A Big Symphony about Ecstatic Love, Turangalila at the Southbank 23 May 2013

When I booked a bunch of tickets for The Rest Is Noise festival, this was the one I was most looking forward to. I had heard part of the symphony when it was broadcast as part of a BBC Proms series so was a little familiar with its non standard format.
When Messiaen was given the commission for this piece he was told make it as long as you like and have an orchestra as big as you like. The orchestra is big, a full percussion line up at the back with xylophone and vibraphone given prominence at the front. Messiaen was interested in Indonesian Gamelan and there is a slight recreation of this using these instruments in the symphony. Also used is an odnes martenote, an early electronic instrument with sound similar to a more gentle theramin. Full brass and woodwind instruments suggest this is a band to blow the roof off. When the music starts we are on a ride. The rhythm drives us along telling us that love is ecstatic and exciting. At points the music is clearly describing the physical act of love making. Messiaen is intimate in this description. Where Led Zeppelin might’ve given the rock boys a laugh with their imitation of sex in song, Messiaen is not holding back telling us how special love making is.
The symphony maintains a rhythmic flow only letting up for short but beautiful interludes. It is a long piece of music but I was hooked from start to finish. It seemed fitting that a young orchestra should be playing a relatively young piece of music, as if the energy required to sustain the pace is only available to a young person.
At the finish the audience sustained clapping for several minutes. If I have a gripe it was with the audience, or lack of it. My ticket cost me what some spend on a couple of trips to an overpriced coffee shop, yet there were far to many spaces in the festival hall. This music is fantastic and should be heard more. Londoners really should make use of the chance to here a young orchestra playing amazing music.

A medley of traditional gamelan music

I may have been a bit harsh, this is Led Zeppelin and its pretty bloody good.

The opening of the Turangalila Symphony


Dissonance and not dissonance, a thing of beauty – London Sinfonietta at Queen Elizabeth Hall, The Southbank Centre, Webern & the 2nd Viennese School, 29 January 2013

A couple of years ago I read Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise. Now the Southbank Centre have a year long festival based on the book. Everything 20th century and given some historical context. In nearly forty years of listening to music this would only be the second concert of classical music I’d attended but like a lot of live music I listen to now, I knew almost nothing about what I was to hear.
The first section was three songs by Webern, there would be three more rhymes later in the evening. They were written twenty years apart and the technically minded might hear differences in composition. What I heard was Sarah Gabriel’s beautiful and stunning voice. Where previously I have heard an abrasive language and little rhyme, here I just wanted her to keep singing. I’ve realised the words maybe important but I don’t want to be distracted reading, with singing like this I only need to listen.
There followed a series of pieces starting with Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. My little knowledge of this style suggested it would be atonal and jarring. Maybe in 1909 it was but despite the supposed dissonance in many of the pieces what I hear are dissonant notes complementing each other. The music flows and drives beautifully. The idea of dissonance is a red herring, every note connects, it felt like connecting was a theme of the evening.
The shorter Six Pieces for Orchestra of Webern’s I found contemplative. Although more percussive, these instruments were used more to create mood and expression rather than rhythm. The last pieces before the break created a dilemma for me. Despite my desire to hear things I not heard before I found myself wanting to hear Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra every day.
After the interval was Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21; this was stunning. Each note felt individual, not a typical musical flow yet every sound interconnected. Berg was represented by his Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op. 5. This was the highlight of the evening. A flurry of clarinet notes creating space. Each piece urging onto musical sounds that felt like daylight.
Three Small Pieces for cello and piano were exactly as described. The last is labelled Extremely Quiet. If you were there and saw the bloke in a black shirt clapping only gently it was due to fear of disturbing the incredible atmosphere of the music.
The final piece, Webern’s Concerto for nine instruments felt like a culmination and summation of all that had gone before. This is music that continues to surprise and enchant with its art and beauty. The philosophy and techniques of the 2nd Viennese School was not simply a new way of composing, it created stunning art and gripping music.