AWO and ANAM: Messiaen Turangalîla-Symphonie

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Published: 5th September, 2017

It was an inspired choice for the Australian World Orchestra to finish their current Australian season by combining with students of the Australian National Academy of Music to perform Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie under the baton of Simone Young. The result was exhilarating for the audience as I’m sure it also was for the ANAM students.

The work was Messiaen’s first international commission and, with the luxury of no constraints on orchestration and duration, he set about cramming as many of the musical techniques that he had so far developed into a work of over an hour, containing ten movements and calling for an orchestra of at least 100 players. The orchestra forces include triple woodwind and expanded percussion, eschewing only harp and timpani from the typical large orchestral complement. In addition, there are major solo parts for piano and ondes Martenot. The ondes Martenot is an electronic instrument (sometimes confused with the Theremin as featured in Bernard Hermann’s film scores), and it is a pity the extensive program notes did not explain the differing functions of the variously-shaped loudspeakers which are integral to its timbre.

The Australian World Orchestra consists of top flight Australian orchestral players from across the world’s orchestras. Some of these international musicians such as trombonist Michael Mulcahy (currently a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) are no strangers to Hamer Hall. The ANAM students and alumna were interspersed amongst their experienced AWO colleagues and would no doubt have learnt much form the rehearsal and performance experience. Although one might have been expected to see :”bumpers” (additional players to take the load of the principals in less exposed sections) we were not able to detect any. All the more credit to the professionalism of the mixed forces.

Timothy Young on piano led the “gamelan” of tuned percussion (including a keyboard glockenspiel) and performed the fiendishly difficult cadenzas and flourishes in a masterful fashion. Jacob Abela on the ondes Martnot showed that he has mastered the mysteries of this wondrous machine. The balance of the ondes with the rest of the orchestra, the degree of vibrato, and the exact timbres chosen can make a significant difference between various performances of this work, and though not all would regard the choices made by Abela and the conductor in this respect as being the optimum, equally many may well have found them just right. It was also interesting to see both these soloists using electronic displays in place of sheet music, and judging by the activity around Australian music circles, it won’t be long before the “paperless pit” becomes more widespread.
The work presents many challenges of delicate ensemble and solo work and, on the whole, these were met with admirable flair across the range from the depths of (Professor) Timothy Dunin’s double bass pizzicato through to the assured heights of student Eliza Shephard’s piccolo. The occasional and minor instances of loose ensemble did nothing to detract from the overall performance.

Holding together this massive work with a mixed force of players requires an extraordinary conductor – and Australia has such a conductor in Simone Young. From beginning to end she was completely in control of Messiaen’s soundscapes, the moiré patterns of his overlapping rhythms, his piling of layer on layer as a structural device and the logistics of harnessing ensemble playing across a large footprint of stage in exposed textures where often a woodblock has no place to hide.
Perhaps Simone Young’s attention to detail and musicality was best witnessed in the two huge climaxes in which the long-held orchestral chord is swelled with untuned percussion before being abruptly terminated. Many self-indulgent conductors will swell this chord for an inordinately long time before cutting it off and leaving just the ugly sound of untuned percussion jangle hanging in the air. Young on the other hand crafted the exact time to finish so that the F sharp minor chord was still evident but being transported to another dimension by the percussion wash.

It was a privilege to witness two generations of musicians successfully tackle this challenging work under an outstanding conductor. With any luck, this performance may also have helped swell the ranks of a new generation of concert goers.