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Illustration by Christina S. Zhu

Roy Thomson Hall’s mostly empty auditorium was filled with the sounds of musicians determined to attain an impressive level of near perfection: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra was mid-rehearsal, and it was just two days before they were set to play their first of two concerts of the Turangalîla-Symphonie last May.

These instrumentalists were facing an unusual amount of pressure because, unlike their typical concerts, their dual performances of Turangalîla – an exceptionally difficult, lengthy and beloved composition – won’t disappear when the conductor lowers his baton. As a celebration of its centennial season, the TSO has produced a live recording of this symphony, to be released on Feb. 2, in their first partnership with independent classical music label Harmonia Mundi.

Toronto’s orchestra first recorded Turangalîla in 1968, with Seiji Ozawa as music director. It was the first North American recording of the piece, and it put the TSO on the global map. Now the organization is revisiting this iconic moment by creating a new recording of the larger-than-life piece, with music director and conductor Gustavo Gimeno at the helm.

“This piece is iconic, gigantic, demanding,” Gimeno said with enthusiasm in his private studio between rehearsals. “Demanding for us, but also for the collective and even for the ears, because there are lots of sounds. There are of course moments which are very soft and tender and intimate, and some other moments which represent infinite joy and sound almost superhuman.”

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Gustavo Gimeno, the music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, leads the first rehearsal at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto for the rerecording of the Turangalîla-Symphonie, on May 4, 2023.Ammar Bowaihl/The Globe and Mail

Written by Olivier Messiaen, Turangalîla is a 10-movement, 75-minute symphony scored for a colossal orchestra with an exceptionally large percussion section. It explores themes of love and overwhelming joy while using dissonance to create tension.

Featured in Turangalîla is a musical instrument called the ondes Martenot, one of the earliest electronic instruments. The ondes is played with a keyboard or by moving a ring along a wire, producing an otherworldly, ethereal sound that has been compared to that of a theremin or the human voice. World-renowned ondiste Nathalie Forget flew in from Paris to perform as a guest musician with the TSO for this recording; her instrument was flown in in 10 separate boxes.

Forget has performed this symphony at least 50 times with different orchestras around the world, but this one is particularly special: It’s her first time in Canada and her first recording of Turangalîla.

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Mr. Gimeno holds the score and the recording of the Turangalîla-Symphonie from 1968, in his office at Roy Thomson Hall.Ammar Bowaihl/The Globe and Mail

“Because this instrument is electronic, it can be more extreme than an acoustic instrument – not only in its power, but also in its softness, its strange sounds, its fragile vibrato,” she said in her dressing room, conceding that she was a little more nervous than usual about the tuning of her instrument. “I always worry about the tuning when I play live, but you have to be even more precise when you’re recording.”

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Nathalie Forget tuning her ondes Martenot.Ammar Bowaihl/The Globe and Mail

Backstage, between the first and second rehearsal of the day, the musicians chatted and snacked, with their instrument cases strewn across tables. The atmosphere was far more informal than one might imagine of a world-renowned symphony orchestra, and there was a palpable sense of camaraderie. “It’s just such a team effort,” principal flute Kelly Zimba said while on break. “Everybody is so cohesive.”

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The ondes Martenot is one of the earliest electronic instruments.Ammar Bowaihl/The Globe and Mail

Preparing for any performance requires intense focus and a keen attention to detail, but Gimeno said there’s a whole other level of precision required when producing a recording. That means rehearsals are different, too. On the previous day, Gimeno had each section – winds, brass, percussion, strings – rehearse their parts separately, which they don’t normally do, allowing them to better hear themselves and more easily make any required adjustments.

On stage as they all rehearsed together once again, several microphones hung from the ceiling, dispersed evenly among the musicians.

As the orchestra played, sound engineers in a backstage green room tested levels, checked balances and gave notes to Gimeno through an onstage speaker. Though only the two consecutive concerts – as well as a two-and-a-half-hour patch session between performances – were used in the final product, rehearsals were also recorded so the musicians could pop into the green room and listen to what they’d just played.

“When you go to a performance, you listen, and you don’t necessarily notice every little imperfection,” Gimeno said. “The general feeling of a live performance also makes it a different experience. When you are not seeing anything, you are more focused on the sound and you notice those imperfections more, so we want to get it right.”

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Jonathan Crow tunes his violin before rehearsal.Ammar Bowaihl/The Globe and Mail

For Christopher Reiche Boucher, the orchestra’s principal librarian who’s responsible for sourcing and prepping the sheet music, preparing for a recording is a different kind of beast. Standing outside the library, he spoke of the attention paid to the page turns to ensure they happen at times when the microphones won’t pick them up. There’s extra consideration made to the type of binding used so the page turns are as quiet as possible, too.

“One of the big projects that we take on in the library is making sure that everything is marked properly so the string players can synchronize their bowings,” he said, referring to the way the musicians draw their bows back and forth across their strings in unison. “Between ensuring the bowings were synchronized and fixing the page turns for the string parts, we were spending about an hour to an hour and a half on each individual string part.”

From a production standpoint, this recording is relatively straightforward because Turangalîla – much longer than the average symphony – is the only piece on the program, said Dawn Cattapan, the vice-president and general manager of orchestra operations.

“We have one stage plot, there’s only one way that the microphones need to be laid out, it’s not like people are moving chairs, it’s not like we have multiple soloists, it’s not like we also have a choir,” Cattapan said. “What you see on stage is what we’re capturing.”

The first concert, on the evening of May 4, was awesome in the truest sense of the word. The beauty, intensity and emotion of the unique piece of music filled the room, and the audience was transported out of reality for just a little while.

As of the end of the night on May 5, most of the orchestra’s job – in terms of this particular recording – was done, but the process was far from over. From there, postproduction began: slicing and dicing the best moments from the concerts and patch session together. A group of musicians were designated to sit in on listening sessions to make sure every member of the orchestra felt well represented.

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The TSO is eager to see how the world receives the historic recording of the Turangalîla-Symphonie.Ammar Bowaihl/The Globe and Mail

Fortunately, the postproduction process “was boring in the best way possible,” Cattapan said. While feedback was given and tweaks were made, she said all parties were miraculously aligned about how the end result should sound.

“We’re used to having hiccups and conversations and sections where we need to work to find the balance between us, but in this instance, I think everybody was really on the same page with what we wanted,” Cattapan said. “I don’t think any of us could be happier with how it turned out.”

The finished masters was completed at the end of September, and the TSO released teasers of the recording in late October. But while the marketing team may still be focused on the release of Turangalîla, the orchestra has moved on to this year’s live recording: Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, with performances on Feb. 24 and 25.

Still, the TSO is eager to see how the world receives the historic recording of the Turangalîla-Symphonie. Gimeno in particular hopes it will convey who they are, as an orchestra, to the rest of the world. “It’s a chance to do something great together,” Gimeno said. “We are a historic institution that is vibrant, daring and hungry for development – a group of passionate musicians who are proud of being in this organization.”

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