Arts concert review

A celestial symphony of sensation

Featuring Yuja Wang and an obscure electronic instrument

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Yuja Wang performs Messiaen's Truangalîla-Symphonie with the BSO.

Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie 

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by Andris Nelsons 

Yuja Wang on Piano, Cécile Lartigau on the ondes Martenot

Boston Symphony Hall 

April 13, 2024

April 13’s Boston Symphony Orchestra performance featured distinguished pianist Yuja Wang and Cécile Lartigau, on the ondes Martenot, playing Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. I had never heard of this piece or the instrument ondes Martenot before, so this was a fun experience. 

On stage, there were four key instruments at the front. From left to right: keyboard glockenspiel (small), celesta (medium), and piano (large), all facing the ondes Martenot, a mysterious instrument. We got to learn more about the ondes Martenot at the end of the concert! The whole performance was just this one 1.5 hour piece with no intermission. The piece has ten sections, so I’ll structure the rest of this article accordingly.

1. The start is dark and ominous. The piano does some scratchy chord trills that sound like a furious flute. There is a dramatic piano solo in the middle featuring more cat-scratching. From the ondes Martenot, we hear otherworldly sliding sounds, and Lartigau uses some interesting wrist-circle techniques in the left hand.

2. The orchestra alternates between intense moments of passion and mystical moments of tender melody. The snare sounds like a bird’s wings flapping. Wang seems to be having a lot of fun. There is a conversation between the discrete keyboards and the sliding ondes Martenot. At the end, there are a few rogue clappers from the audience who are quickly hushed.

3. The clarinet and the ondes Martenot exchange a pensive melody. The celesta-piano double creates an interesting effect where the celesta is piercing and the piano is fuller. The ondes Martinot continues to slide alongside other instruments. The symphony jumps between different wind instruments and different keyboard instruments, creating a fidgety feel.

4. There’s an emphasis on dissonance, which is reflected in the piano solo. Rhythms and contours are often repeated in small chunks. In general, the piece uses a lot of local repetition like this. A return to the first movement gives us more piano cat-scratching ondes Martenot sliding. The keys shimmer in a glittery end.

5. A frenzy of excitement. There was an extremely loud ending of one note on a humongous crescendo. I had to cover my ears. Fun fact: you can hear Balinese gamelan influences in many of Messiaen’s works. The MIT Gamelan Galak Tika actually performed at Symphony Hall before the concert. You can check out MIT Balinese Gamelan (21M.450) if you’re curious!

6. Hyper-realistic bird sounds coming from the whole orchestra - winds, strings, piano, etc. Messiaen was a bird lover and into ornithology, which his music definitely reflects. Check out Messiaen’s Réveil des oiseaux if you’re interested in even more bird sounds.

7. It was at this movement when I succumbed to sleep. On the other hand, here are some fun facts. Did you know that Messiaen had synesthesia? He associated certain colors with certain notes, and combinations of notes. He even marked some of his scores with colors.
He was also very religious and much of his music has a divine feel. This is reflected in his use of the ondes Martenot, an early electronic musical instrument which has an especially supernatural sound. Check out Messiaen’s Fête des belles eaux for six ondes Martenot at once!
Turangalîla-Symphonie is supposedly about love, though I didn’t completely understand it. Messiaen’s wife, violinist Claire Delbos, had been institutionalized for amnesia from a brain infection after a hysterectomy. He started to develop mutual feelings for pianist Yvonne Loriod but Messiaen was strongly religious and refused to get remarried until Delbos died. As such, he and Loriod waited for two decades before marrying.

8. We see another interesting ondes Martenot effect that has some sort of buzzing sound. The clarinet plays a line, and then on the last note, the ondes Martenot does a little buzz. We continue to see the contrast between dissonant and consonant chords. The brass are the bones, and the strings are the meat.

9. This movement was perhaps my favorite melody of the piece, with some romantic chromaticism. I especially enjoyed it when the piano played this melody. The blocks have a distinct sound which is ominously calming. The strings sometimes play a smaller role, with only the first stands playing.

10. The grand fanfare finale was a chaotic frenzy with long stretches of dissonance. It ends with three hits and a bloom — a little arpeggio with a huge crescendo. I had to cover my ears. Interestingly, Wang did too. Of course, there was immediate loud applause with a standing ovation.

Wang did not perform an encore, but we did get a mini-lesson from Lartigau about the ondes Martenot. It is an early electronic instrument with a theremin-like sound. It consists of three parts: a keyboard-like interface, a vertical fan of strings, and a hanging metal plate. The interface lets you slide your hand down the keyboard to produce a sliding sound. The twelve strings are divided six on the left and six on the right, making up the two whole tone scales. The plate amplifies the sound. Lartigau told the audience about how she invented a tuning system for the ondes Martenot! 

Overall, the Turangalîla-Symphonie was a unique piece. I enjoyed the cool sound effects and the energy, but perhaps I’ll have to listen a few more times to see the connection to love. This concert led my curiosity down little rabbit holes about the ondes Martenot, Olivier Messiaen, and Balinese gamelan - all three of which I will continue to listen to, and I recommend checking out!