Concert Review: CSO Presents a Salute to Pierre Boulez

Concert Review: CSO Presents a Salute to Pierre Boulez
John von Rhein
CHICAGO TRIBUNE – November 15, 2014

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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Beyond the Score series has been remiss in not exploring the music of living composers. Creative director Gerard McBurney made amends with his most recent presentation, “A Pierre Dream: A Portrait of Pierre Boulez,” a program honoring the eminent composer and conductor in advance of his 90th birthday next March.

The first of two weekend performances, given Friday night at Symphony Center, was not so much a concert of the French master’s works as an illuminating theatrical phantasmagoria about how Boulez’s intricate music is made – and even more about the aesthetic issues that have preoccupied him from his earliest compositions of the 1950s, when he and fellow young firebrands rattled postwar Paris with their avant-garde screeds, to the slow trickle of works the elder statesman of musical modernism has painstakingly produced up through the present.

A second performance was due on Sunday afternoon, and both performances included postconcert Q&As with the creative team.

McBurney’s feat – in his highly inventive, 90-minute collage of musical excerpts, live and recorded speech, documentary footage, light and video projections, all encased in an original scenic design by the famed architect Frank Gehry – was to make Boulez, who is nothing if not the most non-theatrical of composers, an apt subject for the kind of heightened, poetic music theater that’s emblematic of Beyond the Score.

“A Pierre Dream” (the title was Gehry’s) is structured around interview material with Boulez, the CSO’s conductor emeritus, much of it filmed last year at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany. Though his eyesight is reportedly greatly impaired and he looks rather frail, his mind was as sharp as ever as he reflected on why just about everything he has composed he considers a work in progress, music subject to endless revision.

“For me each composition is like a labyrinth, and a labyrinth can go on forever,” he observed, echoing sentiments Leonardo da Vinci expressed centuries before: “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”

Whereupon an ensemble of 18 CSO musicians and guests under conductor Pablo Heras-Casado (Cliff Colnot did the musical preparation, though he was uncredited in the printed program) furnished examples of Boulezian elaboration – the expansion of his 1977 “Messagesquisse,” for example, into both the 1984 “Derive 1” and the greatly expanded “Derive 2” of 2006, which Boulez apparently has never stopped tinkering with.

A chain of echoes and connections thus emerged as to suggest an overarching continuity – a kind of meta-music, if you will – between pieces of different periods. Hearing selections from 16 Boulez works one after the other was like walking through a garden of sculptures, each slightly different from the other but all in the same style. Boulez early on identified those musical elements and relationships he wished to penetrate through his art, and he has spent the rest of his composing life exploring and refining them. Thus you heard the music of a young man in his 20s alongside that of a seasoned artist in his 80s – all of it indelibly Boulez’s.

Audience members who may have feared this all would be impossibly cerebral, forbidding, impenetrable stuff were in for a pleasant surprise: Much of the music, including two of Boulez’s improvisations on Mallarme texts (from “Pli selon pli”) and movements from his classic “Le marteau sans maître”, revealed a shimmering, crystalline subtlety as exquisitely wrought as anything by Debussy, a composer to whom Boulez professes a profound debt. Much of Boulez’s music is far more accessible than most classical listeners think.

Gehry’s stage setup, artfully enhanced by Mike Tutaj’s projection design and Jason Brown’s lighting, was ingenious. It consisted of a dozen rectangular panels that were arranged in various configurations by a team of seven black-clad actors. It was onto these screens that the visual elements were projected – including shots of the musicians performing in the moment, Boulez in conversation with Igor Stravinsky and other rare archival footage. The simultaneity of aural and visual information very much mirrored what goes on in Boulez’s music at any given moment.

There were occasional lapses, as when the projections devolved into little but blurred, watery abstract shapes, and I would have preferred hearing more pieces played in their entirety, rather than chopped up to be sandwiched around the spoken portions. Perhaps McBurney will pull a Boulez and do a bit of tinkering himself before the live version of “A Pierre Dream” travels to Ojai, Berkeley and elsewhere beginning next year.

In addition to Heras-Casado’s precise direction, one cannot praise the performers too highly. Among them were soprano Mellissa Hughes, pianists Winston Choi and Amy Briggs, concertmaster Robert Chen, flutist Jennifer Gunn and clarinetist John Bruce Yeh.

“I want to have the surprise and enjoyment of discovery,” Boulez said during one of the filmed interviews, speaking of his objectives as a composer. But he could just as well have been speaking of what most of the audience took away from “A Pierre Dream.”