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Ode With No Joy

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
11/04/1998 -  
Claude Debussy: Jeux
Gyorgy Ligeti: Atmospheres
Olivier Messiaen: Turangalila Symphonie

John Root (piano)
Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot)
Juilliard Orchestra
David Robertson (conductor)

The Ballets Russes season of 1913 will indelibly be remembered for the scandalous premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps but two weeks earlier a work was presented that was in its way just as revolutionary. The diaphanous textures of Debussy's Jeux created a sonic world previously unknown and surrealistically matching the absurdist ballet of tennis players searching for their ball in crepuscular light. This performance by the Juilliard Orchestra, the top group of this esteemed institution (they have many different performing ensembles), was suitably airy and weightless with a light touch of tonal color. The Ligeti piece, made famous by Stanley Kubrick in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey is a very similar work, cutting edge in texture at a different point in this most innovative of centuries. The most interesting visual effect of Atmospheres is the carrying out of the score itself with its 87 different staff lines, one for each player in the orchestra, and the difficulties of the conductor in balancing this elongated document on his music stand. The soft tonal clusters were caressingly played and the intonation, easy enough to drift off into the vast reaches of Ligeti's astral universe, remained focused throughout.

The ensemble during this entire difficult program played at a high level of musicianship. The brass section was always together with no broken notes or false entrances. The strings produced a silken sound far beyond their years (one has to constantly remind oneself that many of these players are 19 and 20 years old). The gargantuan Turangalila was a marvel of solid and steady expression and no lack of musical commitment. Mr. Root was extremely impressive in the demanding piano part (this piece is in many ways a piano concerto), having no difficulty in the wild arpeggio passages and the multitude of cross-hand gyrations. He is a giant of a man with the hands of Rachmaninoff and could easily navigate the wide range of Messiaen's keyboard, although observing his dexterity made me appreciate all the more the extreme artistry of the much smaller handed Yvonne Loriod. Ms. Millar is a Turangalila specialist, having learned to play the ondes martenot, a keyboard instrument that controls a wave generator and produces an oscillating sound familiar to any science fiction film fan of the 1950's, from la belle dame of the instrument herself Jeanne Loriod (a little like learning to play the organ from Bach). Her performance was authoritative and expressive as she sat coiled like a snake rapt in concentration and attention on the conductor, however, except for the soft orchestral passages, her instrument was virtually inaudible, a glaring error in acoustical judgment (one would think that such a modern contraption would have a volume switch).

Olivier Messiaen celebrated his 80th birthday at Avery Fisher Hall listening to an energetic performance of the Turangalila with the New York Philharmonic under Mehta. What was so thrilling about that performance was its elan vital and primitive ecstasy. Messiaen has said that the symphony should express joy "…superhuman, overflowing, blinding, unlimited…" He left out the adjective for last night's performance: missing. Hopefully I have been clear about my overall admiration for the dedication and sound of this fine student group, but I have no such praise for the limp conducting of this sorry performance. Mr. Robertson appeared (I'm being generous here) to be concentrating more on the individual moment of sound, an aesthetic learned as director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain at the foot of Boulez, but what was sacrificed was the thrust of the music, the overriding primeval drive that produces the requisite Messiaenic joy. What we got instead was flaccid phrasing, lifeless tempi, a severely minimized dynamic range (heavily weighted on the loud side) and an orchestra which stayed together but expressed no poetry.

The audience was bored and irritated. There are ten movements in the Messiaen symphony and (this is no exaggeration) people walked out after every movement. The hall was only sparsely occupied at the beginning and was noticeably empty by the end. At the end of the fifth movement, Joie du sang des etoiles, there is a loud ending. Several audience members applauded. Mr. Robertson's reaction was to turn his face to the crowd and exclaim (a direct quote) "it ain't over yet, folks!", totally breaking the mood and concentration of those of us trying to appreciate this ragged performance. Some people in the audience laughed, but what was worse, many in the orchestra did too. This unprofessional behavior by the conductor was unfortunately consistent with his podium manner. Crouching, dancing, jumping up and down, running from side to side and other such buffoonery only added to my general distaste of this bizarre travesty. I didn't like it in Bernstein either but at least he produced a fine finished product (and looked a lot better on the podium as well). I know several student musicians in this town and they can be quickly turned off by the antics of a guest conductor that they do not respect. Messiaen and these impressionable young musicians deserved better.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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