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Going to Extremes

Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Pierre Boulez at Orchestra Hall, Chicago

Music review, April 9, 1999

Pierre Boulez finished up his winter residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with two concerts--one awful and one triumphant. That's his usual batting average these days. When he conducts the music he likes--the landmarks of the 20th-century avant-garde--he's unbeatable; I've more than once heard him persuade a concert hall full of musical reactionaries that the most rebarbative exercise in atonalism is as sweet as a country love song. But whenever he strays into older music, the result is almost always a disaster: his performances of the standard repertoire are indifferently conceived and contemptuously executed. Sometimes these concerts are perversely fascinating; no other conductor I know of is quite as casual about piling some classic work onto a reef.

The second-to-last concert of his season was an all-reef evening. Three items were on the bill: Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale, Debussy's Sacred and Profane Dances, and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. For any other conductor, this would have been an adventurous program--all three works are beautiful, exotic, and odd. But Boulez is truly at home only with the freakiest excesses of modernism, such as the gorgeous cataclysms of Elliott Carter or the eerie interstellar transmissions of Anton Webern. The best he could muster for the old relics on this program was tepid respect. All through the evening you could sense him chafing--surely there was something in them, some fractured rhythm or incipient dissonance, that he could break apart into fascinating fragments.

He had the best luck with the Stravinsky. This is a minor work from Stravinsky's major phase, the astonishing early period that produced The Firebird and The Rite of Spring. The Song of the Nightingale does have that unmistakable Stravinskian fire--that driving energy, those glittering orchestral colors, that effortless fusion of lushly Romantic materials and innovative formalism that made him an instant superstar. But it has, at least in embryo, the problem that would dog him through the rest of his long career: a technical mastery that seems so much in excess of anything he wants to use it for. The Song of the Nightingale, for all its advanced design, is really just an exercise in orientalist kitsch. It's a symphonic poem derived from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a nightingale singing for the emperor of China, and it weaves together faux-Chinese motifs with the same exuberance and mockery Stravinsky showed when blending Russian folk tunes into his masterworks.

Boulez's conducting had a lot of precision and clarity, which always works well with Stravinsky. But it had no atmosphere, no playfulness, and no charm. It was tough and analytical, an examination of the whirring parts inside the lacquered music box. That kind of an approach isn't wholly without interest, since Stravinsky's craftsmanship, even in a lesser piece, is worth an admiring look--there's the jagged rhythmic structure that somehow meshes perfectly, the peculiar harmonic materials that underlie the exotic surface. The performance even had a kind of picturesqueness; it was as though the nightingale were perching not in a Chinese tapestry but in a Max Ernst dreamscape. But it was all so abstract that there was nothing to respond to. Stravinsky is cold enough at the best of times; he's a lifeless bore when treated to this sort of dissection.

The mood grew even colder when Boulez got to the Debussy, another minor piece, notable mostly for its bizarrely inappropriate title. Sacred and Profane Dances sounds like it should be about religious trance and pagan abandonment, but if there's one composer who couldn't do justice to those themes it's Debussy. He stood for delicacy, pictorial beauty, and dreamy indefiniteness; the two qualities that mattered least to him were sacredness and profanity.

Essentially the piece is a pale reverie, a miniature two-movement concerto for harp and string orchestra labeled, with characteristic Debussian decorum, "moderate" and "very moderate." The soloist was the CSO's principal harpist, Sarah Bullen. It's always a pleasure to hear her show off her stuff, and she gave an exquisitely phrased performance. But it was also emotionally reserved, which proved to be a tactical mistake because Boulez seemed to take it as a challenge: he became as emotionally reserved as it's possible to get while still having a pulse. He provided an accompaniment so stepped down it was inaudible. The result was as weakly pretty as a pastel drawing seen in the moonlight. But I have to admit it was unusual--I've never heard a performance of anything where the harp drowned out the other instruments.

The big calamity of the evening was the Symphonie fantastique. I still don't know why Boulez played it. You can see why he would try to take an interest in Debussy and Stravinsky, who are at the boundary between Romanticism and modernism, right where the music he hates turns into the music he loves. But Berlioz is Romanticism in its purest form, with its grand humanist ambitions, its fascination with irrational states of being, its emotional richness, and its democratic accessibility. For Boulez, this puts it at the heart of enemy territory.

The inspiration for the Symphonie fantastique was Beethoven. Berlioz was awed, as a lot of Romantic intellectuals were, by the depth of meaning Beethoven was able to bring to the abstract and wordless form of the symphony--particularly the odd quasi-literary feel of works like the Eroica, which gives one the sense that some kind of impassioned narrative is unfolding. Berlioz had the idea of pushing this a step further and writing a symphony with a plot. Since his imagination was much more lurid than Beethoven's, the plot he came up with was pretty outlandish. The symphony is supposedly about a composer who carries on a doomed infatuation with a beautiful woman and overdoses on opium when he's rejected. A detailed program has to be supplied to explain the twists you might otherwise miss: in the fourth movement, for instance, the drugged hero dreams that he's been sentenced to death for the murder of his beloved, and in the fifth he imagines her at a witches' Sabbath "taking part in a devilish orgy." It's pretty preposterous, but you can see why it was such a hit--after all, how many symphonies have an orgy scene?

There's no denying that Berlioz could conjure up a mood. From movement to movement the symphony gives off a palpable sense of threat, of pastoral sunniness inexorably undermined by a demonic power. The finale, a swirling frenzy of berserk dances and apocalyptically pealing bells, has an authentic aura of uncontrolled nightmare. Berlioz really does succeed in creating a musical equivalent to the classics of hallucinatory prose like Baudelaire's Paradis artificiels and De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater; he goes a long way toward demonstrating that purely orchestral music can be just as complex and fanciful as the most poetic literature.

Boulez, needless to say, ditched all that, confining himself to a humorless examination of the symphony's structural properties. This might be OK for Stravinsky, but it's a big mistake with Berlioz; for all his brilliance at creating atmosphere, he was a lousy craftsman. The symphony is a typically ramshackle affair, with vulgar and shoddy materials haphazardly soldered together and then slathered over with glitz. Seen by Boulez's unforgiving eye, it was as dingy as a carnival fun house in daylight, though eventually a few hints of why he was interested did emerge. He clearly liked the way the work got more chaotic as it went on. He'd actually engaged with it by the finale; he seemed to find its wildness rather endearing, if only because it was almost modern.

Such condescension would be insufferable if Boulez weren't so great at the music he does like. Only a week after this dismal showing he was back on the podium for a concert performance of Schoenberg's unfinished opera, Moses und Aron, and the result was dazzling. His conducting was committed, impassioned, sympathetic, even atmospheric--everything, in short, that it wasn't the week before.

That's not surprising: Moses und Aron is a point-blank attack on the Romantic sensibility. Its particular target is Romanticism's drive toward totality, its attempt to assimilate the whole of experience into a single work of art. Moses und Aron counters with an image of life as profoundly discontinuous. The subject is Moses's direct encounter with God--an experience that cannot be described, paraphrased, or translated. Moses's brother Aron is the one who tries, and his version, hoked up for the uncomprehending masses, is necessarily a betrayal of everything Moses knows to be the truth.

This is a full-dress opera, with a plot, characters, a lot of onstage hubbub, even an orgy scene. (There's a chorus for "four naked virgins"--not even Berlioz was that specific.) But the central dramatic issue is so abstract that it loses little in a concert performance. The real question is whether an audience can sit still for two hours of Schoenberg's music. The opera has a reputation for being the most difficult work in the modern repertoire: it's Schoenberg's brand of atonalism at its fiercest, purest, and most arid. That wasn't a problem the way Boulez conducted it--his performance was as furious as a desert whirlwind.

I don't think I've ever heard Schoenberg's music sound so sheerly dramatic. Boulez made a persuasive case that atonalism is ideal for certain big-scale theatrical effects. The seething confusion of the Israelites in the wilderness, the wildly clangorous scenes where they worship the golden calf, the ominous stillness of the surrounding desert--all of this would have been tamely prettified by any traditional composer's tone palette, but Schoenberg makes each scene register with a harsh and tumultuous power. Then too his atonalism worked brilliantly with Aron's arias: its distorted, off-kilter lyricism gave them an unnerving sense of wrongness that came to seem like the essence of moral perversity.

The tumult and creepiness build up a powerful image of a world that's deaf to the voice of God--the most effective part of Schoenberg's anti-Romantic manifesto. Most of the major Romantic composers wrote large-scale religious works, and in almost all of them God comes off as a blandly unthreatening patriarch, nonsectarian in principle but obviously on the side of the progressives. It's a valuable shock to hear a religious opera in which God is presented as something apart, alien, incommensurable. His voice is heard only once, in the opening bars, as an eerie chorus; afterward he's present only in Moses's speeches--which aren't sung but recited in an unmelodious singsong style called Sprechstimme. This is yet another of Schoenberg's superb dramatic effects: since Moses is the only character who speaks this way, his isolation is that much stronger and his vision of God that much more remote and unreachable.

Yet this is the point at which the opera becomes most problematic. Schoenberg abandoned its composition at the end of the second act, just when Moses hits his lowest point of despair. According to the libretto, his gloom would have lifted a little by the finale, when he would have at last succeeded in articulating his vision--but Schoenberg never wrote any music for that part. The work as he left it expresses only unrelieved negation. The passions and drama of the secular world are painted in a uniform shade of disgust: everything outside of Moses's vision is false, corrupt, and sordid; every recognizable human emotion is eventually debased into the wild frenzies of the mob over the golden calf. The spiritual world is even more desolate: God is a pure idea, unattainable through art, culture, or language. He's such an absolute that in the end the opera seems to argue not just that he can't be understood but that he can't even be experienced.

This makes the opera a perfect cliche of the modernist masterpiece--a kind of prefab ruin, a doomed and fragmentary gesture at the ineffable. A lot of critics who ought to know better (including George Steiner, who's quoted in the CSO's program) claim that Schoenberg's failure to complete the opera is a symptom of a generalized 20th-century cultural paralysis: he couldn't write the third act without somehow confronting the horrors of the modern world, which render any affirmative statement about God and humanity impossible. Well, maybe so. But this rationale seems pat. The modernists' supposed spiritual agonies and creative impotence seem just as facile as the world-comprehending visions of the Romantics.

None of these complaints can take anything away from Boulez's performance, which was as fine as anything I've heard at Orchestra Hall this season. As always happens when Boulez is fully committed, there wasn't a single slurred or fudged passage anywhere. The orchestral playing was consistently strong--there were a few miscues and blown notes, but that's forgivable given how thorny this piece is--and the chorus was as radiantly lovely as CSO regulars have come to expect. Boulez was so comfortable with the music that he even allowed himself to relax, to conduct long passages with the ease and fluency most conductors can bring to only the most familiar classics. Yet he always knew when to rouse himself again--the allegros were all furious and the crescendos towering.

Such a performance can make up for any number of bungled and indifferent concerts. The only problem I have with it is that it makes me wish Boulez had a wider circle of sympathies; his disdain for Romantic music seems at times more like a willful crotchet than a serious aesthetic choice. After all, he plainly loves Schoenberg for exactly the same reason that traditionalists love Berlioz--not because of the musical theory, not because of the cultural ideology of modernism, but simply because the music is beautiful.