Simplicity is not the goal. It is the by-product of a good idea and modest expectations.
Yale Philharmonia played Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie here in New Haven last night. They’re repeating it tomorrow night at Carnegie. If you’re in NYC and have the evening free I urge you to go hear it. I know everyone’s probably Messiaen’ed out by now (and it’s not often one can say that) but to hear this piece live is really a special occasion. Even though the piece is really long— about 80 minutes— the concert feels short, thanks to Reinbert de Leeuw’s brisk, almost neoclassical reading; it reminds me of the way Boulez does Mahler— he doesn’t stop to look to the heavens (or look at himself in the mirror).
I’d been obsessed with Turangalîla when I was about 16— probably the appropriate time to be obsessed with that kind of piece— but hadn’t listen to it much recently. Coming to it with fresh ears, I was surprised just how gamelan‑y the music is. Besides the seven or eight percussionists, there’s a central battery of celesta, keyboard glockenspiel (!), and solo piano, all of which seem to play almost constantly. (The sound of that little key-glock cuts through anything. I wonder if the player had any idea just how prominent her instrument was, even from Woolsey’s super-balcony). The sum effect was that kind of massed, jangly sound one hears with Balinese gamelan, smashed together with a loopy Wagnerian orchestra (someone tell Evan Ziporyn).
So apparently at CalTech, they have over 130 olive trees around campus and press their own olive oil. I could not possibly be any more jealous. Things like this make me feel even more dismal facing the long New Haven winter.
I spent last week at my family’s ancestral home in Washington, CT. I don’t remember what I did, exactly, but I think it involved many days of alternately cooking and eating.
I also got to play the piano badly and for fun, which is not something I usually have the time or energy to do in New Haven, perhaps because I don’t have a piano in my apartment’s living room. I took out all my volumes of Schubert sonatas and even pounded through the Hammerklavier. It was epic.
My brother Wells’s violin playing has blossomed to the point where he can sight-read Brahms and Beethoven with aplomb. We were reading through Brahms’s third sonata, and I had a shocking realization in the first movement development: it has a constant dominant pedal. I can’t think of any other examples of this in the classical literature. Can I even still call it a “development”? It’s really just an extended dominant pedal leading into the recap. Here, listen:Brahms: Violin Sonata no. 3, op. 108, first movement development
Robert Mann, violin; Stephen Hough, piano
I guess what astonished me was not the presence of the pedal, but how it threatens and ultimately subverts the feeling of sonata form in the movement. There is none of the bluster and bombast that Brahms usually brings into his developments; all the tension is roiling just beneath the remarkably calm surface. Instead, all of the outward drama gets postponed until the recap’s transition into the second theme, which swings wildly and at top volume between harmonic regions. In the normal trajectory of a sonata, one has a sense of “release” or “return” at this point; here, that sense has been completely undermined by the relative stasis of the development.