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Saturday, February 2, 2013 - Page updated at 10:30 a.m.

‘Turangalîla’ — Seattle Symphony performs rare gem, rapturously | Concert review

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer

Talk about audience rapture.

Seattle Symphony-goers honored conductor Ludovic Morlot, soloists Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Cynthia Millar and the whole orchestra with an instantaneous, prolonged standing ovation the minute French composer Olivier Messiaen’s mighty “Turangalîla-Symphonie” came to a close Thursday night.

And well they should have.

The 80-minute work, premiered by Leonard Bernstein in 1949, has never been performed by the Seattle Symphony, maybe because of its daunting length and complexity (it’s as rhythmically tricky as the gnarliest Stravinsky). Its unusual orchestral lineup is a challenge to assemble, too, starting with the rarely heard ondes Martenot (an eerie-sounding electronic instrument invented in the 1920s) and including a celeste, a glockenspiel and a large percussion section.

Then there’s the pianist, who needs both titanic powers and delicate skills to bring off his crucial role, in all its varied moods. Thibaudet, who recorded the work in 1992, handily mastered the keyboard part’s frenzied syncopations, shimmering cascades and tranquil “bird songs.” Millar, on the ondes, provided the otherworldly magic.

“Turangalîla” is a Sanskrit word that, for Messiaen, connoted both “love song” and “hymn to joy.” He cautioned that by joy he didn’t mean a “respectable, calmly euphoric joy” but something “superhuman, overflowing, blinding, unlimited.”

Morlot delivered just that. The 10-movement work is an odyssey that, in his hands, pulls you into a universe of layered, orbiting planes of sound. Its ever-surprising instrumental combinations — piano twinned with celeste, bassoon paired with piccolo — are another lure down its epic path.

The ondes is especially versatile in the way it melds with the strings at one moment, the vibraphone the next, and the clarinet at yet another. One quibble: it’s not always as audible as one might like.

Two evocatively named sections form the heart of the piece. “Joie du sang des étoiles” (“Joy of the Blood of the Stars”) verges on angular ragtime, getting more and more ecstatically crazed. By contrast, “Jardin du sommeil d’amour” (“Garden of Love’s Sleep”) is a celestial, meditative interlude: a forest carpet of sound (the strings and the ondes) with bird songs in the air (exquisitely noted by Thibaudet) and rustlings in the underglade (the voices of the woodwinds).

With so much going on in the piece, the trick is to keep the multiple layers and rhythms intelligible. Morlot made intricate, crystalline sense of it all.

He prefaced the performance with a 20-minute introduction that included an enjoyable “tour” of the ondes by Millar (including a performance of a short piece she wrote for “Stephen Hawking’s Universe”). Thibaudet, in turn, revealed his direct connection with Messiaen — or rather Messiaen’s wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, who debuted the piece in 1949 and advised him when he was preparing to record it. (“Messiaen was always in the other room — with the door closed,” Thibaudet said with a smile. “I think he was living on a different spiritual level.”)

That sense of lineage, along with the caliber of the performance, makes this “Turangalîla” a special occasion, indeed.

Thibaudet will also perform Messiaen’s chamber work, “Quartet for the End of Time,” with Seattle Symphony players, 8 p.m. Friday in Benaroya’s recital hall.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com


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