Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pierre Boulez at Hertz Hall, Berkeley

PIERRE BOULEZ IS only one of many enthusiasms I lost track of over the years. In the late 1950s and throughout most of the 1960s I kept up with these enthusiasms as well as one could in Berkeley, with little budget for concerts and recordings and none at all for travel. The local radio station KPFA was a considerable help, with occasional recordings of live performances from European festivals. I recall a performance of Structures, Book II at UC Berkeley, given by the visiting duo Karl and Margaret Kohn, sometime in the early 1960s; and I've already written here about the Le Marteau sans maître given there in 1962 by a group conducted by Gerhard Samuel, with an unforgettable performance by soprano Anna Carol Dudley.

Among the recordings on my shelves in those days there was only the first piano sonata and, even more resistant, a European festival performance of Pli selon pli, on badly recorded tapes made from radio broadcasts on a second-hand Viking reel-to-reel machine. Then there was an LP of the Sonatine for flute: but it never interested me as much.

And then, when I moved from programming music at KPFA to the visual arts (among other things) at KQED — television naturally preferring to look at things, not merely listen — the musical modernists moved toward the periphery of my activities. At the same time, the unpredictability and freshness that had characterized open-form or aleatoric music through the early 1960s — and even Boulez, rigorous as he was, managed to create music that sounded free and impetuous, whatever the actual process was he used to make it — that freshness seemed to harden into procedure-ridden complexities. Then too, Boulez had become a conductor as well as a composer (and an ardent revolutionary); this suggested he had come to some kind of compromise with the industry. I buried myself in Duchamp.

Last month we noticed a Boulez concert coming up, though, and yesterday we drove down to Berkeley to hear two pieces new to me: Anthèmes 2 (1997) and Dérive 2 (1988, 2006). The performances were lively and subtle and, according to a fellow I spoke to after the concert, quite accurate, and we were glad we'd made the trip.

The music was given in Hertz Hall, a wood-panelled room seating just under seven hundred in a shoebox configuration. I always like to sit centered in the last row in this hall, and bought our tickets forgetting that surround-sound electronics were likely to be involved. Sure enough, Anthèmes 2 requires it: two small speakers were in the corners behind the stage; three were spaced along each side wall, and another was say five feet over my head on the wall directly behind me.

Anthèmes 2 is written for solo violin with an electronic accompaniment involving live processing of the instrument: frequency shifting, harmonizing, ring modulation, reverberation, and apparently some sampled sounds, triggered by the sounds of the live violin. In the event, even to my seat, all this seemed to work very well: though the hall is sizable enough to make the sounds from the loudspeakers seem to be more a framing element, or a commentary on the solo violin, than an intimately responsive co-musician.

This, of course, may well be Boulez's intention. He has always been fond of layers, commentaries, paraphrases, doubles. In fact I always think of his composition (and his composer's statements, quite provocative in the old days) as bivalent, as German as French, as “poetic” as mathematical. Graeme Jennings gave a marvelous performance: his technical mastery was evident (he was with the Arditti Quartet for ten years), but so was the lyrical element; he shaped the music, making supple lines, articulating the intellectual component of the score with an almost narrative kind of phrasing. Anthèmes 2 emerged almost silky and feminine, as one used to say; there's little irony in the piece, but considerable delicacy, urgent though it sometimes is.

Dérive 2 was another matter: no electronics at all; long; kaleidoscopic in its treatment of the ensemble resources. Violin, viola, cello, French horn, bassoon, clarinet, and English horn ranged in a shallow arc in front of the conductor. To his right, behind the woodwinds, a marimba and a vibraphone. To his left, beyond the strings, a harp and a piano. In a single movement, spanning perhaps forty minutes, Boulez combines the sonorities of these instruments fascinatingly, grouping and regrouping them into sub-units, allowing solo instruments to come forward out of the texture, then drop back into it.

Strings play as a unit, for example, perhaps contrasting with the winds; then the cello, horn, and bassoon become a unit, playing against comments in the upper strings and woodwinds. The percussion instruments often function as an aural frame around the inner group; just as often, they serve as an aural binder, when the entire 11-person ensemble functions as a small Mahler orchestra.

My attention was constantly engaged. You never know how Boulez chooses his next note, dynamic, sonority; but it always sounds correctly chosen. There's nothing, to me, as entrancing as the completely “meaningless” logic of a beautifully constructed musical composition, especially when argued, or stated, with both well-grounded personal expression, engaging the audience, and faithful attention to the composer's directions. The result is an event of great artistic impact, human in its expression, orderly in its presentation, aware of its historical precedents, committed to the unique curve of its own logic.

Where Anthèmes 2 seemed Gallic, I thought I heard almost deliberate references to German repertory in Dérive 2: the Schoenberg Wind Quintet; Berg's Chamber Concerto. In the end, though, I think Boulez inherits, finally, a historical position last left off by Debussy. After all these years, music like this no longer sounds Modernist: it's classical: balanced, intelligent, thoughtful. It's sumptuous, of course: but it's above all resolved. David Milnes conducted; the Eco Ensemble responded, every member impressive: Hrabba Arladottir, violin; Kyle Bruckmann, oboe; Leighton Fong, cello; Christopher Froh, percussion; David Granger, bassoon; Peter Josheff, clarinet; Dan Levitan, harp; Loren Mach, percussion; Ellen Ruth Rose, viola; Alicia Telford, horn; Ann Yi, piano. I would drive down tonight to hear it a second time.

  • Composer Portrait: Pierre Boulez. Graeme Jennings; David Milnes, Eco Ensemble; Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley, March 14, 2011.

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