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Music we've been missing (Part 8): Messiaen

A survey of music we don't get to hear live around here -- at least orchestrally speaking -- would have to include the works of Olivier Messiaen. And the item I think of first is "Turangalila-Symphonie," one of Messiaen's most audacious creations.

Finished in 1948 and lasting nearly 80 minutes, the symphony sums up just about everything of the composer's style and ideals. It is a mesmerizing work, "a hymn to joy," as he called it, "joy that is superhuman, overflowing, blinding, unlimited."

There are references in the music to birdsong, of course, a Messiaen trademark, and there's also the exotic use of the ondes martenot, an instrument we tend to associate with cheap horror movies, but which fits perfectly with the composer's vision of transcendence.

Needless to say, I don't expect to spot "Turangalila" on a Baltimore concert anytime soon, especially in such restrictive financial times -- the score calls for a gargantuan orchestra, not to mention an ondes martenot virtuoso (they're never in great abundance) and a massively talented piano soloist. I'm grateful that Leonard Slatkin programmed it with the NSO some years ago; what an uplifting experience that was.

Even if it's too expensive an undertaking to contemplate now, "Turangalila" should be on the back-burner, ready to boil over the minute money starts to flow more easily. If you're not already a fan of this audacious symphony, I hope the clip I've included here will hook you.

And speaking of Messiaen, let me put in a plug for something even more unlikely here, his daunting opera "Saint Francoise d'Assise." I've had only one chance so far to experience it live, in a riveting production by the San Francisco Opera.

It's hard to absorb all the elements and ideals in the time-stopping work, yet you can feel totally gripped by something incredibly beautiful and real in this music. A scene of St. Francis overcoming his fears and embracing a leper gave me chills unlike any I've ever felt in an opera house. (The clip of that scene I've attached doesn't come close to duplicating how the music came across in person.) I know it would be more than any local company in Baltimore or DC would even dream about tackling, but a presentation of "Saint Francois d'Assise," even in concert form, sure would be a major event.

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