MusicNow’s Boulez program rounds off month-long tribute in style

Mon Jan 25, 2010 at 12:47 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Minutes after Pierre Boulez spoke of the technological advances that had made presentation of his electronically conceived Anthemes 2 glitch-free, a thunderous electronic crash halted the performance after just a few bars. As Boulez and two young IRCAM colleagues sorted out the problem, and soloist Nathan Cole waited on stage, an audience member helpfully asked the CSO violinist, “Can you play some Bach?”

So much for scientific progress. Happily, the fix was made and the performance continued, capping Sunday afternoon’s MusicNOW program devoted largely to Boulez’s music, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s monthlong tribute to its conductor laureate, who turns 85 in March.

While Boulez’s podium skills and ability to draw uncommonly transparent, clarifying performances in his chosen repertoire are universally acknowledged, the French composer-conductor’s own works remain in a strange position— placed in an impregnable cone of reverence, like some inscrutable algorithm, by an insecure musical press that figures Boulez’s music must be the work of a genius because no one can really figure it out.

Sunday ’s program at Symphony Center brought us four Boulez works spanning his creative decades, as well as two world premieres by young composers he has championed. While the performances, largely by CSO members, were unfailingly vital and committed, the afternoon left one more ambivalent than ever about Boulez’s music—appreciative of the craft and well-honed polish yet at times the works betraying a musty whiff of dated academicism when the complexity and working out of arcane ideas on paper was the raison d’etre.

Boulez’s original piano version of Notations from 1945, however, proved consistently compelling, especially in the hands (and fingers) of an artist like Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The explosive contrasts, jaunty vitality, rumination and rhythmic intricacy of these finely chiseled miniatures was made manifest with playing of power and multihued sensitivity by Aimard.

Book II of Boulez’s Structures (1961) for two pianos followed its predecessor by a decade, and is a much more expansive work, cast in two “chapters.” In the first, the two pianists are a closely knit team, echoing each other’s music yet tend to go their separate ways in “Chapter 2” with two massive cadenzas at the treble and bass end of the piano.

Its striking how Boulez’s music can morph from a dry motoric quality to moments of old-fashioned breakout solo bravura and Tamara Stefanovich attacked the two cadenzas with daunting power and intensity. Still, while she and Aimard provided worthy advocacy, even the most hardcore Boulez believer will find the second part a bit lengthy for its material.

Boulez’s Messagesquisse (1976) for seven cellos was written to honor his friend Paul Sacher, based on a musical notation of the conductor’s name. The part calls for a concertante-like solo cello and John Sharp was the fervent and eloquent soloist, bringing delicacy and fizzing virtuosity to the lightning runs, backed with glove-like support by his sectional colleagues under Boulez’s direction.

The two new works commissioned for the occasion proved less interesting. Anytime, a sextet requires a conductor, you know the musicians—and the audience—are usually in for it. Dai Fujikura’s Mirrors for six cellos exploits contrasts between bowed fragments and pizzicato skillfully and the Japanese composer manages to unearth an array of varied sounds, yet the result is more an overlong sequence of string effects than a coherent musical argument.

Also having its world premiere was Wandlung or “Transformation” by Johannes Boris Borowski. The audience gave the German composer a worthy ovation but I found Borowski’s sextet—fluttery busyness, acidy wind effects and unvaried fractured angularity— a throwback to the outmoded 1960s-style European “modernism” that most contemporary American composers have left in the dust. Cliff Colnot drew incisive performances of both works, however, and all the musicians involved provided first-class advocacy, particularly pianist Amy Briggs in Borowski’s work.

After the electrical crash, soloist Nathan Cole made a strong case for Anthemes 2, the most recent Boulez work on the program (1997). The solo violinist plays a variety of contrasted music, which is electronically manipulated and distorted, played back over speakers ringed around the hall. The spatial element and electronic echos of Cole’s live playing proved consistently fascinating and an absorbing experience.

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