Pick-Staiger Hall, November 14


Orchestra Hall, November 27 and December 4

At a time when the serious-music creative community is fragmented and in danger of losing touch with even well-educated listeners, it’s heartening to see Pierre Boulez still going strong as an apostle and popularizer of 20th-century music. At 68, he may not be the fiercely intellectual and provocative composer he was two decades ago, but as a conductor and lecturer he continues to win over converts young and not so young. The excitement he generates whenever he comes to town is palpable; noticeably youthful crowds flock to Orchestra Hall for his concerts and preconcert chats and to the Art Institute for his stimulating talks on the arts. He was hired by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to bolster its modern wing, and the deal has turned out to be a boon, helping the orchestra reach beyond its subscriber base. Indeed, for many, his three-week guest stint every winter is easily the high point of the season.

To be sure, the CSO is not about to go all out for contemporary composers the way Boulez would like. Perhaps to show us what we’ve been missing and what Parisians are blessed with, this time the maestro brought along the Ensemble InterContemporain for a single concert at Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Hall. This justly celebrated group of about 30 top-notch instrumentalists, based at the Pompidou Center in Paris, was cofounded in 1976 by Boulez at the urging of the French cultural ministry, and its dedication to performing solely modern music is made possible through generous state subsidies. During its 80-concert season the EIC always introduces a batch of brand-new compositions, many of them hatched at the Institut de Recherche et de Co-ordination Acoustique/Musique, a laboratory devoted to experimenting with ways of expression. Since its inception, the ensemble has premiered more than 300 pieces, and their composers practically comprise a who’s who of the vanguard movements in Europe and North America.

Curiously, last month’s concert, marking the ensemble’s return to Chicago after an eight-year absence, highlighted the old guard. Only one composer under 50, Boulez disciple Antoine Bonnet, was on the program, along with Edgard Varese, Boulez himself, the 70-year-old Gyorgy Ligeti, and the 85-year-old dean of American modernism, Elliott Carter. For that matter, Carter’s Penthode and Boulez’s two Derive pieces were repeats from Boulez’s last visit. (Cadeau by Franco Donatoni, the eminence grise of postwar Italian music who’s only a couple years younger than Boulez, was withdrawn at the last minute, to the chagrin of some in the audience.) Why this bow to the near past instead of the future? Either Boulez and company thought a midwestern audience would accept only those masters of modernism who’ve passed the test of time (his New York concert included a number of new works) or Boulez simply picked those whose musical aesthetics are closest to his own.

In any case, a capacity crowd showed up at Pick-Staiger, including an unusually large contingent of local composers. Varese’s Integrales was the opening work. Scored for a small ensemble of ten winds and brasses surrounded by four percussion bands, this 1925 composition is typical of Varese’s explorations of shifting orchestral colors and materials. Clusters of sounds rise from various instrumental groupings, waxing and ebbing gradually in intensity; they merge, separate, evaporate, then return in a slightly different guise. There’s something organic and poetic about the way this music unfolds, and when it’s performed with clarity and precision, as it was here, the effect is like watching a field of wildflowers bud, blossom, and wilt in time-lapse.

Varese is of course a patriarch of modernism. His liberating experiments with spatial arrangement, sonorities, and rhythm had a profound influence on the generation that followed him, especially the Darmstadt clique led by Stockhausen and Boulez. The other works on this program owe a debt to him in one way or another.

According to Boulez, Derive 1 (1984) and Derive 2 (1987) are installments in a work in progress, still subject to revision. Both are miniatures. Derive 1 is basically a wind divertimento, orchestrated for flute and clarinet, with accompaniment from violin, cello, and vibraphone; while Derive 2, an 80th-birthday eulogy for Elliott Carter, is more substantial, with a thicker orchestration and more rhythmic variety. Neither is a trailblazing work on the order of Le visage nuptial or Pli selon pli. Yet the EIC’s performances were riveting, and in Derive 2 the players adroitly created a sustained sense of tension through minute changes in density and texture.

Postwar modernism encourages mind games. That’s one of its strong points–and one of its flaws. The self-conscious references and intellectual complexity in a piece of modern music often come at the expense of expressivity and emotion. The satisfaction a listener gains is often at best the sense that a puzzle’s been solved–there’s no catharsis that enlightens and instructs. Carter’s schematic Penthode, written for the EIC in 1984, is a good example. The title means “five ways,” and, predictably, the orchestra is divided into five sections. Group two has five instruments, and the others have four each. Thematic materials cross from group to group; the piece, in Carter’s words, is “concerned with experiences of connectedness and isolation.” Some of its phrasings are tidy and melodious, and its layers are intricately patterned. Yet Penthode is as dull and nakedly methodical as a textbook filled with exercises in counterpoint. The use of separate ensembles, a practice pioneered by Stockhausen and other European avant-gardists decades ago, was belatedly taken up by Carter; he milked the most out of it in his 1977 Symphony for Three Orchestras. Penthode is pallid by comparison, though the EIC’s playing was elegant and gave the piece moments of liveliness.

Bonnet’s Les eaux etroites (“The Narrow Straits,” 1992) also belongs in the mind-games category. The first in an ongoing cycle of five compositions titled “La terre habitable,” it’s imitation Boulez, though more Gallic perhaps in its elegant, radiant short statements. These disparate utterances rise from various instrumental combos: sometimes they combine as if by chance; most of the time they go their own way. In effect, this stretch of sensuous outbursts is like a jumble of pretty noises. The EIC’s reading was meticulous and exact–Bonnet, who was in the audience, told a friend of mine the ensemble had had only six months of practice–yet it was seemingly spontaneous, registering strong impressions in the face of evanescence.

The most impressive work on the program was saved for last: Ligeti’s Concerto for Piano, the definitive five-movement version completed in 1987. This flashy concerto, which for the most part sounds like a cross between subversively humorous Milhaud and subversively solemn Penderecki, is quite accessible. Ligeti thinks like a film composer, willing and able to conjure up a kaleidoscope of moods. Come to think of it, excerpts from his music were used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and The Shining.

Not nearly as neatly arranged as, say, Boulez’s Derive pieces, this concerto is from first bar to last a rush of kinetic energy. Ligeti seems enamored with the orchestral textures he creates, giddily piling one on top of another. The piano is turned into a percussion instrument par excellence, alternating between flamboyant soliloquies and obsequious accompaniments. Thematic materials are tossed from one orchestral group to another. In one stunning movement the eerie calls of the winds and the agitated mutterings of the strings are ferociously answered by thwacks from the percussions. In another, the piano releases a cascade of notes from one end of the keyboard to the other. The EIC gave a bravura performance of this undeniably difficult music. The fingerwork of Dimitri Vassilakis was amazingly nimble, and Boulez, as he did throughout the evening, gave clear and intelligent guidance.

Boulez is one of the most lucid and logical conductors I know of. Working without a baton, he gives a clean and precise beat, the kind even nonmusicians can follow, and he understands and respects a composer’s intentions. His approach may dampen the floridly theatrical and intuitive music of, say, Tchaikovsky or Verdi, but it does wonders with works involving intricate orchestration, complicated meter, and tonal twists and turns–which is to say much of 20th-century music.

His three weeks of CSO programs are dominated by Bartok, as he’s embarking on a recording project of the Hungarian composer’s orchestral oeuvre with Deutsche Grammophon. The 1926 First Piano Concerto, performed the first week, was written as a display piece for Bartok’s own keyboard pyrotechnics, treating the piano as an insistent percussion instrument, with no lyrical interlude. The solo passages are unrelentingly breathtaking in their staccato rhythm; the orchestra is a willing chorus. Boulez coaxed impassioned playing from the CSO, and Krystian Zimerman was quite impressive and accurate as he banged every which way, though his performance lacked fire and bordered on the mechanical. (Zimerman bowed out of his recording commitment, which would also have included the Third Piano Concerto, scheduled for this week; Olli Mustonen replaces him.)

Bluebeard’s Castle, performed last week, is one of Bartok’s crucial contributions and his only opera. It’s Grand Guignol based on the legend of the notorious dandy Bluebeard and his new bride Judith, who gradually uncovers her husband’s horrific past. Heavy on symbolism, the tragic confrontation between inquisitive wife and stoic husband is succinctly conveyed in the music: she, the embodiment of love and redemptive power, sings in a chromatic and romantic vein; he, a realist who grasps the truth of human nature, sings folklike in pentatonic passages. In Bartok’s theater of the imagination, the castle with its seven locked doors represents the man’s soul, and the opening of each door probes deeper into the human psyche. Each metaphorical revelation–from a torture chamber to a perfumed garden to a lake of tears–calls for descriptive music from the orchestra, a challenge any decent composer can meet. But Bartok masterfully wove these revelations into the central drama of psychological self-realization, so that the music’s progression to its shocking climax has an inexorable logic and deepening intensity.

For his Bluebeard, which was sung in Hungarian from the libretto by well-known critic Bela Balazs, Boulez had the services of soprano Jessye Norman and bass Laszlo Polgar, who partnered each other quite convincingly. Norman hurled herself into the role of Judith, and her characterization was passionate, impetuous, majestic. At once a feminist and the neurotic heroine of Schoenberg’s Erwartung, this was not a virginal Judith; she demanded to know, consequences be damned. Polgar, who’s Hungarian and has a Boris Karloff demeanor, was especially effective at conveying Bluebeard’s helpless sadness in the presence of an overpowering will. With singing this vivid, no staging was necessary. The orchestra’s playing was rivetingly colorful and sensuous, well attuned to Bartok’s nuances, though a couple of times it managed to overwhelm Norman’s booming voice.

Mahler’s monumental Sixth Symphony took up the bottom half of the first week’s program; it was Boulez’s first Mahler with the CSO. Over the years the orchestra, with the help of its superb brass and wind sections and the manipulative direction of Georg Solti, has become celebrated for making the Viennese composer a romantic tragic hero par excellence. His symphonies have been turned into sonic spectacles filled with languid gestures and bittersweet dances with fate. It could have been worse: lesser maestros treat Mahler as a sentimentalist prone to wallow in maudlin remembrances. But Boulez seems to regard Mahler as a thoughtful master of orchestration composing on the cusp of the tonal revolution, a necessary link between Wagner and the radicals of serialism.

Completed in 1905, the Sixth was the least understood of Mahler’s symphonies during his lifetime. Semiautobiographical and profoundly tragic, it’s now famous for the three blows of fate in the finale that seem to foretell his ouster from the Vienna Court Opera, the death of his daughter, and his own death in 1911. The standard interpretation takes the events from his life and leans toward the nakedly programmatic, accentuating the children’s themes, the military march, and the cowbells. But as Phillip Huscher’s program notes remind us, Mahler cautioned that “special emphasis is laid on the fact that this technical remark [about the cowbells producing a realistic impression of a grazing herd of cattle] admits of no programmatic interpretation.”

Boulez did not stoop to pathos. Instead, he let the large-scale music, warts and all, unfold according to its own structural logic. His was an astute analysis of Mahler, not an extravagant display of emotional ups and downs. In his sensible though no less expressive interpretation, the sound of the cowbells appeared and returned with purpose, and the lulling children’s themes in the third movement were a counterpoint to the driving rhythm of the main theme that culminates in a scream of premonition. Echoes of that scream could be heard preceding each of the finale’s fateful blows because the orchestra responded to Boulez’s careful delineation and balancing of the complex layers of rhythms and thematic strands. It was an electrifying performance that, for the first time in a long while, showed the CSO totally engaged in first-rate music making.

Bernard Rands, the British-born Harvard professor whose 1984 Le Tambourin received its local premiere in the top half of the Bluebeard concert, was ecstatic when he learned Boulez would do the honors. No wonder. The two orchestral suites that make up this work, inspired by paintings of van Gogh, are meticulous and elegant, the kind of gems that awe younger craftsmen. A conductor who’s not a composer and who’s short on modernist sensibility–Solti, for example–may not appreciate their worth. Boulez knows well that his onetime student Rands didn’t write a contemporary version of Pictures at an Exhibition. In fact, pictorialism is kept to a minimum in the six short movements, three of which constitute each suite. Instead Rands turned to van Gogh’s contours, techniques, and color schemes for musical ideas. The first movement, whose title, “The Beach of Scheveningen,” is taken from two paintings, at first mimics the canvas depicting a stormy scene; slowly and subtly the impressionistic music, which suggests Debussy and Elgar, moves from the orchestra’s foreground to its background, then fades to a shimmering calmness. In the third, titled “Au Tambourin,” a reference to the rowdy Paris tavern frequented by van Gogh and his demimonde pals, the music assiduously avoids cliches. Rands methodically lets various sections of the orchestra take up a motif or two; the strings swirl in arabesques, and the brasses bleat here and there. The movement has an air of anticipation, almost like a cancan. Then, with an impeccable logic determined by a spatial scheme, the sounds converge into rounds of raucous outbursts: the cabaret is in full swing. And what’s more natural to end the delirium than a gentle tap on the tambourine? The other movements also have this quality of enchantment and wonder, including the adagio “The Church at Arles,” which waxes and wanes beautifully like Elgar or Mahler.

I admired and enjoyed this work more than Rands’s Canti del Sole (“Songs of the Sun”), the learned, eloquent, yet monotonous song cycle that won him a Pulitzer in 1984. No doubt the CSO’s marvelously shaped, empathic reading added to my enjoyment. Rands intended these suites to be part of his opera in progress on van Gogh’s tormented life. I hope he’ll find the time to finish it soon. The very accessibility of his music ought to prompt an invitation from the Lyric. And that would be another excuse to bring Boulez back.