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Monday, June 2, 2014

Concert Review: A Fixed Explosion of Ideas

The Orchestra of St. Luke's plays Pierre Boulez.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
 Pierre Boulez and his student the conductor Pablo Heras-Casado.
Photo by Priska Ketterer © 2012 The Lucerne Festival.
From his heaven-storming early piano works to his current place as a grand statesman of modern music, there is no overstating the importance of composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. On Saturday afternoon at the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Center, the Orchestra of St. Luke's unveiled their first concert of the NY PHIL BIENNIAL: Circles of Influence: Pierre Boulez. This concert celebrated recent works (including four U.S. premieres) and examined the Boulezian influence on contemporary European composers.


Under the baton and guidance of St. Lukes principal conductor Pablo Heras-Casado (himself a student of Mr. Boulez) the program recombined and reconfigured the orchestra repeatedly, with works written for mid-sized ensemble contrasting with one lone solo piano work played by Margaret Kampmeier. To facilitate these awkward stage-changes, Mr. Heras-Casado sat down at stage left for a series of interviews with Juilliard dean Ari Guzelimian, providing anecdotes, insight and context for these unfamiliar works.


Pierre Boulez composed the original  ...explosante-fixe... in 1971 as a memorial for Igor Stravinsky. Mémoriale is a new work for solo flute and chamber ensemble, using the earlier score as its model. The diving, swooping solo flute of St. Luke's principal player Elizabeth Mann led the way against tiny, aphoristic ideas from the strings and violins, a curtain of sound that beguiled and bedazzled hinting at greater musical depths hidden behind the notes you could actually hear.

Next up, Turbulences by the composer Bruno Mantovani. (Mr. Mantovani is a French composer,unrelated and unconnected to the Italian purveyor of easy listening music popular in the previous century.) In any case, Turbulences focused on two musical ideas in diametric opposition. A complex, contrapuntal melody stood in stark contrast to the obsessive almost Berg-like repetition of a single chord. Mr. Heras-Casado let each of these ideas make their own statement, refereeing the clash between them and forging Turbulences into a cohesive whole.

The Swiss composer Heinz Holliger's Ostinato funebre has its roots in Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music. This was Mozart at his darkest, slowed down and made into the soundtrack of a horror film, replete with spooky percussion and found-object effects. With two percussionists at either side of the stage rustling leaves and crunching twigs in between short noises from the assembled players, this was a genuinely spooky, unsettling composition that was best experienced with the eyes closed and the imagination running wild.

East met West in Strange Ritual by Philippe Manoury, written for a new music ensemble in Japan in 2005 and here receiving its U.S. premiere. Opening with a ringing series of clashing chords for the percussion, piano and winds. this work offered musical ideas only to radically deconstruct them. Two mini-ensembles of wind players worked together and against each other,  with he friction of these dissonant notes created energy pushing the rest of this piece forward.

Following this piece, the tiny and brilliantine Une page d’éphéméride by Mr. Boulez was unexpected, melodic and almost seemed a palate-cleanser, a tiny and recent aphoristic window into this great composer's mind. As played by Ms. Kampmeier, this challenging but appealing new work featured glittering colors and stunning technique, making one wish that Mr. Boulez had completed the Piano Project, a planned cycle of piano compositions in the last decade.

The program ended with Concertino, a small-scale one-movement concerto for orchestra by Marc-André Dalbavie that drew its influence directly from the 17th century English composer Matthew Locke. Mr. Dalbavie's work, with musical ideas that reached across three centuries was originally planned to be performed on early instruments. (It was in fact premiered in 1994 by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra). In this performance, with Mr. Heras-Casado's razor-sharp conducting and the high level of the St. Luke's players, it sounded absolutely splendid.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.