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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Concert Review: The Pierre Boulez Time Machine

The composer receives a birthday tribute at Columbia. 
 by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pierre Boulez.
Photo by Harald Hoffmann © 2010 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Music Group

The life and career of French composer Pierre Boulez career was the subject of Monday night's Composer Portrait at Miller Theater. The composer himself attended. The concert, (which celebrated his 85th birthday) was a career retrospective featuring the skilled chamber musicians of the Talea Ensemble under the direction of percussionist James Baker.

The evening opened with Dérive No. 1, a work which arranges Boulez' trademark serial technique for a small chamber ensemble and piano. Written in 1984, the composition creates shimmering structures of sound with occasional spikes of non-melodic sound. It served as an excellent introduction to Boulez' complex, cerebral style and made the audience ready for the "time machine" tour of his catalogue that was to follow.

Pierre Boulez based his work on his early studies with Olivier Messiaen, but soon struck out fearlessly into the uncharted waters of serialism. He chose to expand the serial approach, rearranging the basic tone-rows that are used to construct music--a technique invented by Arnold Schoenberg. But Boulez innovated further, using this mathematical approach on intervals and rhythms to create unique sonic landscapes. Although his work bristles with complexity, the effect is shimmering and surprisinly seductive.

The next work was Boulez' first published piece, the 12 Notations for solo piano from 1945. This is Boulez as the angry young man, writing works that veer between dreamy, impressionistic landscapes and raw power. They also provide a great challenge for the pianist. Anthony Cheung played each Notation admirably, expressing poetry in the context of works that are only twelve bars in length.

Soprano Mary Elizabeth MacKenzie joined the group for two Improvisations, based on the poetry of Stephan Mallarmé. The French text was stretched and distorted into new sounds, against a background of chamber instruments and tuned percussion. Ms. MacKenzie specializes in this sort of "new" music (the works actually date from 1957) and she coped ably with the challenges presented by the two works.

The composer himself took the stage next, sitting down for an interview. He covered some fascinating insights to his creative process, comparing the long developmnt (and in some cases, total reconstruction) of his music to the lengthty gestation of Wagner's Ring Cycle, a work which he conducted at Bayreuth in 1976.

The evening concluded with the New York premiere of the revised, expanded version of Derivé No. 2, a massive tone poem for winds, horn tuned percussion, piano and a minimal string section. This piece unfolded as a series of complex blocks of sound, from which instruemtns emerged gradually to make their induvudual voices heard with solos of their own. Surprisingly, passages of the work sounded Beethovenian, but maybe that was the lengthy cadenza played by the English horn.

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