Sunday, May 18, 2008

Boulez Birthday

Another archival item, from 2005.

by Mark Satola

THE INTERNATIONAL MUSIC WORLD celebrates the 80th birthday of composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (born on March 26, 1925, in Montbrison) by flying him to every imaginable musical venue on the globe and putting him to work. Not that he minds; Boulez, ever the “furious artisan” (to paraphrase René Char, whose verse Boulez set in Le Marteau sans maître), seems to thrive on a whirlwind of creative activity that keeps him far younger than chronology would otherwise suggest.

There are limits, however, and the in-demand conductor remains well aware of the relentless demands of his own composition. “I want to have a sabbatical,” he admits when asked about his upcoming plans, “because this year, to celebrate my 80th birthday, I did quite a lot of things. I want to be quiet and compose for a great deal of next year.”

But first there are the conducting engagements, including two weeks here leading the Cleveland Orchestra (marking also the 40th anniversary of his American conducting debut here in Cleveland) in concerts devoted almost entirely to the music of Igor Stravinsky, one of the two figures who, for Boulez, reign supreme over the geography of 20th-century music. The other is Arnold Schoenberg, founder of what has become retrospectively known as the Second Viennese School.

Boulez the composer has found himself, not unintentionally, in the role of synthesist for the two schools of musical thought that he describes as “opposites, antagonistic.” Where Stravinsky liberated the sometimes violent energies of rhythm, albeit within a tonal framework, Schoenberg unleashed the force of dissonance by dissolving the hierarchies of tonal dominance inherent in the 12 tones of the scale. Or, to put it more picturesquely, Stravinsky demonstrated the exhilaration of dancing to ever-changing rhythms, while Schoenberg showed us the power of bringing the fist down onto the piano.

“I had interests on both sides, and I thought, why wouldn't it be possible to have the richness of the rhythmical aspect of Stravinsky (and Bartók also), and the language aspect of the Viennese school,” he says. “Therefore, for me, it was not ‘I want to make a synthesis,' but ‘How can I join this invention and this invention?'”

This weekend's concerts at Severance Hall will feature Five Movements for Strings, Op. 5, by Anton von Webern, a quintet of pieces from Boulez's own Notations and the complete score of Stravinsky's breakthrough masterpiece, The Firebird. The weekend of May 5-7, he conducts an enormous all-Stravinsky program that includes the Eight Instrumental Miniatures , Four Russian Peasant Songs, the always-startling Les Noces and a concert performance of Stravinsky's “problem child” opera, The Nightingale. For the second weekend of concerts, the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and soprano Laura Claycomb are featured.

If you were to think that Boulez, at the outset of his ninth decade, is waxing valedictory as he revisits masterpieces that mean much to him, you would be wrong. It's business as usual, in the best sense, as he continues to communicate, through his thoughtful program-building, his very welcome ideas about music to his audience.

“Stravinsky's early period, which is extremely important, begins with The Firebird and continues with The Nightingale, because the first act of Nightingale was written before Firebird, and the second and third acts after The Rite of Spring,” he says, noting the half-decade gap in The Nightingale's composition. “Stravinsky himself was not pleased at the premiere in 1914 because of the gigantic stylistic difference between the acts, and he subsequently made a ballet out of the last two acts, as they are stylistically much more homogenous.

“But now with distance and what we know about the history of Stravinsky, it is not really... embarrassing, let's say, to have this kind of difference of style.”

Les Noces (The Wedding), on the other hand, stands out distinctly from Stravinsky's early style. “It was written in Stravinsky's period of seclusion in Switzerland during the First World War,” Boulez notes. “It's more folkloristic than The Rite of Spring, but at the same time, it is much more structurally complicated.”

Scored for chorus, soloists, four pianos and percussion, Les Noces narrates, in four tableaux, the events of a Russian peasant wedding, complete with weeping bride, teasing villagers and drunken revelry, presented in a Kandinsky-like language, modernistic and expressive. “If you read the reviews at the time of its premiere, they all take note of a kind of metronomic persistence,” Boulez says. “And you can see that all tempos from beginning to end are related to each other.”

Of greatest interest this weekend, however, is the performance of five selections from Boulez's piano suite, Notations, here rendered for orchestra. “The pieces were written in 1945, when I was 20,” he says. “Then later, when I looked at the score, I thought, ‘Oh yes, that's interesting, the ideas are there but they were not exploited properly.’”

Boulez's latter-day rethinking of the score is much more than dressing up the piano miniatures in instrumental clothes. “If you are setting these pieces for the orchestra, they have to be longer, developed and expanded. It's not just an orchestration, it's an expansion of the pieces in duration, expansion in their treatment and expansion in the use of the orchestra.”

At 80, Boulez remains energetic and engaged, and ever thoughtful. When asked, somewhat impertinently, what he knows now at 80 that he didn't know at 50, his response is immediate. “Oh, a lot,” he says without hesitation. “My experience as a conductor especially has taught me quite a lot. It taught me about how you perceive music, how far you can go as a composer with or against perceptions. It taught me a lot of practical things.

“When I was in the Conservatory, I was in the composition class of [Olivier] Messiaen, and there was very little interaction between the instrumental classes and the composition classes. I find this big gap is detrimental to instrumentalists because they are not involved from the beginning with what really happens in a piece of music, and to composers, who are not really aware of the real possibilities of instruments and how you can go further with them.”

This certainly is one of Boulez's most important legacies to young musicians who are working to keep new music vital and relevant. He will be delivering the keynote address at the commencement ceremony for the Cleveland Institute of Music's class of 2005 on May 7, and while the topic of his address is not yet known, it may well be that the rejoining of composers and the musicians who will play their music is top of the mind in this rare artist, who has spent his career synthesizing forces, that might otherwise remain in opposition, into new and creative harmonies.

Photo by Mark Satola

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, April 27, 2005.

Turangalila Redux

From the archives, October 2005.

Messiaenic Fervor: The Cleveland Orchestra’s Electrifying Turangalila
by Mark Satola

Ondes martenot soloist Cynthia Millar last week described Olivier Messiaen’s sprawling Turangalila-Symphonie as a “life-changing experience” when heard live. Whether or not the audiences at last weekend’s Cleveland Orchestra concerts at Severance Hall had their lives changed may be a question best left for the exit poll, but the experience was certainly a transcendental one.

It would be difficult for it to be otherwise. Messiaen made that a foregone conclusion, with a work that is all about transcendence: in this case, the transcending of death through the power of love (inspired by the story of Tristan and Iseult). It’s also about transcending the traditional bounds of grinding dissonance and sweet consonance, with a resultant “super-tonality” that carries considerable appeal for all but the crankiest of reactionary listeners.

In the Turangalila-Symphonie, Messiaen has given us a score that is so vast and complex and yet so sonically appealing that to achieve its full effect only requires an orchestra with enough chops to play it well and a conductor who can confidently navigate its geography while maintaining a firm hand on its architecture.

It’s a score that’s right up Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst’s artistic alley. As his recent performances here and abroad of Mahler’s huge Symphony No. 3 have shown, Welser-Möst is a conductor well suited to such spacious cathedrals of music. Whether it’s one of the big symphonic events or a full-length opera, he pilots the scores with a sureness that communicates clearly with both audience and players. You always know where you are when Franz is on the podium.

Saturday night’s performance was a marvel, but is that a surprise? The Cleveland Orchestra played the work just a couple of years ago under Welser-Möst, with the same soloists (Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano, and Cynthia Millar, ondes martenot), and the players have had ample rehearsal time to internalize the notes and play them with real flair.

Clocking in at about an hour and 15 minutes, Turangalila is a long haul, but Messiaen’s sound-world is so lively and packed with fascinating detail that its length seems just right. Welser-Möst led a performance that fairly sizzled with intensity and drive, pointing up the rhythmic engine behind the symphony, and shaping its internal and external structures with an ear always attuned to what had gone before and what was coming next. The orchestra worked hard and gave the impression that they were unanimously committed to Messiaen’s exotic vision.

That said, there was a small problem, not with conductor or performers, but simply a technical one. Saturday night, where you sat determined if you were able to hear the all-important part for ondes martenot, an early electronic instrument invented in the 1930s that produces sine and sawtooth waves modulated by a variety of controls including a piano-like keyboard. Its eerie “vox humana” is an essential component of Messiaen’s score, but up in the dress circle, it was entirely inaudible, save for those rare moments where it played alone; and even then, its voice did not carry with strength.

The solution would have been, of course, to crank up the volume of the ondes martenot, but since the uniquely designed set of speakers is an integral part of the instrument’s sound, rather than just loudspeakers for the instrument’s onboard circuitry, that could hardly have been effected without some sort of “aftermarket” amplification. How that might be addressed is a matter for specialists, but for the moment it would have been nice to hear Millar’s artistry, given that she has played this score more than 90 times already, and can be safely considered the reigning expert on the part.

The inaudibility issue was not helped by the torrent of sound being hurled from the stage. The new acoustic shell has added a second or so of reverberation to the hall’s dry environment and enabled the tiniest of whispered musical details to find their perfect balance, but it has also boosted fortissimi, especially from the brass section. Messiaen’s frequent exuberant climaxes pretty much drowned out not only the ondes martenot but also the piano. Soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard was breathtakingly brilliant, when you could hear him. Too often, though, his performance was something to watch only.

Photo by Mark Satola

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, October 5th, 2005