Almost exactly nine years ago, the St. Louis Symphony played Messiaen's massive Turangalîla Symphony at Carnegie Hall, under the direction of the late Hans Vonk. The program also included Oiseaux exotiques, and I'll never forgot what the man behind me said to his wife about ten seconds in: "Aw, shit." The concert had been sold to subscribers as part of a series called Concerto Plus, and the subscribers weren't buying; they left in droves as the Turangalîla went on, a dozen or more after each movement. On Friday, the St. Louis returned with the same wild-eyed masterwork, with David Robertson conducting, and the results were dramatically different. Only a handful departed prematurely; the rest of the crowd, which mostly filled the house, stayed riveted to the end. No doubt it helped that prices were lower, that Robertson gave an appealing lecture-demonstration beforehand, and, most important, that the orchestra played with passion. But I believe that in the past decade audiences have evolved as well. No amount of arm-twisting could have persuaded listeners to deliver an ovation like the one that erupted after the raucous finale; it seemed spontaneous and heartfelt.
For a fairly comprehensive listing of Messiaen centenary events around the world, go to Boston University's Messiaen Project site. Two NYC events should be added to the calendar: 1) a screening of Paul Festa's remarkable documentary Apparition of the Eternal Church at St. Bartholomew's Church on Feb. 27, with live performances of L'Ascension, Offrande au Saint-Sacrement, and, of course, the Apparition, along with what appears to be the New York premiere of the Fantaisie for violin and piano; 2) at Juilliard the same night (alas!), a complete rendition of From the Canyons to the Stars, in all its world-embracing, life-enhancing glory.
Re: St. Louis's second concert, Felix Salmon wishes he could have heard the John Adams Atomic Symphony twice.