By Ken Keaton
Pierre Boulez, who turned 90 on March 26, is one of the seminal figures in shaping modern music. He has gone from firebrand revolutionary to elder statesman, and his impact on aesthetic thought, composition, and conducting is hard to overstate.
His music and its impact on our artistic world was the focus of an institute in Chicago earlier this season sponsored by the Music Critics Association of North America. Fittingly, the session took place under the auspices of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with which Boulez has had a long and close relationship.
Events of the seminar included two concerts with the CSO under guest conductor (and Boulez protegé) Pablo Heras-Casado, and two panel discussions, one with the conductor.
The first of the concerts, on a November afternoon, offered music of Boulez, Stravinsky, Bartók, and Debussy. While the musicians performed this astonishing range of styles with virtuosity and commitment, the heart of the program was Boulez’s Figures-Doubles-Prismes, his first work for full orchestra, begun in 1957 and completed in 1968.
Indeed, coupled with the evening’s performance of Beyond the Score: Pierre’s Dream, a multimedia journey through Boulez’ aesthetic world, the event expanded one’s perception of this revolutionary composer. Though his first work, Figures-Doubles-Prismes showed Boulez already experimenting with a redefinition of the orchestra itself. (The film remains available for free online viewing.
The work calls for a huge ensemble: At least a hundred players filled the stage at Orchestra Hall. Standard seating arrangement was abandoned, and the large orchestra was divided into five groups of strings, three of woodwinds, and four of brass – each group with a different configuration of instruments. The only conventional placement had the percussion at the back, and even this was for reasons of balance rather than tradition.
The composer described the work as “a series of variations for large orchestra – a sort of montage of different forms, each embedded in the others.” Hearing the work was like “breathing the air of another planet,” to recall Schoenberg’s third quartet; and yet it’s was oddly familiar, like a collage of all sounds orchestral. Sometimes there was a feeling of primordial force, emerging from the depths of the earth.
At other points, the musical experience was like riding a river, gathering speed before going over a waterfall. Still other parts sounded like an Ivesian stew of multiple musical events, all crashing together – or, perhaps, Ives if he had never heard of life in America.
It was a remarkable experience, and one can’t imagine how Heras-Casado and the orchestra put this together without several months of extra rehearsal, which they certainly didn’t have. But their performance was superb. They swept the audience up and carried it along to the end.
After the Boulez, the spare neoclassicism of Stravinsky’s Four Studies for Orchestra — which grew out of three movements for string quartet written in 1914, right after Le sacre du printemps — was almost shocking.
Also standing in high contrast to the Boulez was Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with soloist Alice Sara Ott. It was his final composition, left incomplete at his death from leukemia in 1945. This is part of Bartók’s final period, along with the sixth string quartet and the Concerto for Orchestra, all works more approachable than his earlier music. Ott brought the perfect combination of percussive power, rhythmic propulsion, and melting lyricism to the music.
Finally came Debussy’s Iberia. A common remark is that the greatest Spanish music was written by Frenchmen – something I find nonsensical. Debussy only spent one day in Spain, and though his friend Manuel deFalla described this music as “truth without authenticity,” there is no mistaking its French origins. It was another magnificent performance. I was struck particularly with the sheer beauty of sound the CSO produced. All was clear, balanced, and unfailingly beautiful — and perhaps it was this clarity that allied the interpretation closer to Spanish spontaneity than French vagueness.
But what a distance Boulez would take the art of music from those early modernists! And what an arc this concert traversed: I can’t recall a concert of all twentieth-century music so varied and so satisfying.
Ken Keaton is Professor of Music for Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches historical musicology, music in general studies, and classical guitar. He is the author of the textbook The Mystery of Music, and reviews concerts for the Palm Beach Daily News and recordings for American Record Guide, in addition to his contributions to Classical Voice North America.