BBC Proms Diary 2018: Prom 6 – Turangalila

Since Mark Simpson’s Prom with the BBC Philharmonic a couple of nights ago, it feels like the Proms has bedded in nicely. Similarly with Prom 6 and the BBC Symphony’s performance Messiaen’s Turangalila.

There are sections in Messiaen’s epic work I remember from my A-Level studies. We were given a thick soft-spined A4 book packed full of excerpts covering a wide range of repertoire, all printed on glossy paper my HB pencil failed to make a significant impression on.

Turangalila was one of the works on the course. Short excerpts from a seemingly impenetrable incomprehensible work. Teachers telling me it was amazing but me not understanding exactly why. There was nothing I could connect with. 

All I could really do was listen to the various excerpts over and over again, learn some facts, and practice regurgitation for the final exam. Turangalila represented an obligation or a criterion for an exam I wanted to do well in but felt slightly at sea sitting. How could I write convincingly about a work if I didn’t feel passionately about it? 

Searching through my Flickr account, I’m reminded that the last time I heard Turangalila was at the Proms ten years ago. Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle. I’m surprised reading the accompanying blog post back ten years later that a) it makes sense, b) I remember the experience I was writing about, and c) the live performance had convinced me even then that actually this was an utterly brilliant work – a must-listen.

There’s a duality in my thinking listening back to Prom 6 this (for a second time at the time of writing). I remember keenly how alienated and inferior I felt as a sixth-former listening to and not understanding Turangalila.

At the same time I metaphorically bounce up and down with excitement when I realise I want to absorb myself more and more in the work now. And when I think about that then I realise paradox inherent in the challenge any arts marketer faces selling classical music to new audiences. It’s not that marketing is failing. It’s that we underestimate the commitment the artform demands. We’re all of us impatient. If you’re going to step onto the classical music bus, you need to be prepared to be on it for 26 years (potentially). 

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