Finding God, Love And The Meaning Of Life In Messiaen's 'Turangalîla-Symphonie' : Deceptive Cadence Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop traces her discovery of the rollicking 75-minute symphony and the man behind the music.
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Finding God, Love And The Meaning Of Life In Messiaen's 'Turangalîla-Symphonie'

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Finding God, Love And The Meaning Of Life In Messiaen's 'Turangalîla-Symphonie'

Finding God, Love And The Meaning Of Life In Messiaen's 'Turangalîla-Symphonie'

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This weekend, the thrilling and mysterious "Turangalila-Symphonie" by Olivier Messiaen is being performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The masterpiece is rarely heard. It calls for over a hundred musicians and an unusual electronic instrument. We'll have more about that later. The music director of the Baltimore Symphony, Marin Alsop, joins us. Maestro, thanks so much for being with us again.

MARIN ALSOP: Great to be here, Scott. Happy New Year to everyone.

SIMON: And Happy New Year to you, of course. We're listening to a recording of the Bergen Philharmonic. Help us understand the composer and the importance of this work.

ALSOP: Well, this is a massive piece. I mean, everything that Messiaen wrote was a journey piece. Music for him was more of a life philosophy than, you know, an actual composition. And in this piece, he's bringing together all of his spiritual beliefs, his interest in Indian music, his interest in music from the Far East, his love of birds, believe it or not - birdsong - and his incredibly devout religious fervor.

SIMON: May I ask how many times you've performed it?

ALSOP: You may ask. But the reality is that I've never even heard this piece live. So this is not only the first time I will conduct it. It's also the first time I will hear the piece live. And it's been on the Baltimore Symphony musicians' wish list for at least 20 years. So this is the first time they'll play it.

SIMON: Oh, mercy. The piece is filled, I gather, with duets between instruments. What's that to achieve?

ALSOP: You know, this idea of love, whether it's spiritual love or the love between human beings. This was a big part of Messiaen's philosophy and his life. And I think these duets that come through, they're often unexpected duets, you know, between unexpected instruments. So you'll hear one between the clarinet and this very weird electronic instrument that's also in the piece, called an ondes Martenot.


SIMON: Oh, mercy. The clarinet I recognize.

ALSOP: Right.

SIMON: Tell us about the ondes Martenot.

ALSOP: Well, this was an instrument that, as you can probably deduce, it grew out of the idea of the theremin - you know that ooh.

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: That kind of spooky sound. The theremin was invented earlier. And then this gentleman named Martenot, who was a cellist, but also, he was a radio operator during the war. And he wanted to try to bring those two loves together - you know, these radio waves and also the sound of the cello. And he created this just bizarre instrument. It's got a keyboard. But it also has a long cable with a ring on it that the operator - I don't know if should say the player - has to maneuver and create the pitches. And you can also add vibrato to it. So it's extremely fascinating instrument.


SIMON: Oh, my word.

ALSOP: I thought Ned was starting his car.

SIMON: (Laughter). Sorry, our producer Ned Wharton. Needless to say, if your son or daughter comes to you and says, I'd like to play the ondes Martenot, it's not going to be easy, right? There can't be these many instruments in the world.

ALSOP: Well, you know - but I think it would be a good career choice because there are not many ondes Martenot players around. It would probably require an education in Paris, though, because that is really where the school for ondes Martenot players exists. And I was just speaking to Nathalie Forget, who's playing ondes Martenot with us this weekend. She's fabulous. And she was telling me that she always travels with two instruments, you know. And they're quite complex because often customs will open one and, you know, try to tear it apart to see what's inside. So she always travels with two instruments. And she has to know how to repair them. So I don't know. It's an interesting career choice - not only a musician. You have to, you know, be a good repair person and mechanic and all kinds of things.


SIMON: And why do you think Messiaen was so attracted to the instrument?

ALSOP: You know, I think it's so outside of what we're expecting. And the sound world is so ethereal and otherworldly that it really - I think it goes beautifully hand in hand with his spiritual approach to living. And he was a man who existed almost in his own time, in his own space. And according to Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who's our marvelous soloist. And he worked on the piece with Messiaen. He said, you know, you knew he was there. But you always felt that he was also somewhere else.

SIMON: The "Turangalila-Symphonie" is also filled with what sounds like very demanding - devilishly demanding, if I may, piano passages. Let's listen to one.


SIMON: What came first - the piano composition or the pianist that composer had in mind?

ALSOP: Oh. I think the pianist probably came first because he fell in love with her. She was a student of his at the conservatory - Yvonne Loriod. And he ended up writing many, many pieces for her to play. And she was a phenomenal virtuoso. And I guess she fell in love with him right away, too, as the story goes.

SIMON: The symphony is filled with these asides, drama, invention. It can be loud. It can be thorny. But it ends with such ecstasy.


SIMON: When you get to that section, what do you think the composer's evoking? What do you try and bring out?

ALSOP: Well, you know, Messiaen's spirituality was about joy. And he was a man who felt that every human being had the potential to experience rapturous joy. And, you know, for a person who lived - he was a prisoner of war. And, you know, he maintained this sense of celebration and the belief, I think, in the human spirit and the human spirit as a spiritual entity. And that's how it feels. You know, it's almost like a drug-induced fervor at the end, you know, because it just keeps going, going, going, going. And then suddenly, a subito piano - quiet. And it just grows, explodes to the end. And it's a spectacular ending.

SIMON: Marin Alsop. She will lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this weekend in its performance of Olivier Messiaen's "Turangalila-Symphonie." Thanks so much, maestro. We'll look forward to it.

ALSOP: Thanks so much, Scott. Great to talk to you.


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