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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Telecast Review: The Return of Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Photo © 2009 Todd Rosenberg/Chicago Symphony Orchestra
When Riccardo Muti announced that he would be unable to fulfill his commitments as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, music lovers across North America took a deep breath. But when the 85-year old Pierre Boulez agreed to conduct the orchestra's appearance on PBS' Great Performances, those same music lovers breathed a sigh of relief. When the program was announced as Mahler's Seventh Symphony, they smiled.

The Mahler Seventh is the unloved stepchild of the composer's major orchestral works. Over five movements, it charts a strange, nighttime journey across lakes, up mountain passes, and through shadows that reek of the underworld. Most bizarre is the fnial Rondo, where arching walls of trumpets and cascading horns evoke Wagner's Die Meistersinger in a blaze of sonic sunlight.

Mr. Boulez led a carefully controlled performance. The march figures of the first movement were kept to a strict beat, with minimal hand movements drawing powerful waves of sound from the orchestra. Rumbling basses and bassoons filled in orchestral colors of blue and black. The tenorhorn solo (played here on a baritone tuba) evokes a mysterious mission, and the riotous marches and stumbling waltz that follows indicates that that mission might have ended at a local public house.

The first Nachtmusik continued this trend, with the warm tones of the Chicago horns leading Mahler's mysterious mountain trek. The Schattenhaft third movement sounded spooky and spiky in Mr. Boulez' hands, with its forward-looking shrieks in the strings evoking the modern sound-world that would follow Mahler's work. The fourth movement (a second Nachtmusik blended the solo violin against an unusual backdrop of horns, mandolin and guitar. The impression of gentle peace, of conflict resolved and rest earned held sway.

The charging Rondo came last, with the Meistersinger theme front and center. The brass dominate this movement, fighting upstream against a headlong, fugal rhythm that sounds like Bach gone mad. This is Mahler at his most diatonic. A century after the composer's death, the motives for this weird, noisy finale are still obscure. But no matter.  The brass played gloriously, with trumpets ringing out and trombones sliding swiftly down the scale as the horns drove the theme to its bright, blinding climax.

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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.