam – Yo! recruits young people nationwide and trains them thoroughly in instrumental techniques and in the traditions of Indian music, as well as branching out further into new areas influenced by World Music.

The Sam-Yo! Youth Orchestra: photograph by courtesy of CBSO

For this performance the Sam-Yo! orchestra fielded three sitars, a veena (a larger sitar-like instrument from Southern India,) three sets of tabla, a hammered dulcimer, a flute, a violin and three other percussionists, two of whom played Jaw-Harps some of the time. The music consisted of pieces from both the North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic) traditions and was a richly varied exploration of both rhythm and harmony.

The first piece, Jati Vartan allowed all the percussionists to display their virtuosity while improvising around the metres of three, five, seven and four. Nat Bhairav combined both Northern and Southern instrumentation and was an extended exploration of harmony based on a contemporary melody by Dr. Rajeeb Chakraborty. Raghuvamsa, which once again used all the instruments, was a particularly joyful and lively piece from Southern India. This delightful short programme showed very clearly that Sam-Yo! is an extremely accomplished group whose combined ensemble and virtuosity must surely have won over many converts to Indian music. Dharambir Singh and his musicians are to be much congratulated for this fine performance.

For Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, the CBSO was conducted by Kazushi Ono, now in his second season as Music Director of La Monnaie, Belgium’s Royal Opera House. Mr Ono was formerly General Music Director of Baden State Opera in Karlsruhe and also Principal Conductor of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition to having conducted almost all of the Wagner operas and much other standard repertoire he also specialises in contemporary music, promoting works by Ligeti, Kagel, Rihm, Schnittke, Gubaidulina and Turnage among others.

The solo piano was played by Joanna MacGregor (who needs no introduction) and the ondes martenot by Takashi Harada. Mr Harada studied with Jeanne Loriod and has established himself internationally as an ondist of considerable reputation. Originally trained as a pianist, Takashi Harada has premiered more than 200 pieces for the ondes which have been specially written for him, and he also composes himself for the instrument. He may well be its principal champion at the moment.

For those not familiar with the Turangalîla-Symphonie, the first thing to say about it is that it is a massive work in ten movements. It was commissioned by Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony in 1945 and Messiaen was given a totally free hand as to the length of the piece and as to its resources. Messiaen responded on a huge scale: the work lasts for seventy five minutes or so and needs triple woodwind, a large brass section, multiple percussion including the piano, glockenspiel, celeste, tubular bells, vibraphone and multiple divided strings as well as Monsieur Martenot’s pitchable successor to the theremin, which replaces the human voice in the work over a compass of seven octaves. The premiere was conducted by Leonard Bernstein in 1949.

Philosophically, the Turangalîla-Symphonie belongs to a trilogy of works built around the myth of Tristan and Iseult (Isolde.) The trilogy, which also includes the song cycle Harawi for soprano and piano and Cinq Rechants for twelve singers, diverges from the religious focus of most of Messiaen's devout but non-liturgical works because each piece explores the ecstatic qualities of love and death. Messiaen wrote the pieces after his first wife, Claire Delbos, became institutionalized with a progressive neurological condition and was ‘lost’ to him because of it. Following this loss, Messiaen fell in love with one of his students, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, but since he was a committed Catholic the relationship was fulfilled only musically until well after Claire’s death in 1959. There is little doubt that the Tristan trilogy sprang from these experiences.

The musical connection to Asia arises because Messiaen had explored the raga form in some detail as well as being fascinated by the Balinese gamelan. The title Turangalîla is said to derive from two Sanskrit words with together mean something like ‘the song of love, hymn to joy, time, movement, the rhythm (play) of life and death.’ In terms of musical form, the work falls somewhere between a double concerto for piano and ondes martenot, and an extended tone poem. An orthodox symphony it is not.

In his interesting pre-concert talk, Julian Anderson (Composer in Association with CBSO just now) said that Bernstein disliked this work intensely and never performed it again after the premiere, because he thought it vulgar. This judgment is understandable up to a point, although coming from Bernstein, the use of the word ‘vulgar’ might seem a bit rich. The work is about the ecstasy and pains of love and is outrageously rapturous, strident and delicate by turns. It explores love in all its dimensions without restraint and among its many musical allusions, there’s a reference to the Liebestod in movement No.8, Développement de l’amour.

Messiaen juxtaposes the ethereal whistling of the ondes martenot with a truly violent piano part and an immense percussion section, to create a complicated and multi- textured work. In this performance, Kazushi Ono drew an intensely dynamic yet finely shaded performance from the CBSO in which the dense layers of sound were built into huge crescendos with some stupendous brass playing. The whole orchestra for that matter, seemed to be giving its all and enjoying itself enormously.


Joanna MacGregor, well known for her interpretations of modern music, was in her true element here. She attacked her part with remarkable athleticism as well as with great precision and delicacy and pounced (there is no other word) on percussive phrases with controlled violence, yet recoiled from them immediately where indicated. On the other hand, when sustained notes needed fading at the end of a movement, they were audible for as long as ears could hear them. Mistressly, so to speak.

Takashi Harada is clearly a prodigious ondist who plays regularly as a soloist with the world’s major orchestras. His approach was refined, calm and sensitive, and an extraordinary foil to Joanna MacGregor’s passion. Together, this pair must surely rank with the world’s best in this work and Mr. Ono is no slouch at it either. I can do no better than to describe their combined efforts as the great Natalie Wheen might do: they (and the CBSO) were ‘stonking.’

Bill Kenny






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