Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Last night I drove way out to UMSL to hear the St. Louis Symphony perform at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center (left). I had never been there before and was little prepared for the impressive, modern concert hall, situated on a grassy hillside with its main entry at the end of a long, curving, brightly-lit path from the parking lot.

By "little prepared" I mostly mean "underdressed." Within a couple hours after yesterday's cold front roared into town, temperatures plummeted from around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (think: people running around Forest Park shirtless) to the wee digits above zero, and while I'm speaking of roaring, let's talk about the wind on that long, curving path along the top of that bare hillside. I haven't felt air so cold since my college days in Minnesota!

So I braved gale-force, Arctic winds and unfamiliar terrain to visit the Touhill and hear David Robertson conducting Olivier Messaien's Turangalila Symphony. I lived, however, through both trips between my car and the hall. And I enjoyed the concert tremendously.

Robertson made use of the first "half" of the program to give a half-hour presentation explaining the symphony, with live musical examples and visual aids (i.e., pieces of modern art projected on a screen above the stage, suggesting ways for the audience to think about the music). Perhaps because Robertson made such an excellent apology for the work, or perhaps because the live spectacle of a 10-movement symphony being played by a huge orchestra, with a bravura pianist and a bizarre electronic instrument called the ondes Martenot (left) right out front, what might have been considered inscrutably dense and eccentric music ended up absolutely captivating. The audience's unanimous, standing ovation testifies to how thrilling the performance was, given that it was a work of over-the-top originality driven by exotic modes, eastern rhythms, 1950s sci-fi movie sound effects, birdcalls, and repetitions of the same material in numerologically significant patterns.

I like to tell people that Messiaen saved my life. One of his organ pieces, which I played every day in a practice room during a particularly stressful time in college, became for me a kind of musical bio-feedback, or full-body massage. I would run into the practice room nearly sick with stress, turn on the organ, play the piece, counting every beat (it was essentially one long ritard), and be completely relaxed and calm by the end. Messiaen was a magical composer, writing music of monumental weirdness in a style I would never have sought out, and yet I have never failed to like a piece by him when I have heard it.

I heard Messiaen the organist last night, sometimes combining the instruments in the orchestra like stops on an organ, to create not so much harmony or an ensemble sound as the sense of a single instrument with a unique timbre. I heard things that were painful, touching, exciting, and mysterious - things that I understood but could never explain in words. I heard the kind of music that comes to me in dreams. Messiaen is one of those composers (another is Hindemith) who seemed capable of recording the experience of the subconscious mind in musical notation. I have often wished I could do that, but I can't hold onto the dreams long enough to work them out on paper. I guess I will just have to keep listening to these guys, then. Maybe someday, someway, they will explain me to myself.

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