Celestial Colors 

Nashville Symphony performs monumental work by 20th century French composer Olivier Messaien

Nashville Symphony performs monumental work by 20th century French composer Olivier Messaien

Nashville symphony w/Sandip Burman

8 p.m. Oct. 22-23

Jackson Hall, TPAC

I'm...only a believer, a believer dazzled by the infinity of God!" So French composer Olivier Messiaen once described himself to an interviewer. Messiaen, who died in 1992, translated this bedazzlement into a body of music with an overwhelming intensity of color and emotion written in an uncompromising style that avoids the austerity of serialism but remains modern. As we distance ourselves from the 20th century and look at what it left us in classical music, Messiaen looms larger all the time.

Messiaen wrote major works for orchestra, organ, piano and opera, and on Oct. 22 and 23, the Nashville Symphony will perform his Turangalîla Symphony, a relatively early but monumental work. While this is probably the most widely performed of Messiaen's works, it still requires a great deal from its performers, and the chance to hear it live is far from ordinary.

Messiaen's music sounds like no other composer, drawing on a language he assembled out of sources as diverse as serialism, traditional church modes, Indian music, Indonesian gamelan and bird songs. The music hits you first with the vibrancy of its colors. It is hard to put words to the effect, but his typical sonorities often include a large mass of voices that give the sound great density and complexity, and a high proportion of high and percussive timbres that lend it a metallic edge.

Like Indian music, Messiaen bases his music on a set of scalar and rhythmic modes or patterns. Unlike Indian music, which works intensely within one combination of rhythm (tala) and melody (raga), Messiaen's method involves laying these elements on top of each other in complex ways. Unlike other composers of his time, his music is not atonal, but polytonal. Many of the "modes" he uses (and which he codified and numbered) indicate an affinity with two or more major keys simultaneously. This means that moments of something that sounds like traditional harmony and melody—diatonic scales and consonant intervals—peek through the dense texture of the music. However, his compositions retain the astringency of 20th century music.

Messiaen animated the musical erudition that went into his system with a deep and sophisticated understanding of Catholicism. He served for 55 years as organist at La Trinité church in Paris, playing masses and vespers every Sunday. Messiaen dedicated himself to expressing the qualities of God's infinity, the marvel of divine creation and God's love for humanity and the world. He has a distinctly Catholic concern for feeling God's presence by going through a disciplined process to cultivate a visceral sense of contact with God's love and works.

Messiaen argued that music was uniquely suited to the expression of religious experience, since the other arts depend on symbolic conventions to express religious ideas, but music can express these mysteries more directly. He said in regard to two works with specifically religious titles that he "intended to accomplish a liturgical act...to bring a kind of Office...into the concert hall." While that was his explicit purpose in those works, it carried over into all his compositions. In addition to technical similarities, Messiaen's music shares with Indian music a pervasive devotional aspect.

The 10 movements of the Turangalîla Symphony (its name comes from Sanskrit words meaning "time that runs" and "play") explore aspects of love in the story of Tristan and Yseult, an extreme love that leads to death. In Messiaen's conception, there is a hierarchy of love, the great romantic love of fatal passion exemplified in many stories but none better than Tristan and Yseult, above which stands the love between mother and child, and finally divine love.

The work runs about 75 minutes, but the division into 10 movements makes it easier for listeners to take in each section. The piece calls for a very large orchestra, and includes parts for the Ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument that sounds similar to the Theremin on which the player controls pitch with a wire "ribbon" and a keyboard. Turangalîla also has extensive solo piano sections, as if Messiaen embedded a piano concerto in it. While the symphony uses large orchestral forces, the writing is not as dense as some of his later work and, at times, the dissonances resolve into nearly tonal music that could come from conventional scores of the 1940s.

Musicians in the world of improvised music frequently speak passionately of Messiaen. They see in him a model for defining an omnivorous and rigorous personal musical language, and for investing sounds with great power down to the level of fundamental vibrations. Steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, who has adapted Messiaen for her instrument, says that each note is a god or a goddess. Messiaen achieved this awareness within a Christian context: The notes are not gods, but contain something of God. Messiaen proved the capacity of music, of sound itself, to lend power to religious experience.

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