‘Gentlemen Prefer Ondes…’ (2)

https://i1.wp.com/www.thomasbloch.net/OndesTiroirCL.jpgSo what was it all about — my late-night posting that was little more than a clip from Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie and a rushed acknowledgement of someone called Xenia…?

Well, I have an hour or two free this afternoon, so let me quickly explain – and add a few more clips and links that readers might like to explore.

Here — as briefly as possible! — are ‘the facts’…

Last weekend, a group called ‘Ad Hoc Sinfonia’ under conductor Steve Bingham actually played Messiaen’s 85-minute Turangalîla-Symphonie here in Cambridge — at the West Road Concert Hall, which is part of the building that houses the University’s Music Department.

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Cambridge posters. Photograph by Xenia.

To be completely honest, I had no idea that any such performance was even planned – until, just a couple of days before it happened, my friend Xenia and I happened to spot a poster that was attached to one of the many sets of Cambridge railings that are always covered with advertisements for cultural and scholarly happenings. After due consideration and a bit of googling, Xenia decided that she wanted to buy tickets for both of us; and she did – with the result that I heard the Turangalîla in this city for the second time since I came to live here in 1996.

So: my grateful thanks to Xenia – who, I am happy to report, seems to have enjoyed the performance every bit as much as I did!

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Cambridge posters. Photograph by Xenia.

And it has to be said: I went into it with more than a little trepidation. For, as anyone will be able to tell if they played the clip I posted last week, the Turangalîla-Symphonie is a huge and complex work — and very difficult for an orchestra to play. And, as the name suggests, the Ad Hoc Sinfonia isn’t any kind of permanent or professional body: it’s just a collection of idealistic musicians with all kinds of other commitments — who come together, every now and then, in order to make a particular concert happen. And, on the night, my fears weren’t at all reduced by the fact that the performances of the two pieces in the concert’s first half were so poor that I could barely force myself to listen to them. (Naturally, I didn’t say anything about this to Xenia…)


Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), pictured in 1946.

But, as it turned out, the Turangalîla in the second half(!) was a genuine triumph: not only did the orchestra – and soloists Joseph Havlat (piano) and Cynthia Millar (ondes Martenot) – do a jolly good job of keeping it all together, but after it had ended, literally everyone we saw leaving the venue was smiling

So let me do what I can to share some of the happiness and enthusiasm with other people now…

First, anyone who heard the clip in that last posting and now feels they’d like to do some swotting up on the work itself could do worse than read the Wikipedia entry here.

Secondly, people who are curious about Olivier Messiaen can read the Wikipedia entry on him here.

Thirdly, readers who are intrigued by that remarkable electronic instrument the ondes Martenot — and that’s all of us, let’s face it! — can see a short but instructive video here:

And, fourthly, anyone who wants to know about the first work in which Messiaen ever used the ondes Martenot can read a few lines here about the 1937 piece Fête des belles eaux — which is actually composed for six of the things (and nothing else) — and then hear it (yes, all 29 minutes of it!) here:

(In case anyone feels that, in one or two places, the work sounds a little like Ravel, it might be worth mentioning that Maurice Ravel was actually still alive when it was composed: he didn’t die until December 28, 1937.)

And, finally: anyone who now wants to dive into a performance of the entire Turangalîla-Symphonie (1946-8) only has to click on the panel below…

Are you ready…? Remember: as I indicated, it’s 80-odd minutes long — and some of those minutes are very odd indeed…!

You think you’ll be able to cope…?

All right then: off you go…!


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