Well, the afternoon concert of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra that I attended last Sunday was about as good as it gets. The program consisted of two pieces:

  1. Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod
  2. Olivier Messiaen, Turangalîla-Symphonie

I’ve been critical of the OSO in the past. The orchestra tends to perform extremely well on one piece per concert — but botch at least one other. The outfit usually ends with some gigantic war horse full of sound and fury, playing remarkably well. But a middle or early piece in the program has . . . problems. I’ve heard Carlos Kalmar, the conductor and musical director of the orchestra, successfully conduct, say, Ravel or Richard Strauss, at concert’s climax, but have trouble making a convincing case for, say, Bartok’s great masterwork, the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, earlier on in the evening. But they’ve managed to pull off some difficult music extraordinarily well, such as by contemporary composer Aaron Jay Kernis.

Today, however, was a different story. The mastery with the Tristan music was exquisite. This is a very Romantic piece, and one that I have not listened to very often. Wagner is not my usual cup of tea. But I am not an idiot, or a bigot about music: I can recognize greatness when I hear it, and it is wonderful to hear it in a concert hall. It is a perpetual motion machine of the heart — a sacred and profane love machine, perhaps — a tone poem to longing, to aching passion, to doomed desire and death. It is based on the old Tristan story, of course, which my fellow Arthurian Legend aficionados know only too well. With Wagner that story reached a sort of apotheosis.

It also became one of the most influential pieces of the 19th century, setting fine art music on a road away from common practice harmony, and into the realm of atonality. It was not popular at first performance. It grew on our civilization. I will readily confess to usually preferring, more than the music itself, this music’s legacy in works by Debussy and, yes, Bernard Herrmann — the Vertigo score is sort of a late echo of the very same longing and doom, and using many of the same techniques (it’s almost a pastiche).

But it is not for everybody, or even most. The old man sitting next to my sister, Rebecca, snored through it. Alas.

It is certainly not a warhorse, like the same composer’s Ride of the Valkyries, or the Wedding March from Lohengrin

Also not an obvious crowd-pleaser is the Messiaen work. Here we have one of the most-performed BIG masterworks of the 20th century (it premiered in 1948). It was basically panned by its first critics and audiences, even called the “Messiaen Monster” and music fit for “Hindu hillbillies, if there be such.” 

But it became one of the most played works after the heyday of populist modernism in the works of Sibelius, Copland, Shostakovich, et al. Surely it is one of the most played “hard-to-perform” works. I have several recordings of it in my collection of recordings. After the concert, I purchased another one, featuring the same soloists from Sunday’s performance.

The disc I bought after the concert.

It is a work of eccentric genius.

Messiaen dared to combine simplicity with complexity. He dared to draw out a tune now and then. He dared to base extended works on motifs that some have found trivial, trite, but which are at least readily identifiable. Though there is a lot of hidden complexity in his music — amazing rhythmic and modal patterns— much of it is noticeable on the surface, unlike the tone rows of the serialists that almost always hidden in a score, indiscernible to any but the most trained ear. 

Most of all, though, Messiaen dared to dream big. (When he accepted the original commission, he told the purchaser that he would begin dreaming about it immediately. Messiaen, a French Catholic, was also a mystic.) Though the work lacks a kettledrum, there are plenty of tuned and untuned percussionist working overtime throughout the piece. The brass, particularly the tubas, get to blast away, very memorably. The pianist is up front, and obligato throughout. But it is not a concerto, no matter how demanding. Steven Osborne’s performance was brilliant.

And then there was the ondes martinot.

The ondes, an electrical instrument that can do not only theremin-like things, but also perform, as Kalmar put it, “fifty times more things,” plays throughout the symphony, often doubling the violins. Cynthia Millar performed on the instrument.

The symphony is long. Ten movements.

I, recovering from a cold, think of it as an “eleven lozenge symphony.” I did not have a problem until the sixth movement — my favorite — halfway through which I struggled to suppress a cough, a very painful thing to do. But unlike the other members of the audience, I did not cough while the music was playing.

Hint to audiences: between movements, one is not supposed to clap . . . but coughing is mandatory, if you have a tickle. Do it then.

And the audience did not clap between the Wagner movements, and not in the Messiaen, either, with one exception: at the end of the fifth, which is nearly seven minutes of a “dance of frenzied joy,” and contains his most whistleable themes — an actual jaunty tune, played loudly in the brass — the audience burst into applause. It is the obvious crowd-pleasing movement of the ten.

The audience can and should be forgiven for the sound burst. Actual appreciation sometimes needs an outlet. And the audience, three fifths of whom probably hate Messiaen’s brand of modernism (a number of old people walked out in the middle movements), and only one tenth that probably loves it, had a respite of sorts.

In addition to the music performed, the orchestra had commissioned a local artist and her students to design and “perform” a light show to accompany the music of the Turangalîla. It started out monochrome (white), and by the end of the piece was in full color. 

The symphony, which has some of the loudest as well as quietest music in the repertory, ended with a huge swell of major-chord bliss.