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Beauty in the Strangest Places

Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Pierre Boulez at Orchestra Hall

Music review, December 18, 1998

Pierre Boulez is the best orchestra conductor alive. He's also the most cold-blooded. His rep hasn't changed for decades: he's the ultraintellectual modernist, the disdainer of imprecision and emotional sloppiness, the unyielding advocate of all music harsh, obscure, and avant-garde. It's true that now and then you do hear people claim he's softening--lately some friends of mine have been telling me that his recent performances show him widening his range and even finding things to like in the Romantic music he most despises. Well, maybe so. But I've just sat through the first three concerts of his winter residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and he sounded like the same old Mr. Freeze to me.

Not that the concerts were bad. Boulez remains unbeatable on his home turf: the great masterworks of modernism, their forerunners and successors. He's often criticized for the stubborn unconventionality of his taste--he has to be the only major conductor around who never programs Beethoven or Mozart--but that's one thing about him you just have to take or leave. He likes what he likes, and he doesn't like much written before 1925. The real problem is something that came out strongly in this concert series: his touch becomes erratic whenever he gets near the boundaries of his taste. He may be invincible with an arch-modernist weirdo like Alban Berg, but with Debussy and Stravinsky he can quickly become bored and indifferent. Then too he can be indiscriminating about what is and isn't a successful modernist piece. He began the first concert with a world premiere of a new concerto called Orbital Beacons, by the CSO's current composer-in-residence, Augusta Read Thomas, and his wildly enthusiastic performance displayed what a sucker he can be for the most trivial hackwork so long as it has a contemporary veneer.

But I'll be fair. Orbital Beacons isn't worthless. It does have an interesting gimmick: a reshuffling of the musicians onstage into smaller groups that function something like competing chamber orchestras. (If I understand the schematic correctly, there are seven groups, plus a squad of percussionists.) This may not sound like a big deal, but the sonic texture of a symphony orchestra is so complicated that even the smallest repositioning of the musicians can cause curious acoustic effects. Thomas's arrangement gave an unusual glassiness and sharpness to the individual groups that was pretty intriguing. (It also showed off to good advantage the Orchestra Hall rehab, because this is exactly the sort of trickery the hall's old acoustics would have smothered.) She isn't the first composer to play around with this idea--a lot of Elliott Carter's pieces require scrambled seating plans--but her version is distinctive, and I hope she goes on exploring it.

As for the composition itself--well, at least Boulez liked it. It's supposed to evoke the night sky: the six brief movements are each named after constellations, and the title has a sort of Star Trek technobabble sound--imposing but meaningless. But the music struck me as generic and not evocative of much of anything. The movements alternate between sinuous legato lines for woodwinds and strings and loud staccato passages heavy on the horns, with some peculiar bits of percussion thrown in for seasoning. This description would fit just about every piece of music commissioned by American symphony orchestras in the last 20 years, and it indicates that academic modernism still has a death grip on a whole generation of composers. Thomas may have more talent than many of them--I did like a couple of her percussive passages, which suggest she has a wild streak that might someday erupt into something interesting--but the overall effect was timid and orthodox.

It was particularly disheartening to hear Boulez conduct this trifle with such vigor and then shrug off Debussy. He'd programmed two Debussy standards, Trois nocturnes and La mer--and he zapped through them as though he were late for a train. You could tell he liked them, sort of--at least he admired their inner architecture. But there were Debussy's glittery, pretty, picturesque surfaces to contend with, and Boulez couldn't have been more haughtily displeased if he'd been stuck doing the theme song from Titanic. He was genuinely alarming with the climax of La mer, which he turned into an avalanche of late-Romantic kitsch. It was one of those moments that leave you both amused and appalled: who but Boulez would write off Debussy as a vulgarian?

Yet midway through the concert came a performance that proved again what an amazing conductor he is: his version of the third nocturne, "Sirenes." Most conductors treat this piece as an ungainly and lumbering appendage to the exquisite poetry of "Nuages" and "Fetes"--that is, when they can be bothered to play it at all (the best Debussy conductors, Charles Munch and Guido Cantelli, omitted it from their recordings of the nocturnes). Boulez took his time and made a brilliant case for it as the secret core of the whole work, as the place where all its scattered echoes and interconnections come together. I came away persuaded that any conductor who doesn't play "Sirenes" with the other two nocturnes is slacking off.

That's Boulez at his best: the analytical intelligence that finds coherence where everybody else sees confusion. This is the quality that came out more strongly in the second concert. On the bill were a little piece called Un sourire by Olivier Messiaen, Alban Berg's "Three Pieces" from the Lyric Suite, Bartok's Violin Rhapsodies and Stravinsky's great Symphony in Three Movements. It all looked like prime Boulez territory, but the results were mixed: the CSO was uncharacteristically ragged most of the night--they were woefully underrehearsed on the Messiaen--and Boulez's conducting of the Stravinsky and Bartok was erratic and unsatisfactory. The only pieces he conceived well were the Messiaen and the Berg. But then I don't know any other conductors right now who could have managed even that much.

Un sourire is one of Messiaen's last works; it was premiered in December 1991, five months before his death. Essentially it's a slow, unraveling progression of chords for woodwinds and strings, periodically interrupted by jarring birdcall-like bursts of xylophone and brass. In some ways its sound world isn't all that different from Orbital Beacons, except that where Thomas is academically correct, Messiaen is expansive and mysterious. Boulez conducted it with the stress on its largeness of reverberation. It's not a major piece--it's really just a keyhole glimpse into the visionary world explored in greater depth in huge orchestral works like Turangalila-symphonie and Des canyons aux etoiles. But Boulez made it sound like a testament: a distillation of all of Messiaen's characteristic themes into one sustained image of the eternal. The last few chords were astonishing: suffused by gently sounding horns, they had a magical aura of acceptance and resignation, like the end of a Wagner opera.

Boulez was just as good with the Berg--better because it isn't as accomplished a piece. Berg originally wrote it as a six-movement chamber work and then shortly afterward rescored the inner three movements for a string orchestra. Most critics have regarded the rescoring as a failure, a layer of skewed indirection added to a work that was none too direct to begin with. But this kind of challenge is right up Boulez's alley. He was especially impressive with the weird allegro misterioso movement, where the strings swarm in furious gnatlike clusters, but even with the less focused andante and allegro furioso, the wandering melodic substance and vague harmonies seemed to hang together in an eccentric but genuine balance.

Boulez ran into trouble with Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements. But that's not surprising, because he's always been ambivalent about Stravinsky. While he admires the great innovative eruptions, like The Rite of Spring, he seems to value them more for the damage they caused the Romantic tradition than for their inherent interest as music. Stravinsky did detest Romanticism just as much as Boulez does, but there's something suspect about his version of modernism: it has an antique air, a Mozartean elegance, even a hint of upper-crust sentimentality. Even in this symphony, which is one of his most aggressively modernist soundscapes--it's dark, tumultuous, and jazzy--you can find a lurking gentility. Or so Boulez seemed to discover. He was spectacular with the first movement: it had an exhilarating sweep, as though defying the audience to believe that Romanticism had anything on modern music for epic grandeur. But midway through the andante he lost his commitment; he acted for all the world as though he'd suddenly bitten through to the creamy center of the piece and hated the taste. The last movement flashed past as a kind of lifeless uproar that, given any other conductor, I would have called cynical.

But the real fiasco of the evening was the Bartok Violin Rhapsodies--which was ominous, because Boulez and guest soloist Gil Shaham were coming back the next week for an all-Bartok program. The rhapsodies are minor, delicate pieces that require an endlessly shifting balance between soloist and orchestra to work at all; Boulez and Shaham not only failed to hit any kind of balance but didn't even bother to try. Shaham was wildly theatrical: he sawed away at his violin like a country fiddler at a hoedown. Boulez meanwhile was at his most glacially indifferent, working through the orchestral accompaniment as though solving a crossword puzzle. I could swear he was trying to pretend Shaham wasn't there.

I don't know--maybe it was a practical joke intended to alarm the subscription audience. The two were certainly getting along much better at the next week's concert. In fact, it was apparent about 90 seconds into the opening work, Bartok's Second Violin Concerto, that they were now totally in sync. This was a world-class performance: Shaham, Boulez, and the CSO danced through a notoriously tangled and oblique work with perfect lucidity and driving energy. Boulez's conducting was incandescent: not a single slurred moment, not one hasty rush to a crescendo. The CSO played as though they'd broken through a sonic fog bank and were in the clear air for the first time they could remember. And Shaham was electrifying. His playing was still ferocious and acrobatic, but it was sinuously shaped around the looming complexities of the orchestral accompaniment and rose in the cadenzas to ecstatic clarity. It was easily the best performance of the concerto I've ever heard, and one of the best performances of anything at Orchestra Hall in years.

After the intermission Boulez returned to conduct Bartok's ballet score for The Wooden Prince. I figured it had to be a letdown--and at first it was. Boulez seemed distracted, as though he were taken aback by how well the concerto had gone. The slowly swelling crescendo of the opening was a little off-kilter, and the next few passages were unfocused. But The Wooden Prince is a long score--it runs almost an hour--and Boulez had time to regain his stride. It took him five minutes or so, after which he was back at the top of his game. The result wasn't the freezing fire of the concerto; instead it was vast, surging, and rich. The score unfolded vista after vista of gorgeous orchestral color, and Boulez conducted each of them with a leisurely, savoring satisfaction, as though he could happily stay on the podium until dawn.

What was most startling was that all this lavish loveliness was by Bartok. He's not a name that comes to mind when you think of having a good time at the concert hall. His music ordinarily makes the hardiest modernist blanch: his hyperabstract approach to composition, his bizarre taste for backcountry Hungarian folk music, and the off-the-scale spookiness of his sensibility make him a byword for everything that's most unnerving about modern music. It's true that the two pieces Boulez picked for this concert are usually counted as examples of the "nice" and "accessible" Bartok, but those are relative terms. If any other composer had written a violin concerto as hysterically rhapsodic as this one or a ballet score with as strong an undertow of sinister mystery, you'd worry about the guy's sanity. But we're talking about Bartok. His Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is so menacing that Stanley Kubrick used it on the sound track of The Shining, and his other big ballet score, The Miraculous Mandarin, creates such a weird and oppressive sonic environment that one critic has suggested putting it on the stereo whenever you need to clear your house of unwanted guests.

So how is it that Boulez was able to make Bartok's music sound so lovely? Maybe it was an accident--Boulez might be so used to dissonant exercises in avant-garde audience alienation that he can no longer tell that Bartok is supposed to sound weird. Or maybe his being saturated in the compositional logic of modernism has let him get past the surface strangeness of Bartok's sound to reveal an extraordinarily luminous inner design. Boulez isn't fazed by Bartok's love of grotesquerie or his Einsteinian approach to form. Where other conductors see an eerie parody of lyricism, Boulez simply sees lyricism; where they find a broken maze of internal construction, he sees a lucid through line.

Boulez could be wrong to perform such an exorcism on Bartok--this music probably ought to remain a gaudy nightmare. But during the concert I kept remembering something Nietszche once wrote: "I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things. Then I will be one of those who makes things beautiful." I think this must be what people mean when they say Boulez has mellowed. He's still just as harsh and intransigent as ever--but he's turning into one of those who makes things beautiful.