Turangalila Symphony is grand arts festival fare, an 85-minute extravaganza, guaranteed to transport audiences into the sonic wonderworld of composer Olivier Messiaen.

With 100 plus musicians on stage, it was a spectacular triumph for Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Stefan Asbury, with pianist Joanna MacGregor and Cynthia Millar on ondes martenot.

An introduction by Graham Abbott was a thoughtful addition to the evening. Conductor and soloists participated, Millar ably demonstrated her exotic instrument and Asbury posed the provocative possibility of musical notes going on forever.

Abbott did manage some bon mots and his likening the symphony's fifth movement to an orgasm on a cosmic scale certainly drew laughs. However, despite tempting soundbites from the on-stage orchestra, this half-hour was no substitute for actual words in Auckland Arts Festival's printed programme, which didn't even list the score's ten movements.


After interval, ready or not, it was time for the ultimate musical immersion experience. Messiaen's high-voltage first movement featured MacGregor's coruscating keyboard, sci-fi whoops from Millar's electronic instrument and a hulking brass theme that might have strayed from Mussorgsky's art gallery.

Back in 1949, Messiaen wrote to Leonard Bernstein, who was about to conduct the Turangalila premiere, that this was the work of his life in which he had placed all his powers of love, hope and research.

Like a Mahler symphony, Turangalila is a world in itself. Birdsong and complex non-European rhythms cohabit with jazzy riffs that remind one it was written for an American orchestra. The APO, to a player, did it all full justice, fired by a line-up of 11 percussionists.

Banks of strings made luscious love music sound as if Wagner and Ravel had met up on a Hollywood soundstage. Yet, minutes before, the APO's CEO Barbara Glaser put Messiaen's "hymn to love" into a tangible and moving context for our times, trusting that the healing power of music might help New Zealand cope with the recent terrorist attack in Christchurch.

What: Auckland Arts Festival – Turangalila Symphony
Where & when: Auckland Town Hall, Saturday
Reviewed by: William Dart