Chicago Symphony Orchestra

at Orchestra Hall, November 22 and 26 and December 2 and 9

By Lee Sandlin

Pierre Boulez was just in town to conduct his annual concert series at Orchestra Hall–traditionally the most nerve-racking event in Chicago’s classical-music season. I’ve been attending faithfully for years, and I still have no idea what’s going to happen when Boulez gets up on the podium. Within the same series–and sometimes within the same performance–he can go from being the finest orchestra conductor alive to acting like some guy off the street who won a “conduct the symphony” raffle prize. Don’t get me wrong. On balance it’s been a treat to have him here regularly (his official job title is “principal guest conductor” of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). I just wish I didn’t feel like I needed a stiff drink before heading into the concert hall.

Last season he was at his most erratic. At least twice he reached the top of his game, with an all-Bartok program and a concert performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron. These are on my short list of all-time great concerts; Boulez’s adventurous taste, his brilliantly analytical clarity, his imaginative sympathy, and his forceful dramatic intelligence all came together to illuminate some of the darkest and most difficult music ever composed. But several other performances were grindingly dull, and a couple were travesties–particularly his kitschy take on Debussy’s La mer and a senselessly jumbled Symphonie fantastique. He was so awful with them, in fact, that he might have been doing it deliberately. He’s always been a man of narrow tastes and fiercely held convictions, and it’s an article of faith with him that the harshest, most dissonant masterworks of 20th-century atonality are vastly better than the beloved classics of 19th-century romanticism. So I wouldn’t put it past him to trash some familiar, user-friendly standard like La mer just to make it look like overrated bilge.

But this season he kept his temper. He gave four programs, three with the CSO and one with his own chamber group, the Ensemble Intercontemporain; and while there were a few flops and a lot of uninspired moments, there weren’t any explosions of gross perversity. He picked out an unusual collection of music: a big world premiere by contemporary French composer Philippe Manoury, a lot of atonal modernism, and a handful of obscurities by Debussy and Stravinsky. There were also a couple of pieces so unlike Boulez’s usual taste I couldn’t help wondering if he’d programmed them because he’d lost a bet: Richard Strauss’s suite from Le bourgeois gentilhomme and Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. Overall the performances were decent. The CSO sometimes sounded underrehearsed–though the playing of the Ensemble Intercontemporain was impressively fervent–and Boulez often seemed disengaged. But there were a couple of spectacular successes, especially with the very music I would have thought he most despised. That was the real shock this season: how relaxed, confident, and indulgent he was toward conservative composers he used to regard as his mortal enemies.

But I won’t go overboard. Most of his programs were drawn from his old familiar territory, the heart of darkness. Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Luciano Berio–names of dread unlistenability as far as most audiences are concerned, however much Boulez would like to persuade people they’re the mainstream. The Ensemble Intercontemporain concert was a typical reflection of his taste. The most conservative work on the program was Schoenberg’s Suite op. 29, a piece that pushes conventional musical style to the breaking point. It’s scored for a small orchestra of strings, clarinets, and pianos, but it’s so crammed with competing melodic lines it’s harder to follow than a full-scale symphony. It was a milk run for Boulez, who in his youth liked to write off Schoenberg as a retrograde old fogy; he conducted its overgrown tangles as though they were as serenely ordered as Bach–and compared to the other works on the program they were. The opener was Berio’s Linea, for two pianos, vibraphone, and marimba–allegedly a ballet score, though any dancer able to follow it deserves a degree in advanced mathematics. There’s no discernible beat; instead there’s a field of sonic tension, through which a dissonant melody tumbles randomly from instrument to instrument. The finale was even more rarefied: Boulez’s own Sur incises, a new work for three pianos, three harps, and three percussionists. It does without melody altogether and instead sends some ultra-abstract harmonic material through some Einsteinian variations.

Yet as fearsomely solemn as the program seemed, the performance was a pleasure. Boulez is a brilliant advocate for his preferred music, with a real gift for finding lyricism in the harshest material. That was particularly striking in Sur incises. Formally it resembled every other Boulez piece I’ve ever heard–he himself says that he considers all his compositions to be pieces of one large work, which is a nice way of admitting that they all sound alike. But the surface was strange and beautiful: the singing, chiming, ever-changing interplay among the instruments had a kind of eerie glamour to it. After a while I had the feeling that it was going on so long–it ran about a half hour–not because Boulez was working out some esoteric formal pattern but because he just liked the way it sounded.

The same aura of sneaky self-indulgence was apparent in the opening work in the CSO concert series, Manoury’s immense orchestral piece Sound and Fury. It’s dedicated to Boulez, and Manoury knows his man: it was fiercely modern and overpoweringly sensuous. Evidently the work has some sort of cabalistically complex interior design of the sort Boulez prefers, but in performance it was almost impossible to detect. All I could hear was a surface of almost undifferentiated noise, delivered by an augmented orchestra at peak volume: wild, swarming string legatos, deafening percussion salvos, vast pealing fanfares of bells and brass–an ecstatic atonal fireworks show that Boulez conducted to within an inch of its life. I don’t expect I’ll get to hear it again–most world premieres these days are played once and then dropped like stones into oblivion–but I can’t imagine another conductor could have a finer time with its gorgeous tumult.

In some ways that was the most impressive performance in the whole series. But Boulez also came up with good, strong versions of a couple of his old standbys. He played Webern’s Five Movements for string orchestra, not a wholly characteristic work, in that it’s long, leisurely, and almost expansive–Webern’s scores are usually so sparse and parsimonious you’d think he’d had to pay for each note. But Boulez is always up for Webern’s music, even when it isn’t rigorously austere, and he conducted it with such committed understanding that its encrypted hints of interior emotion seemed as lush as Swan Lake. He was also good, though a little odd, with the suite from Berg’s opera Lulu. Usually he gives Berg a needlelike precision, but here he was loose and almost sloppy (this is where the CSO sounded the least well rehearsed). Yet the performance didn’t sound wrong; it had an air of confused and sinister uproar that fit perfectly the opera’s weird, almost inadvertent tone of gathering hysteria. This has been something of a trend for Boulez in his recent concerts–attributing intense emotion to music that’s normally thought of as austerely doctrinaire. What he did with the Webern and the Berg was a more modest version of the spectacular trick he pulled off last season with Moses und Aron, an astringent work about as approachable as a puff adder but conducted with such passion you’d have sworn it was the most floridly expressive opera in the repertoire.

Against these hits his flops were all the more disappointing–particularly since they came with some lovely little pieces by Debussy and Stravinsky. Boulez has always tended to lose his balance whenever he strays near the boundaries of his taste. Both of these composers fascinate him–he programs their music all the time–but he wants them to be something they’re not: full-throttle musical revolutionaries. They hang back from the brink, and he keeps trying to shove them over.

Debussy got the worst of it. For this series Boulez dug into the catalog and found a couple of real obscurities: the Three Ballades of Francois Villon and Le jet d’eau, a setting of a Baudelaire poem. They’re early and trivial, but they already display that trademark Debussy sound–a lushly picturesque surface and a subversively free underlying form. The sense of freedom is what hooked Boulez of course, but for him that means something only if it leads straight toward the modernist utopia–and Debussy keeps sliding off on tangential nuances and dreamy free associations. Boulez conducted both works with such intense dramatic energy that they sounded fractured and absurd. To be fair, he was up against the infamous acoustics of Orchestra Hall, which made the sense of fragmentation worse. The vocal soloist, Christine Schäfer, has an exquisite voice–she was wonderful with the Berg–but when Boulez cranked the CSO up to full power she didn’t stand a chance. All I could hear were the garish shards of the orchestration, and her faint piping in the lulls.

Stravinsky bore up better. Boulez turned up two minor pieces, the Four Studies for Orchestra and the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, and played them with a somberness they were too light to support. But in general Stravinsky tends to be more suited to Boulez’s style than Debussy; even though he’s maddeningly equivocal about modernism, his characteristic sound is hard, frosty, dazzling, and antiromantic–all qualities Boulez loves. When Boulez is in the mood to connect he can light up a Stravinsky piece like a flare. That’s what happened at the finale of the series, a performance of the classic Firebird. The last time I heard the CSO play it was a couple of seasons ago, with the talented young British conductor Oliver Knussen: it was reverent, exquisitely nuanced, and a bore. Boulez started out as though he were going to be worse, taking the opening passages in a clockwork drone. But he grew steadily louder and faster, until by the coda he and the orchestra were tearing through the score as if pursued by wolves. It was frantically exhilarating, and it showed again that despite that pose of flint-eyed intellectualism, Boulez can be positively gleeful when he’s pushing the envelope of orchestral power.

That performance and the Manoury piece were the high points of the concert series–or they would have been if it hadn’t been for those bizarre gate crashers Strauss and Bruckner. I was incredulous last spring when I first saw them on Boulez’s schedule for this season, and I still can’t quite believe he went through with them. He’s spent his whole career pretending that the romantic revolution was a trivial footnote to music history and that Beethoven, Brahms, and their followers never existed. Yet here he was doing a genial, indulgent performance of Le bourgeois gentilhomme, a set of parodies of the major musical and operatic styles of the 19th century–practically an accelerated survey course in everything he hates. Even the members of the CSO seemed startled; they were consistently ragged, as though this were the last thing they ever expected to be playing. Boulez himself was a little peculiar; his conducting was so straight it was almost as though he didn’t know Strauss was joking. But it was extraordinary how effortlessly he handled these high-romantic styles; he seemed to be discovering that they really weren’t so bad after all–as long as he could hurtle through them at warp speed.

He was much more impressive with the Bruckner, because he had to take it slowly: a fast Bruckner is a contradiction in terms. The Ninth is characteristically titanic and brooding, the archetypal romantic symphony spun out to the size of a sunset. Bruckner completed only the first three movements, but it still runs more than an hour, its dreamy themes expanding and dissipating with the grandeur of cumulus clouds passing over a mountain range. At its heart is his curious fusion of romantic sensibility and Catholic faith. The humblest devotion is expressed in terms of the most extreme individual eccentricity–it’s a cosmic drama about the littleness of the human soul. Boulez’s version wasn’t particularly spiritual, but heavy as it was on the rubato and the slowly suspended crescendos, it did get across a sense of immense movement, of pulses of strange, timeless energy ebbing and flowing beneath the surface of 19th-century convention. It suggested something about Bruckner that had never occurred to me before: that he was a kind of modernist, if not musically then by temperament. His vast oceanic visions are curiously like the radical intellectual vistas opened up by Victorian science; they might almost symbolize those geological ages and evolutionary forces whose discovery undermined the conventional pieties of the age.

A performance like this makes me forgive every bad, listless, and hostile concert Boulez has ever given. It wasn’t the best Bruckner I’ve ever heard–it isn’t in the same league with the great recordings of Furtwängler and Celibidache. But it was fresh, it was exciting, and it made me see something new in a piece of music I thought I knew backward and forward. What else do you want from a conductor? A live performance doesn’t have to be perfect–you can get all the perfect performances you need on CD. In the concert hall what you need is an atmosphere of shared discovery and risk–the audience finding pleasure in something they thought they’d hate, musicians learning the joys of music they thought was worthless, or an old combatant in classical music’s ongoing civil wars deciding to make a separate peace.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cheri Eisenberg.