Just because listeners left Messiaen's Turangalila-symphonie prematurely Tuesday at Verizon Hall doesn't mean anything was wrong. In a 10-movement, 90-minute piece that goes to many different extremes, an audience would have to be pretty sedate - or the performance inconceivably boring - to not have any evacuees. And indeed, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra's performance showed just how many musical avenues can be explored and pursued in a single piece, surface coherence be damned.
Conductor Christoph Eschenbach opened his Philadelphia Orchestra tenure in 2003 with Turangalila, plus a prelude by a local gamelan ensemble to highlight the piece's Eastern influences. Now back with what had to be a more receptive Curtis ensemble, he needed no such extras in a performance whose every module of sound was masterfully delineated - similar to what James Levine is achieving in his current run of Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera.
In both pieces, but especially the Messiaen, strict musical order is the foundation for what can seem like surface chaos. Any given moment in the 1949 Turangalila might be piled high with multiple bird songs and the woozy glissandi of the ondes Martenot, an early electronic keyboard instrument. Long passages lack the unconscious sense of harmonic destination that you get even in the dreamiest passages of Debussy. Yes, this is one Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts event that falls well outside the Paris 1910-1920 concept.
One could call Turangalila a train wreck, a heedless masterpiece - any number of normally derogatory descriptions - and mean them all affectionately. The aesthetic, imbued with the childlike fantasy of Inca art, repudiates much of what's considered essential in music, such as beginning-middle-end logic to the presence of tunes (of which Turangalila has none). The music also defies the French formality that's so apparent in the country's architecture and landscaping. Though the piece has underlying order, it's about the physical exuberance of making music without any received logic. Later (and better) Messiaen works have a more focused (and often religious) air of purpose. In Turangalila, meaning is best not contemplated.
Such was Eschenbach's approach. There were none of his ruminative tempos. Balances were carefully managed, partly thanks to numerous keyboard instruments lined up along the front of the stage, with the grand piano positioned as if the piece is a concerto. Though pianist Di Wu certainly gave the keyboard part Lisztian panache - and though the composer occasionally fools you by setting up solo passages in a fashion similar to Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand - the music disdains concerto-ish heroics.
In the first three movements, the Curtis string section was a little slow on the uptake. However, tight control over the tempos, which were mostly on the brisk side, turned the performance into a page-turner (for lack of a better word). What on Earth will happen next? No matter how well you know the piece, surprise was never lacking. Is there any higher compliment than that?
See video of the
Curtis Symphony Orchestra's final performance this season at www.philly.com/cso EndText