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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.’