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Top U.S. Orchestras 2009: Pierre Boulez and the Lion’s Roar Pummel Chicago (2009.02.28)

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MP3: Edgard Varese – Ionisation

If we’re keeping score — like in the Olympics — I’d say Cleveland Orchestra still leads. But that’s not at all the fault of Maestro Pierre Boulez — nor his Chicago Symphony players — but the pieces themselves. It was a night billed as daring, repertoire-bending modernism. Neoclassical Stravinsky is no longer a thing one loathes and physically berates with fistfights or catcalls, but it sure doesn’t have you quit the hall humming.

However, if you wanted to see a full squadron of 15 men and women take the stage with an arsenal of percussive aural projectiles – you couldn’t have picked a better night.

Regarding Stravinsky, we note that Boulez himself had never directed it before, nor is he shy to admit he doesn’t actually like it.  So I won’t be shy either: it didn’t win my heart. Boulez conducts with understated elegance appropriate for a French ex-pat. His stance is straight and tall, his feet nearly in ballet First Position as he gently flips the pages of the score. Symphony in Three Movements began with a drunken horn dance, the pianist, centerstage – in her haori with flapping sleeves – pounded out spunky piano trounces. Much prumpa-prumpa shot forth from the French horns. The Andante floats out of nowhere on the back of an inquisitive flute, held aloft by oboe’s flutter. Cue the harp. However, the Con Moto brings back a drunken lurching, with puffing bassoons full blast, tuba like a fart. Piano and violin snap in tandem before we plod to the end with a hint of triumph.

In Stravinsky’s Four Studies for Orchestra, we have a Dance – where Boulez silenced the flute with a wave of his hand: “Now I put you to bed.” Eccentric – the pianist, seized with Tourette’s, plays on. Canticle – a looming bassoon, with strings in a fugue, deadlocked with oboes. We end in an unlikely milieu: Madrid. Here eerie violin bowing reigns, amid sudden shocks of full string, before tympani interrupts like an impromptu asteroid field. The flute wakes up and carries us into a finale that shoots us off into space like a rubberband.

We thank Elliot Carter (he of the recent centenary) for acquainting us with the lovely humor of the contrabass clarinet in his work – composed specially for Boulez’ 80th b-day – Reflexions. Chicago will take it to Carnegie Hall this month, but they tried it out here first. A lukewarm reception it got – sans bravos. Think of a Lenny Bernstein piece as a stuffed toy animal – with all its seams torn and the stuffing yoinked out – re-sewn back together inside out. The best part: the open – when raw mallet strikes a large stone. A very peppy clarinet pleased with lovely moments of vibe against trombone.

Boulez once said, pointing at a De Kooning nude: “Modernism is based on the fragment, while previously this would have been considered a preparatory draft.”

We say the same of this Carter piece. Colorful in extreme. But only a Maestro like Boulez could make it seem more lucid than the score could indicate to the likes of us.

As others collected themselves over intermission coffees, I decamped from a great seat in the Terrace (where one bright young Chicagoan was enthusing gush to see the face of Pierre Boulez – go, 84-year-old babe magnet!) After all, I was told the acoustics were compromised there, and so sought the balcony. (Plus, the box seats we faced intimately over this 105-year-old orchestra stage didn’t hold the same fashionable and wealthy garbed folk we’d hoped for: a modern equivalent to Second Empire courtesans and their badly behaved loves leaning over the rails with bared shoulders and well-cut coats.)

Edgard Varese’s Ionisation is the anthithesis of your church handbell choir, and unholy to the max. This short polyrhythmic interlude hit the scene in the early Thirties – scandalizing the same Paris that loved neoclassical Stravinsky. The police siren always offends, backed by its gaudy thrum-thrum and unexpected shakers. Suddenly, a fierce almost-African riff or three comes to the fore. You could tell that the triangle guy –holding his instrument on high – was annoyed to compete with the siren. There was a light laughter in the hall’s applause. Chicago was high-handedly amused.

Boulez casually threw the first Varese score to the ground and cracked open that of his Amériques. The flute is our “home instrument,” launching us into a realm that doesn’t care for “home keys.” Its comical cognate is the lion’s roar worked over repeatedly by a small Asian player. As she yanked on the taut cord, we thought it sounded rather like she was tormenting one very angry cow — a fine chaos, all the same.

In case you don’t know Varese, meet the liberator of modern percussive music. Even the harps learn new and delightful tricks! The two harpists struck fierce plucks while rapping knuckles on the wood of the frame – nothing could have been more warmly mechanistic. Cellos swayed momentarily before colliding with a few jingle bells and some clappers. Under any other conductor, this would be a circus, but quiet, firm Boulez molded it to purpose.

Imagine a Fauve painting splashed onto German propaganda posters from the late ‘30s. Reds flashed and somber blues of orchestra color mounted into a fantastic din that plowed into one profound crescendo.

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3 Responses to “Top U.S. Orchestras 2009: Pierre Boulez and the Lion’s Roar Pummel Chicago (2009.02.28)”

  1. E.K. says:

    First off, one cannot conduct or otherwise lead a piece or poem or play or whatever if one doesn’t like it. Period. At best, one could acheive neutrality, but one wonders if neutrality has really ever been anything other than a lofty abstration anyway. One could NEVER make an audience fall in love with music one doesn’t like. The once histrionic Boulez should remember this from his youth, but a nice gig and lofty star-studded life on the Lakefront, well, it dulls a bloke. Too many steaks at Morton’s, and not enough red meat. He should have left the Stravinsky to others and got indulged his passions. That audience you describe would follow him anywhere. Too bad he decided to blindly lead.

    Varese ought to get played less. I know people love the percussive quality of what he does, but in his lifetime he was really a part-time composer and his work tends to the atmospheric default one gets when one works seldom. Repeated listens show the lake is shallower than one thought. And there are far too many new composers to be stuck on a modernist whose life’s works fit on a CD or two.

    I cannot say enough how badly the music world needs Carter. I’ve been saying this since the ’80s. His harmonies are still far too complex for people to get on a first listen, but so worth it after awhile. I hope once this centenary stuff dies down, people will still be listening when he’s 101, 102…

    I daresay, Boulez should try sometimes to conduct brand-new compositions — even ones by Boulez himself.

  2. E.K. — Boulez often conducts new works and works by living composers under the age of 100. He conducted two of them — by Bruno Montovani, 34, and Hanspeter Kyburz, going on 49 — *plus* Carter’s astonishing 1975 song cycle “A Mirror on Which to Dwell” in Chicago earlier this month and he will lead several new works, including some world premières — here in January 2010 in anticipation of his 85th birthday in March of that year.

    Sorry you don’t like Varèse. Who cares how much he composed? (or how much of what he composed survived his self-censorship) And I can’t imagine you heard these performances or those that followed this week at Carnegie Hall. And Boulez doesn’t eat at Morton’s.

  3. E.K. says:

    A.P. — Peculiar: I am looking at the CSO’s upcoming shows and seeing an expanse of standards even the Paul Whiteman Orchestra would find a little low salt.

    And eating at Morton’s, if you read carefully, really was meant as a metaphor. I have no idea where the man actually dines. Do you?

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