Exploring yin and yang

Lan Shui, Singapore Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor.
Lan Shui, Singapore Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor.PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

REVIEW / CONCERT

MESSIAEN TURANGALILA

Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Saturday

Rare as it may seem, Olivier Messiaen's massive Turangalila-Symphony featured on a Singapore Symphony Orchestra programme for the second time.

Followers of the orchestra will remember the pair of performances conducted by Choo Hoey at Victoria Concert Hall in 1994. How those even got off the ground considering the orchestra's relative youth and that venue's small stage was a marvel.

No such problems arose at the Esplanade this time, with more than 100 musicians (including 10 percussionists) led by Shui Lan fitting comfortably on the stage and the vast auditorium absorbing its outsized sonic demands.

Comprising 10 movements and playing for 75 minutes, Turangalila (composed in 1946 to 1948) is an anomaly never to be repeated without the charge of plagiarism. Its title comes from Sanskrit words connoting rapid movement and life force. This was the French composer's grand conception of universal love, encompassing sacred, profane and carnal varieties. Often considered his most vulgar work, it is also his most popular.

These contradictions are reflected in its major themes, the monstrous and terrifying "Statue theme" brayed by the brass, contrasted with a soft and slender "Flower theme" heard on two clarinets. Recurring and balancing opposites, these represented masculine and feminine, essentially the work's yin and yang.

The same may refer to the soloists, pianist Andreas Haefliger's stentorian chords, lancinating trills and intoxicated cadenzas, as opposed to Cynthia Millar's freewheeling on the Ondes Martenot. The latter is an electronic instrument, precursor of the synthesizer, producing tones from bass rumbles to high-pitched whistling, whining and glissandi in between. Both were excellent and excellently supported by the orchestra.

The imposing opening was dominated by the "Statue theme", its mighty strides conjuring a sense of dread which the "Flower theme" did little to dispel.

Despite loud and deafening pages, there were also isolated oases of calm and reflection, often created by a few instruments.

The deft use of percussion and unlikely combos (such as bassoon with piccolo) evoked Eastern mysticism, reflecting Messiaen's ecumenical spiritual worldview.

The fifth and sixth movements were the heart and contrasted centrepieces of the work. The unfettered outburst of frenzied sexual ecstasy in Joy Of The Blood Of Stars (almost a Kama Sutra set to music) could only be followed by the detumescence and quiet bliss of Garden Of Love's Sleep, where the indolent "Love theme" is introduced.

At its serene end, one was left with a lingering echo of the Onde Martenot's last note.

By the eighth movement, the mighty "Statue theme" had been vanquished, toppling into an abyss according to Haefliger's preamble. Replacing it in the joyous finale was a glorious peroration of the "Love theme", hammered out by the entire orchestra.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2017, with the headline 'Exploring yin and yang'. Print Edition | Subscribe