Arresting musical journey in D.C.

Review: Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony give a commanding performance of `Turangalila.'

April 06, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When faced with Olivier Messiaen's 80-minute "Turangalila-Symphony," Igor Stravinsky took aim and fired: "Little more can be required to write such things than a plentiful supply of ink."

It's an understandable reaction, given the sheer magnitude of this astonishing work from 1948, which received its first National Symphony Orchestra performance Thursday at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall. But it's really not so easy to dismiss Messiaen's achievement. Stravinsky apparently couldn't hear the magic and mystery of "Turangalila," its incredible audacity and breadth of vision.

There is absolutely nothing like this symphony. A kind of sonic Mount Everest, it's formidable, yet strangely inviting. It deserves to be performed not just because it's there, but also because it has so much to offer, and because the view from the top is simply awesome.

When conductor Leonard Slatkin reached that summit and held tightly onto the final, rapturous chord, urging more and more sound from the orchestra, you could almost feel everyone in the hall holding on as well. Having exulted in the rarefied stratosphere (Karlheinz Stockhausen once summed up Messiaen's style as "fantastic music of the stars"), it was hard to come back to earth.

There is something messianic about Messiaen's art. The great mission of his life was to reproduce in music his fervent Catholic faith, his interest in birdsong, his belief in the basic goodness of the human spirit. In "Turangalila," he broadened the religious part of that mission; the title is a compound Sanskrit word that means "all at once love song, hymn to joy, time, movement, rhythm, life and death" (the composer's own definition).

Throughout the 10-movement symphony, Messiaen alternates between huge splashes of color and the most delicate hues; a huge piano part and the use of deliciously ethereal oscillations from the electronic instrument called an "ondes martenot" adds immeasurably to the palette. Sudden changes of tempo or dynamics; jolts of dissonance; sensual outpourings of lyricism; giddy dances; moody reflections - they all occur almost as if by chance, yet with an underlying feeling of inevitability, guided by a grand, cosmic logic.

Slatkin luxuriated in Messiaen's panoply of sounds and feelings. The conductor's command of the vast score was a tour de force; no detail of orchestration or phrasing seemed to escape his attention. Among the highlights was the terrific tension he brought to the time-stopping fade-out at the end of the eighth movement.

Greater richness of tone from the violins would have been welcome, along with greater punch and clarity of attack from the trumpets in the second movement's jazzy, ecstatic theme. But, overall, the NSO demonstrated admirable cohesion and expressive potency. The brass maintained remarkable stamina, saving up plenty of gleam for the exultant finale; the percussion section had a brilliant field day.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard tackled the piano part with stunning virtuosity. The wildest cascades up and down the keyboard emerged with disarming precision; he also made the evocative bird-calls at the start of the "Garden of Love's Sleep" movement communicate as tellingly as the orchestra's rapturous themes. Cynthia Millar was the expert ondes martenot player.

Although "Turangalila" would have been enough to fill the evening, Slatkin cleverly opened the program with a symphony that, in its time, was almost as experimental as Messiaen's. Haydn's infrequently encountered Symphony No. 70 is full of intriguing ideas involving counterpoint (multiple melodic lines moving simultaneously). And expectations are frequently thwarted as Haydn reveals a new trick up his sleeve - the surprisingly somber middle section of the Minuet, for example, or the witty repetition of single note in the finale.

Slatkin paced the symphony with a graceful momentum. A couple of ragged spots aside, the NSO's performance had considerable warmth and character.

All in all, it was a consistently arresting musical journey.

Concert

What: National Symphony Orchestra with Leonard Slatkin

Where: Kennedy Center, 2600 Virginia Ave., N.W., Washington

When: 8:30 p.m.

Tickets: $38 to $66

Call: 202-467-4600

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