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). 

More buzz please

I couldn’t get to Gruppen at the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. I should have jumped quicker to buy a ticket. I should have said yes to the person who invited me to join them (but didn’t because of a school reunion).

At the very least I should have asked the right person at the right time if I could get a ticket somehow. In the end, I left it all too late. Massive fail on my part.

None of this is me moaning, by the way. 

There’s been a buzz about the Southbank over the past week thanks to the Philharmonia and the London Symphony Orchestra. First, the Philharmonia’s Gurrelieder in Paris documented on social media as a tantalising preview for the orchestra’s season closer on Thursday. Then yesterday, a much-anticipated performance of Gruppen by the LSO.

It’s not just that these season highlights were epic performances. They were both of them much-talked about beforehand. These were true events

People I spoke to in the run-up to both, were all excitedly asking the same question. “Are you going?”

That simple question has a devastating effect – it motivates you to get yourself a ticket so that you can share in an experience others are getting excited about. And when you can’t get a ticket, it prompts a bout of irritation about not having moved fast enough early enough.

And it’s not that I didn’t get to go to Gruppen that is important here. What’s utterly delightful is that two orchestral teams (players and support staff) are able to generate such passionate enthusiasm amongst their audiences. A wonderfully reassuring and invigorating thing.

Listen to Stockhausen’s Gruppen – in a concert that also features a performance Messiaen’s Et exspecto in a radio broadcast from last night. The music starts around 8 minutes in. 

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Prom 64: Berlin Phil / Turangalila / Rattle

Prom 64: Turangalila, originally uploaded by Thoroughly Good.

Messiaen was one composer which was flagged up pretty early on in my Proms experience this year. In truth, I probably made a bee-line for all of the concerts in which his works featured heavily because I knew it was an easy hit. Pick out the ones you’re least comfortable with and they’re guaranteed to be thought-provoking. I’m always up for being challenged. I’m not generally someone who will only listen to the stuff he knows. I do rather like being taken out of my comfort zone .. for the most part.

I wasn’t anxious about attending tonight’s concert. My only thought had been whether or not I’d be able to stand for the 78 minutes the Turangalila Symphony was supposed to last for. As it was I didn’t stand for the entiriety preferring instead to sit for three movements somewhere in the middle. Sitting is OK, by the way. It’s allowed.

The man stood next to me summed everything I was feeling up when he licked his lips and cracked his knuckles shortly after Sir Simon Rattle stepped up on to his podium. This was a major work and perhaps one not for the faint-hearted. At least, that’s what I assumed to begin with. The man beside me was obviously getting himself psyched-up for the ocassion. I had to admire that.

Of course I was wrong. There was nothing to get psyched up for. Nearly every concert I’ve initially assumed would be heavy weather hasn’t been. The one’s I’ve not given a second thought too have, conversely, thrown unexpected spanners in the works. The Turangalila however was nothing short of pure indulgence.

There are discernible melodies. There are sections you’ll come away from remembering even if you can’t initially whistle them. What’s important – at least to me – is how Messiaen paints and enormous picture orchestrating his ideas with such deft precision that I wonder why we bother listening to any composer in existence before him.

I hadn’t anticipated to what extent it would be such a physical experience either. Sure, you can listen to it and possibly enjoy it on CD, but there’s nothing better than hearing the strange yet reassuring textures Messiaen conjurs up say by combining piccolo trumpet with unison strings wtih the ocassional ondnes martinot thrown in with an ocassional sprinkling of triangle for good measure. There are moments which straddle both the grotesque and the beautiful all at the same time, moments when the orchestra I saw on stage played seemingly disparate melodic, rhythmic and harmonic ideas and yet executed it in such a way that I never thought to question it.

Tonight was an event. If you were listening on the radio you may not have got that although I’d wager the cheers at the end might possibly have given an indication. For those of us there – and really, there wasn’t much room for anyone else – we all rose to the ocassion. It was the Berlin Phil playing after all. It’s not often you get a chance to stand this close to the first violins of the Berlin Phil and marvel at their cool exterior and equally cool yet accomplished dexterity and musicality.

To watch the much-touted finest orchestra in the world conductor by Rattle only served to reinforce something in my mind I could now finally say that after years of assuming that Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony was impenetrable rubbish, it was Rattle conducting the Berlin Phil who convinced me otherwise is really quite a special thing, if a little pretentious. (Give me a wide berth at parties just in case I use that line, won’t you?)

But there was one other thing which occurred this evening which will make the performance memorable. Part way through the interval, intent on writing something inspired by the first half of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde Prelude and Liebestod that I ended up being unexpectedly flattered by someone sat behind me.

“Excuse me,” he said, “I’m sorry to interrupt but you’re writing. Do you write for anyone in particular?”

I hesitated at first before getting a grip. “I write a blog,” I replied beaming.

“Oh, really? What’s it called?”

“The Thoroughly Good Blog.”

“Good name,” he smiled back at me.

“Isn’t it.”

Prom 42: Jennifer Bate plays Messiaen

Sunday saw another necessary break from the Proms treadmill in the form of a Sunday afternoon summer party with the in-laws. The food was brilliant (of particular note were prawns soaked in garlic oil with chilli peppers – I’ve no idea how they’re prepared but bloody hell they were gorgeous).

Stars of the said summer party were undoubtedly house dogs Honeybun and Molly (left). They do the whole posing-for-a-photograph thing in an extremely laid back way.

In the Royal Albert Hall at around about the same time as I was tucking into a hot-dog, organist extraordinaire and adorable-lady-on-the-radio Jennifer Bate sat at the organ keyboard and start bashing out some of Messiaen’s finest work.

Obviously, to refer to her skill and musicality merely as “bashing out” would be doing her a disservice. (Although, it has to be said that for some reason I do find it more difficult to believe that organists show musicality – it’s something to do with the fact they’re playing a mechanical instrument with a motor and a bellows and massive pipes – even though they obviously are playing musically.)

As I sit and listen to that concert for a second time via iPlayer I’m confident in my assertion that this year’s organ gigs have been some of the finest and that we should have a regular slot from the Royal Albert Hall every single Sunday afternoon.  Somebody see to it, will you? There is something immediately engaging about the sound of organ music which calms the senses and wipes away some of the white noise which thunders around my head. 

Messiaen’s music too has been a real revelation. I expected it to be inconsequential melodies and irritating trills. I can picture how I’d react listening to stuff like that. I’d wriggle uncomfortably in my seat, flick through the programme, pick my nose or scratch my arse.

Not so. Messiaen’s music casts a spell. It’s deliberate and considered. Each chord emanating from the organ demands the listener’s attention and, perhaps, the slow progressions give the listener the opportunity to take things in before we move on to the next. In that way Messiaen’s compositions – certainly in the works played in this concert – are always meditative, hardly surprising given that the composer himself used to be a cathedral organist in Paris.

Prom 42: Jennifer Bate plays organ works by Messiaen

Prom 27: Messiaen

Did I actually say I couldn’t wait for the next one? Yes. Yes I did.

The gig started off well. It was interesting to hear Messiaen’s L’Ascension again. The version I’d heard before was an organ arrangement played by Olivier Latry close to the beginning of the season.

This evening’s arrangement was specifically for orchestra. It took me by surprise initially, not because of Messiaen’s “sound”, but more how much of it I recognised. At that concert I was coming to it fresh. Tonight it felt as though it was comfortably familiar.

More than that, I reckon I actually quite enjoy Messiaen’s music. It’s far more romantic than I remember it being when I was at college. Back then it felt sharp and squeaky and unpleasant. Now it feels like I’m discovering a composer for the first time and wishing I’d done it before. It may be a little early to say I’m a Messiaen convert, but I did find myself looking through the programme notes making a note of all the other concerts his music features in.

Sadly, I didn’t stick around for the second half tonight. There are sheets to be washed and a bathroom to sluice down ahead of a very special visit from a pal who’s on stage tomorrow night. I’ll catch what I missed of Prom 27 on iPlayer and report back later.