LA Phil Visits O.C. with a Demanding Modernist Program

Cynthia Millar performed on the ondes martenot at Suday's Los Angeles Philharmonic concert. (Photo courtesy of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County)

The Los Angeles Philharmonic took its annual trek down the freeway Sunday afternoon to play for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County in Segerstrom Concert Hall. The program made no concessions to conservative local tastes, consisting as it did of a new work by forward-leaning Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho and Olivier Messiaen’s ever-provocative, and gigantic, “Turangalîla-symphonie.” Nevertheless, a good-sized audience showed up for the occasion and your reporter noticed few early departures.

The innovation didn’t stop there. When a man and a woman came onstage for the performance of Saariaho’s piece, for solo harp and orchestra, which opened the concert, the expectation among many must surely have been for the woman to sit at the harp and the man step to the podium, but no. Susanna Mälkki, now in her second season as principal guest conductor of the LA Phil, presided with baton. (The program was nothing out of the ordinary for this orchestra, of course, which is celebrating its centennial with 50 commissions, other new music besides, and more women conductors than most orchestras see in a decade.)

Susanna Malkki led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Messiaen’s mammoth “Turangalîla” and a new work by Saariaho. (Photo courtesy of the Philharmonic Society of OC)

The “Turangalîla-symphonie” must surely be one of the strangest works on the fringes of the repertoire. Many recordings of it have been made, and major conductors take it up (Leonard Bernstein led the premiere, with the Boston Symphony, in 1949). It doesn’t come up on the concert calendar very often; its devotees make pilgrimages to hear it. To each their own.

In ten jam-packed movements, lasting here an hour and 26 minutes, the “Turangalîla” is ostensibly, in the composer’s words, “a love song, a hymn to joy,” but Beethoven’s Ninth it is not. The deeply spiritual and mystical composer, a card-carrying modernist who developed his own style from elements such as Hindu rhythm and birdsong, had other things in mind, something religious, and perhaps ritualistic, but also sensual. The title comes from two Sanskrit words that are translated variously and sometimes considered untranslatable, but meaning something like “time, movement and rhythm” (Turanga) and “play” (Lila).

There are various recurring themes appearing in multiple movements. One is called the “statue theme,” an imposing pronouncement from trombones and tuba, and it is supposed to represent ancient Mexican monuments. Another, more straightforwardly, is a ”Chant d’amour,” a love theme that is sugar-frosted by the ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument that sounds like the theremin and lends a cheesy sci fi touch to the score. One quickly gets into the weeds trying to describe the “Turnagalila.”

What’s more, descriptions may lead to false expectations. The “Turangalîla” is strenuous, dense, over-the-top, dissonant, formidable, busy, energetic, relentless, ecstatic, primitive, ridiculous, endearing and exhausting. There are many exquisite moments, such as the “Garden of Love’s Sleep” movement, a dreamy repose with birdsong in the distant, warm night. There are many ebullient ones, too, such as the “Joy of the Blood of the Stars” movement (yes, you heard right), with its scherzo bounce and folksy melody. There are pages and pages of raucous and acerbic and explosive music as well. After a while, it begins to feel like a little too much of a muchness.

Or at least it did here. Mälkki was a graceful and authoritative figure on the podium, and she kept order against the odds and managed pace despite the sprawl. The orchestra sounded a bit workaday, though, the strings thin and uninvolved, the brass less than formidable and the textures un-distilled. The “Turangalîla” is a piece that doesn’t thrive on routine. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, a “Turangalîla” veteran, played the solo piano part with icy exactitude. Cynthia Millar provided solid slipperiness at the ondes martenot.

Saariaho’s “Trans” served as curtain raiser, though it is hardly that. The score is darkly colored and mostly slow in tempo, not brilliant. The composer had to solve the problem of allowing the solo harp to be heard distinctly over the orchestra, which she did handsomely. The harp turns out to be the leader and instigator of the proceedings, offering thoughts and impulses and skitters which then ripple through the orchestra, like a pebble causing permutations in a pond. Harpist Xavier de Maistre managed the solo part with seeming ease and unforced point. Mälkki and the orchestra embraced without blanketing him.

Not incidentally, despite fears, the audience gave the “Turangalîla” a respectful standing ovation, and brought the soloists and conductor back for bows twice. Wonders never cease. Perhaps we’ll all be whistling Schoenberg someday, after all.

Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at timothymangan5@gmail.com.