An Adventure with Messiaen - by Ian Taft

Rehearsing Turangalîla with the RSNO

“Are you OK with volume?” says John Poulter. “I can get you some earplugs if you want.”
“No, I'm fine thanks,” I grin back at him. My head might be ringing by the end of the day but I've been looking forward to this for a long time and I want the full-on experience.
I'm sitting at the end of the percussion platform at the back of a Henry Wood Hall packed almost from wall to wall by an augmented RSNO, and the full rehearsals for Messiaen's glorious Turangalîla-Symphonie are about to begin. Directly in front of me are the tubular bells which John will be playing; to his left is the tam-tam and eight other percussionists distributed in an arc away from us, charged variously with splash, suspended, china and crash cymbals, wood blocks, maracas, triangle, tambourine, snare, tom-tom and bass drums. Actually, this is quite a modest array of percussion compared with those demanded by many more contemporary works. Now, I love percussion and the textures and emphasis it can bring to a piece (unlike in rock music, orchestral percussion is mostly not about anchoring rhythm but is part of the acoustic palette) but I do feel that too often today's composers just overdo it and throw the kitchen sink at a composition to no particular advantage. All those battering, clattering tom-toms and clanging gongs and brake-drums can be sotedious and clichéd. Less really is more in most cases and for my money, Shostakovich did it all so much better…
…and so it is with Messiaen. It's notable that each player in the section only has one or maybe two instruments to play because, at times, those rhythms get pretty complex: each tap of a block or splash of a cymbal has an integral part in Turangalîla'ssound-world and the timing has to be perfect. Tenth member and section principal Simon Lowdon is down at the front of the orchestra with a vibraphone. For this performance all the “keyboards” are clustered around the podium, so the piano and Ondes Martenot (of which more later) are behind the conductor and grouped in front of him are vibraphone, keyed glockenspiel and celesta. I haven't seen this set-up before, but it makes good sense in terms of Messiaen's aim to emulate the sounds of a Gamelan orchestra, and should help the more delicate sounds to project more clearly into the audience.
If I sit forward in my seat I have a good view of those players and the podium, on which conductor Thomas Søndergård has just arrived. He greets the players and without much ado calls out “5th movement” and we are off into the dancing rhythms of “Joie du sang des étoiles.”
Joy of the blood of the stars! How can you not love a title like that? This fifth movement forms a kind of “end of part one” to the piece and for its six or seven minutes never ceases its dancing, whirling motion, concluding with an overwhelming, swelling crescendo only eclipsed at the very end of the work. As the musicians work through the movement at some length, it's evident just how much precision and control is needed, and Thomas' rehearsal technique is an model of efficiency as he highlights the most difficult areas, breaks down complex rhythms into bite-size chunks and addresses points of balance. There are just so many notes in this work and the density of some of the scoring is such that it's easy to see how passages could descend into chaos without impeccable control. It's plain to see how much the orchestra appreciate his clear, no-fuss approach: taxing to play as this music undoubtedly is, there's clearly a lot of enjoyment here, though I think the biggest grin must be the one on Maestro Søndergård's face as he directs these great torrents of sound.
Having started in the middle of the work, the rehearsal continues with the opening movements: the Introduction with its bustling, aggressive string entry and the growling, foreboding brass (what Messiaen called the “Statue-theme”) leading on to a plaintive little woodwind phrase (the “Flower-theme”) which also recurs throughout the work; and the second movement, “Chant d'Amour 1”, which heralds the swooping “Love-Theme” introduced by the sweet tones of the Ondes Martenot. Here the piano also makes its voice heard in no uncertain terms. I've listened to this music on recordings many times but seeing it performed live really makes you aware just what an insanepart this is for piano and why it needs a virtuoso player: pianist Markus Bellheim is certainly up to that challenge and he gets a hearty stamping of feet from the orchestra after he executes at blinding speed the descending passage at the end of movement 2 which covers the whole length of the keyboard from top to bottom.
It's break time and I manage to have a brief chat with the Ondes Martenot player, the charming Jacques Tchamkerten. He says that he plays this work maybe three or four times a year at most and by day he's an academic at the Geneva Conservatoire; “you cannot live just by playing the Ondes Martenot.” I tell him I'm fascinated by the instrument and remark on its ability to sound like a human voice. “Yes,” he replies, “and for a while it was popular among composers. But some who wrote much music for voice didn't like it. Poulenc, for example, hated the instrument.”
ow can you HhhhhhHbbbbnnnn
So what is it exactly? Most people have heard of the Theremin and that has been used in film scores and by performers like Led Zeppelin and Bill Bailey. You can buy Theremin kits online fairly cheaply and play one yourself. The “Onde”, though, is a bit of a rarity and is always the focus of attention when it appears on stage. Invented in 1928 by musician Maurice Martenot, its name translates as “Martenot Waves” and you could think of it as the very first synthesizer. It uses an electronic oscillator to produce a pure tone (remember those sound experiments in the Physics class at school?) and some other circuits to allow the pitch to be varied continuously over a wide range. In addition the sound can be fed through three different speakers – a plain one, one with resonating strings in front and one with a small gong, which creates a more metallic tone. With the wide frequency range you can have a high, clear, human sounding voice or at the bottom end, earth-shaking bass notes, both used in Turangalîla . Get hold of the recent Hyperion CD of this work, play it on a good sound system and you’ll be startled to hear the “Onde” chugging away mightily in the first movement.
But what for me makes the instrument so interesting is how it is played. It has a scaled-down keyboard (though about 6 octaves' worth) and you can just play notes, with the added feature that the whole keyboard can move freely in its mounting, and you can get vibrato effects if you wobble your fingers while holding down keys. The other mode of playing – I've heard this called the ruban(ribbon) – is based on a tensioned steel wire with a mounted ring in which you place your index finger. By moving the ring back and forth along a strip – with note positions marked – at the front of the keyboard, you create continuous slide, or glissando, effects, and these are what Messiaen uses very prominently in Turangalîla. And given that this is an amplified instrument, it has no difficulty soaring over the work's huge forces when it needs to.
When I go back upstairs to the rehearsal hall, I'm amused to see the “Onde”’s curiosity value is well in evidence as M. Tchamkerten and his instrument are surrounded by a wee gaggle of players, though I do manage to get a close look for a few moments before the rehearsal restarts. This looks like one of the original instruments, lovely old wood and Bakelite switches. I know there are not many of these left but I have heard that a new model is being produced. This has been prompted by, among others, Jonny Greenwood of the band Radiohead who's used the instrument in some of their songs. I would love to play with one but it's way out of my price range, I fear.
So it's back to work, and before the lunch break we come to the eighth movement,  “Développement de l'amour.” This, says Thomas, is the most difficult and complex section in the whole work. I can see what he means as they begin to work on the movement's energetic passages which seem surge forwards then to pull back in rapid succession, at intervals bursting into great flowerings of the love-theme. This movement above all, is where Messiaen celebrates physical love, and there's certainly a sense of, ahem, release when the orchestra's finally allowed to reach the immense, extended climax near the end of the movement.
And so it goes, into the afternoon session, with more of that eighth movement followed by pointed explorations of the other movements. Although this is the full rehearsal day, on the previous day there have been sectional rehearsals to attend to fine detail by percussion, brass, winds and strings. Today, on occasion Thomas asks a section to play a passage on their own where, for example, their part is particularly important in the rhythmic structure and it's fascinating to hear these bits out of the context of the whole ensemble. This reminds me of a previous rehearsal when John asked me “Doesn't it take away the magic to see how all this is done?” Well no, actually. Not only does it help me – a music lover without any musical training – to get a sense of how a piece fits together, but it doesn't diminish the real magic which is how does a composer think this stuff up – and then achieve the sound in the orchestra? Now that's magic – as the man said.
Postscript – Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Saturday.
So what of the performance? The feeling at the end of Thursday's rehearsal had been overwhelmingly positive and reports from the Edinburghconcert had been good. I've loved this piece from the first time I heard it – a BBC Proms broadcast in 1982 – and this is just my fourth live Turangalîla. Partner Elizabeth has been joking all week that she needs to tie me down or I'll float away; it's fair to say anticipation is high on Saturday evening.
Violist Katherine Wren gives an excellent pre-concert talk and there's a nice coincidence: it turns out her first live experience of the symphony was the same as mine – a concert by the Hallé in Manchester in 1989. We can't remember who the conductor was, but I promise to look out the programme and let her know.
The audience tonight is not large – it's a sad fact that Glasgowaudiences are still scared away by the unfamiliar – but it's a respectable enough showing. I can see someone in the front row of the stalls with a score in his lap. Oh yes, we're ready.
…and we’re away. I'm so absorbed that it's the fifth movement almost before I know it, my heart's pounding and every impulse in me wants to cheer. But no; save it. The long, gentle sixth movement is a welcome chill-out after all that excitement. Love's well and truly developed in the ecstatic eighth, and the curious, intense little ostinato of the ninth builds up the tension again before the last lap. We have seen few conductors who simply radiate pleasure in their work quite like Thomas Søndergård: he's conducted throughout with passion and precision, but mostly with a huge, happy grin that's infectious all the way from stage to circle. He launches the Finale at a hell of a lick; it definitely wasn't this fast at the rehearsal! There are moments the orchestra seems to be hanging on for dear life, but magnificently, they manage it. The very last chord in the score is marked “très long” and Thomas doesn't disappoint: the crescendo is indeed very long and overwhelming.
A moment of almost shocked silence, then the first clap. I shout; so does Elizabeth. Over the next few minutes we all make, I think, a worthy amount of noise in reward for what's just been given to us. It's all over and we're shattered, though I nip round to the choir stalls to have a few words with John down below. As we get our coats to leave the hall, there is another cluster of folk at the front of the stage looking at the Ondes Martenot. The ten gallant percussionists are having a group photo taken. What a great night. Bravissimi tutti, Thomas and all the performers: we'll remember this one for a long time. And if you weren't there, too bad: you have NO idea what you missed.
Ian Taft is a valued member of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's Chair Patron Programme, supporting our Associate Principal Percussionist, John Poulter. Please click here to find out more about the RSNO's Chair Patron Programme.