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Music review: Dudamel takes on the 'Turangalila' at Disney Concert Hall

October 15, 2010 |  1:30 pm

Phil
An 18-wheeler of a symphony on a joy ride, the “Turangalila” –- with French plates, Sanskrit graphics, the eerie whine of a UFO, horsepower and torque you wouldn’t believe, a voluptuous sleeper in the cabin for euphoric sex -- barreled into Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night. Olivier Messiaen’s incomparable behemoth has 10 movements, lasts 80 minutes. Performances of it are an occasion.

The symphony required the Los Angeles Philharmonic ranks to swell to over a hundred. Jean-Yves Thibaudet played the monster piano solos. Cynthia Millar was the soloist on the ondes martinot, a space-age (ca. 1928), theremin-like electronic instrument. Gustavo Dudamel, standing in the middle of it all and practically dwarfed by his orchestral multitudes, conducted.

Messiaen, still in his 30s, began his “Turangalila-Symphonie” in 1946, savoring freedom in postwar Paris where new musical ideas from East and West poured in. The score was a no-holds-barred commission from the Boston Symphony. Leonard Bernstein, just turned 31, conducted the world premiere in 1949.

Thursday’s performance, on the 20th anniversary of Bernstein’s death, might well have been dedicated to him, except that Bernstein didn’t seem to care for the work. He never conducted it again. Pierre Boulez, who was studying with Messiaen at the time, shares the sentiments of what one reviewer said of the symphony’s New York premiere: “the trashiest Hollywood composers had met their match.”

Still, “Turangalila” (which is Sanskrit for time and creation) was something new in music. Virgil Thomson wrote of Messiaen at the time that form is nothing to him, content everything. “And the content he likes is the conclusive, the ecstatic, the cataclysmic, the terrifying, the unreal.” Throw in something about surrealism and unalloyed joy, and that well sums up the “Turangalila.” 

Dudamel The Tristan and Isolde romance, sans guilt, was Messiaen’s inspiration. The structures of his movements often unfold like a flower, beginning quietly or stoically and then opening up, accumulating power and complexity. An unashamedly carnal love theme, with caramel-thick harmonies, winds its way through the work; this is the Hollywood part. But intricate rhythmic structure of Indian music is another more bracing influence.

Messiaen liked to the layer one kind of music on another. A stern “statue" theme opens the symphony. It contrasts with a static “flower" theme. But they join soon enough and take on other themes as well. In the center is the long, repetitive sixth movement, “Garden of Love’s Sleep.” The strings remain in blissful reverie, while the piano decorates the picture with Indonesian gamelan-like figures, while the ondes martenot whimpers soothingly. Not even Wagner was ever this post-coital.

“Turangalila” permits for excess and is a young man’s music. Michael Tilson Thomas was 27 when he led the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiere in 1972. Esa-Pekka Salonen was the same age when he recorded it with the Philharmonia in London in 1985. Simon Rattle and Seiji Ozawa were, respectively, 31 and 32 when they recorded it. 

Let that last chord deafen. Let the lush love music enrapture. Let elaborate percussion entangle the ear. Let the brass storm. Let the dances be cosmic. What could be more perfect for the 29-year-old Dudamel and Disney Hall?  

Oddly enough, Dudamel is only the third conductor to have programmed the “Turangalila” with the L.A. Philharmonic and Thursday was the work’s Disney premiere (Salonen conducted it at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1996). And Dudamel appeared ever so slightly cowed by it all.

That is not to say that this wasn’t an engaging reading or that excitement wasn’t generated. The symphony sounds splendid in Disney, where the different instrumental layers can be clearly distinguished and where the bass drum and low brass vibrate the seats. Nor is it to say that Dudamel was ill at ease with complicated music.

The performance went very well. Dudamel, who conducted the symphony (also with Thibaudet) with the Gothenburg Symphony last season, remained in command. He began aggressively. He let the sweetness in big-time for the love music. He positioned the ondes martinot and its speakers in the front of the orchestra, where Messiaen wanted it, letting the piercing weirdness penetrate. He carefully adjusted balances so that Thibaudet, who played with fabulous sparkle and convincing authority, could be heard through the din. He also placed in front of the orchestra the celesta and a strange small keyboard glockenspiel.

But Dudamel’s was ultimately a responsible performance of gloriously irresponsible music. What he did not do was convey the intensity, the depth of sound, that he had had last week in Schumann’s Fourth Symphony.

At least he did not do it yet.  Dudamel, himself, has the talent to bloom a bit like a flower. Caution on Thursday can be thrown to the wind by the fourth performance on Sunday. That, though. is a “Turangalila” truck, with worn brakes and a load of explosives, yet to arrive.

-- Mark Swed

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Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, $44 - $167; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com.

Photos: Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Messiaen's "Turangalila" Thursday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

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