MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Pierre Boulez, Modernist Legend, Dies at 90

On the first anniversary of Pierre Boulez’s death.

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

PierreBoulez-1050x700Here’s my obituary for Napster:

French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who wielded incalculable influence on the modern music scene, died at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany, on Tuesday, January 5. He was 90.

Boulez gained fame as an uncompromising champion of the avant-garde and ranked among the towering figures of European modernism in the 20th century. He remained a powerful force for innovation in the world of classical music until his death.

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Filed under: Pierre Boulez

The Seattle Symphony’s Electrifying Eroica

Ludo_559x660

Ludovic Morlot

The title of my  review is actually only part of the story of last night’s  performance by the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot. The program — which I recommend highly as one of the highlights of the season to date — will be repeated Saturday and Sunday. The Beethoven alone would be enough to justify my enthusiasm, but let me get to the other parts of the story first.

Also worth the price of admission is the chance to hear the mellifluously named French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto and the relatively rare Three Places in New England of Charles Ives.

I suspect some of the remarkably palpable energy the players manifested last night has to do with a sense of anticipation regarding the 2016 Grammy Awards coming up Monday: the SSO nabbed three nominations for the second volume of their ongoing Henri Dutilleux series on the in-house label (including for Best Orchestral Performance).

What was particularly striking in the Ives — deeply challenging pieces, despite the sudden appearance of fragments of folk Americana that momentarily give the illusion of familiar reference points — was the refinement of detail within the most opaque, thickly laden textures of this score. The boisterous energy Morlot summoned for the famous clashing marches of the second place (“Putnams’ Camp”) was all the more startling on account of that refinement — a trait that reminded me of how the conductor searches for the right detail, le ton juste, inside one of Dutilleux’s intricately wrought orchestral canvases.

It was fascinating to hear the Ives so soon after last week’s rendition of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia. You couldn’t help comparing the method of intrusive quotations, unprepared and free-associative, and wonder at the American maverick angle that leavened Berio’s European avant-gardism. Both composers resort to a collage aesthetic that seeks to replicate the complexity and porousness of musical memory — free of irony and mind games.

Indeed, at times Morlot elicited a curious innocence and tenderness from Ives’s decidedly unsentimental memory-soundscapes. Those qualities also came to mind in the Bartók concerto. On the surface this piece can almost be read as a kind of regression or longing for simpler procedures, a revocation of the composer’s Modernist street cred.

But Bavouzet’s enchanting, subtle interpretation had a cleanness of focus that suggested a mature master taking stock and paring away the inessential. Bartók knew he was dying when he composed the Third Concerto, and in this score the musical past returns not by way of collage and quotation but as acts of allusive, loving homage (above all to Bach and Beethoven — and of course to the rich loam of folk culture that Bartók accessed in a way so unlike the Romantics).

This was especially effective in the profoundly stirring central movement (“Adagio religioso”), where the pianist gave exquisite weight and voicing to Bartók’s harmonies and crisp, wonder-evoking articulation to the birdsong. Bavouzet — who had an opportunity to study with the pianist who premiered this work, György Sándor — projected winning charm along with a clear sense of purpose in the outer movements.

He returned for a most unusual encore (playing, incidentally, the new Steinway recently purchased for the SSO): three of the Notations by a 19-year-old Pierre Boulez, composed right around the time Bartók was working on his final concerto. Bavouzet played with Zen-like presence, or like a curator displaying a set of particularly rich gems, holding them up to glisten and sparkle in the light. This week’s concerts are being dedicated to the memory of the late Boulez.

So on to the Third Symphony of Beethoven. Morlot chose this work for his very first subscription concert after stepping to the podium as the SSO’s music director in September 2011 (pairing it on that occasion, curiously enough, with Dutilleux and a Frank Zappa piece Boulez himself had conducted).

Certain aspects echoed what lingers in my memory from that performance: above all, the historically informed performance touches that conferred a certain athletic fleetness and sharper focus. These were even more apparent — and more paradoxically “radical” in brushing aside the dust from overfamiliar passages — without determining every contour of the conductor’s approach.

I’d say that’s evidence of an increased confidence and interpretive vision Morlot is bringing to this score. The hammer blow chords at the end of the first movement’s exposition, for example, were genuinely shocking, while the use of a solo string quartet to voice one of the variation passages in the introductory section of the finale underscored the idea that textural transformations are just as crucial to Beethoven’s thinking as the thematic/harmonic ones that usually command attention.

Above all, the sheer energy of collaborating with the SSO on moment-by-moment decisions in the score gave this performance the stamp of authenticity that really matters, resulting in an electrifying Eroica. Not all those decisions worked: some of the rhythmic articulations of the Funeral March were sloppy, and the volcanic whirlwind that should launch Beethoven’s extraordinary finale (is there anything about the Eroica that isn’t extraordinary?) sounded curiously listless. But Morlot and the SSO sustained an edge-of-your-seat intensity across the work’s epic span, liberating it from any trace of the routine.

And Morlot inspired much fine, indeed heroic, solo work from the players, including Mary Lynch’s achingly expressive oboe solos (a key leitmotif of the Eroica) in the Funeral March and Jeff Fair’s fearless, flawless spotlights in the famously fear-inducing trio of the Scherzo.

Really, what more can you ask of a symphony program?

–(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Bartók, Beethoven, Ludovic Morlot, pianists, piano, Pierre Boulez, review, Seattle Symphony

Pierre Boulez, Modernist Legend, Dies at 90

PierreBoulez-1050x700Here’s my obituary for Napster:

French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who wielded incalculable influence on the modern music scene, died at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany, on Tuesday, January 5. He was 90.

Boulez gained fame as an uncompromising champion of the avant-garde and ranked among the towering figures of European modernism in the 20th century. He remained a powerful force for innovation in the world of classical music until his death.

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Filed under: music news, obituary, Pierre Boulez

RIP Pierre Boulez (1925-2016)

The end of an era. From Lucerne Festival director Michael Haefliger’s eulogy :

“I am a French composer, conductor, and writer.” Most likely, this is the answer Pierre Boulez would have given anyone who asked him to describe his work as an artist: an answer that is precise, to the point, without ostentation or any kind of theatrical posing. This is how most of us “youngsters” experienced, felt, and saw Pierre Boulez. And this is how he became a great model for us, indeed, almost a “demigod.” We admired what he did and the goals which he steadfastly pursued, regardless of whether they involved relatively small or large revolutions. Last night, he left us. We mourn the loss of a great human being and artist, one who infinitely enriched and influenced this Festival.

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Filed under: Lucerne Festival, obituary, Pierre Boulez

A Day for Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez (photo: Georg Anderhub/LUCERNE FESTIVAL)

Pierre Boulez (photo: Georg Anderhub/LUCERNE FESTIVAL)

This past Sunday, Lucerne Festival’s Summer 2015 edition presented an entire “Day for Pierre Boulez” to mark the 90th birthday of one of music’s great revolutionaries (the actual birthday fell on on March 26). Sadly, Boulez was unable to be present in person due to health reasons, but the day argued for his profound enduring influence.

Studded across all of the programmes were eight world premieres from a collection of composers of different vintages and Boulezian inspirations…It was the works written expressly in homage to Boulez that were most revealing of the legacy and challenge he leaves his fellow composers…[T]wo new pieces by György Kurtág and Wolfgang Rihm, both performed with unwavering conviction by the young players of the Academy Orchestra, [were] the most subtle, striking, and moving tributes to Boulez’s life and music…
As the whole Day for Pierre showed, it’s not just the inspiraton of his work as composer, conductor, writer, and teacher: Boulez, it turns out, is an attitude of mind, a way of being in the creative world.

–Tom Service in The Guardian

Every concert was exquisitely curated, and established Boulez in the context of the tradition he founded…
But it was the evening’s programme in Lucerne’s world-renowned concert hall that spoke most loudly of Boulez’s legacy. New works by living masters Wolfgang Rihm and György Kurtág were performed alongside that of young composers by the Lucerne Academy Orchestra…
For the second half, the Academy orchestra donned Boulez T-shirts for the Notations, which, in one form or another, have occupied the composer all his life. The fully orchestrated versions, composed towards the end of the century, were laid bare by the presentation of the original piano pieces of 1945, written when he was just 20. It was a revelation.

–Jonathan McAloon, Telegraph

Here’s a summary of the items that were on the program for this marathon celebration:

13.30, 18.00, and 19.00 | KKL Luzern, Roof Terrace
Chiaki Tsunaba | Justin Frieh
Boulez Dialogue de l’ombre double for Clarinet and Tape

14.00 | Tribute to Boulez 1 | KKL Luzern, Lucerne Hall
Ensemble intercontemporain | students of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY | Matthias Pintscher
Boulez Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna | world premieres by Pintscher and Mason

15.15 and 16.00 | Tribute to Boulez 2 & 3 | Kunstmuseum Lucerne
ensembles of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY | Julien Leroy | Yi Wei Angus Lee | Raphaël Ginzburg | Jaclyn Dorr
Boulez Messagesquisse (two versions) |
Mémoriale (… explosante-fixe … Originel)

15.15 | Tribute to Boulez 4 | KKL Luzern, Terrace Hall
string quartets of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY
Berg Lyric Suite

16.00 | Tribute to Boulez 5 | KKL Luzern, Terrace Hall
string quartets of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY
Boulez Livre pour Quatuor

17.00 | Tribute to Boulez 6 | KKL Luzern, Lucerne Hall
Ensemble intercontemporain | students of the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY | Matthias Pintscher | Sarah Maria Sun
Boulez sur Incises | world premieres by Holliger and Machover

18.30 | Introduction to Symphony Concert 10 | KKL Luzern,
Concert Hall
A project in response to Boulez’s Notations with Richard McNicol, and Aleksandar Aces | in cooperation with Klavier-Festival Ruhr

19.30 | Symphony Concert 10 – Tribute to Boulez 7 | KKL Luzern, Concert Hall
LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY Orchestra | Mariano Chiacchiarini | Julien Leroy | Matthias Pintscher
Boulez Notations I–IV and VII (versions for piano and for orchestra) | Pintscher Osiris | world premieres by Kurtág, Moussa, Peszat, and Rihm

Filed under: Lucerne Festival, modernism, music news, new music, Pierre Boulez

Bon Anniversaire à Pierre Boulez

There’s a lot more reflection on Pierre Boulez to come this year — including an entire day that Switzerland’s Lucerne Festival is devoting to his work on 23 August — but today marks the official 90th birthday of the French master.

Here’s a roundup of some recent commentary on Boulez and his inarguable impact on musical life in our time:

Ultimately I think Boulez is a great optimist, despite the shadows that coloured his early years. In the end what he believes is simple: today’s music has to be different from the music of the past.

That’s a natural thing. Western music continues to evolve and transform and change. And those that don’t agree, well … they’re wrong!

George Benjamin in The Guardian

America can’t be discovered out of nothing. In Boulez’s music you immediately hear everything that he has come into contact with – and that is an enormous amount. Even Bach.

Daniel Barenboim

The tie between heart and brain characterizes Boulez’s music. “I claim the right for music to have many levels of perception,” he told DW in 2003. “Works […] that take time to solve are the works that remain in your memory for a long time.”

Deutsche Welle

For those who carp about Boulez’s conducting activities allegedly having taken his attention away from composition – they generally seem not to like his music very much, so it is not immediately clear why they should care – the Notations should stand as a rebuke. Boulez himself has owned that he would have been unable to compose the pieces without the experience of conducting Wagner and Mahler. With every listening, that claim becomes more and more unarguable. The virtuosity in orchestral writing is staggering, in its way as much so as that of Ravel, or indeed Mahler.

Mark Berry (aka Boulezian) reviewing the BBC’s “Total Immersion Day”

Boulez’s style is explosive. He detonates a germ of an idea and, like a seed, it grows a sonic forest. The common fallacy is that pieces as highly and intricately structured as these require technical understanding. But you don’t need to be a botanist to be stirred by a field of wild flowers.

Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times

My development really went backwards through time. I got to know Berg, I got to know Webern, I got to know Schönberg … and then I got to know Mahler. It was totally reversed – because there was no tradition whatsoever.

Pierre Boulez at UE’s Musik Salon

See Amanda Angel’s list of Boulez’s Top Five Transformations at WQXR.

france musique has a podcast and other material on Boulez currently available.

Also make sure to check out the content-rich Boulez-90 site at Universal Edition.

Filed under: anniversary, new music, Pierre Boulez

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