T is for Turangalîla

My recent wanderings have come to an end (for now at least).  I went to Berlin, then to DC, then to LA.  In D.C. I saw the National Opera’s production of “Salome”, which was at a very high level musically, but dramatically vapid (see that previous link to my Berlin trip for more about that).  In LA, I went to see the Philharmonic’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphonie with Dudamel at the helm.

This was, in many ways, a surprising program choice for the Dudz.  In fact, going into the concert, I couldn’t help but thinking that the Turangalîla was much more an Esa-Pekka piece.  Indeed, not but a day after the concert was I reading Listen to This and my suspicion was confirmed: Maestro Salonen first encountered the Messiaen score when he was a Finnish tot of ten years old. (Interestingly, I learned from a different chapter that Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood became similarly obsessed with this score at the age of 15.)

I’m guessing that the Salonen connection may have had something to do with Dudamel’s choosing this piece: during his tenure as Music Director in LA, Salonen assiduously incorporated modern masterworks of the Turangalîla variety into the orchestra’s repertoire.  The audience there [which, by the way, was easily the youngest and most diverse audience I have ever seen at an orchestra concert] is, by all accounts, accustomed to hearing works of this magnitude and amplitude, so Dudamel has to show that he’s more than just flash. Which he definitely is, and his reading of this pieces was thorough and committed from start to finish.  And it’s not like conducting Mahler symphonies is a piece of cake anyway.

But what in the world is this Turangalila?  It’s some amazing music for one; and perhaps 30-40 minutes too long, for another.  The symphony is presented in ten movements, with the main material cycling through the whole piece.  As with many of Messiaen’s compositions, there’s an inherent mathematical logic to the way that these musical cells appear and reappear that is extremely interesting, but doesn’t make for the most satisfying listening experience when your butt’s planted in a seat for 90 minutes.

Listening to the symphony, I was immediately struck by one of the main themes which comes back about 30 or 40 times:

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because it bears a striking resemblance to Bernard Herrmann’s score for Cape Fear:

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which, of course, went through the transmogrifier several times to become Alf Clausen‘s much beloved theme music for Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons.  If you’re not adverse to watching illegal Russian-dubbed versions of TV on the internet, you can see the Cape Feare episode (for which Mr. Clausen picked up an Emmy) below:

Oh, and the other funny thing about the Turangalîla is that it uses the wood block like like it’s going out of style, and it sounds like Messiaen outsourced the final movement to Aaron Copland:

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[P.S. I promise you that the LA Phil sounded about 100 times better than the above recording.]

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