Pierre Boulez Torches Carnegie Hall

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    Pierre Boulez Torches Carnegie Hall Pierre Boulez will be in town for the next three years holding the Debs chair at Carnegie Hall. He'll be conducting topnotch orchestras from around the world and will act as "contemporary music" adviser for Carnegie. While Boulez is undoubtedly a great conductor, it's the advisory position that bothers me. Judging by his first season here, unless there's a radical change in his agenda, it looks like there will be very little "contemporary music" for the next three years at Carnegie Hall. In fact, looking over next season's Boulez-inspired activities, we can expect more Debussy, Stravinsky, Mahler, Wagner and Webern, spiced with occasional dashes of younger composers working out of the serialist idiom. To make sure that this wasn't just my myopic view of things, I sent out e-mails to cronies of mine asking their opinions on the matter and they pretty much confirmed my suspicions. Over at the Village Voice, Kyle Gann said, "Appointing Pierre Boulez at Carnegie Hall seems like an incredible anachronism, a self-defeating attempt to cling to the 20th century. Everyone knows what his musical priorities are, and everyone knows that the musical idiom Boulez feels is the only possible one?12-tone music?has now been abandoned as one of history's great mistakes by all but a few diehard composers."

    The American Music Center's Frank Oteri: "I have been a new music junkie all my life and have worked to push a new music agenda in the classical music community for over a decade, yet I have felt no esthetic urge or even a professional obligation to attend any of the Boulez events at Carnegie Hall this past season." And downtown composer Phil Kline, who does wonderful things with racks of boomboxes, simply couldn't be bothered: "I haven't thought about his music for years."

    Back in the 70s when Boulez was in town conducting the New York Philharmonic, he went out of his way to be as un-Lenny Bernstein-ish as possible; with his icy temperament and chilly conducting style, he alienated just about everyone. These days, Boulez's programming, at least, seems to be in the Bernstein mold. I've got a tape from the early 60s of Lenny conducting the Philharmonic in a concert of "difficult music" during which he threw in a Ravel piece as a bon-bon to the audience. He told them in his typically charming manner, "If you should suspect that we're merely offering you a sop, or even trying to send you home in a more genial or contented humor, you're absolutely right." This season, Boulez took pains to judiciously balance each program, the result being some wildly uneven evenings. In his efforts to please, he seemed to be giving up what he's most notoriously known for: his own narrow "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" esthetic agenda. I missed the fire in the old man.

    Time and again with regard to his own works, Boulez proved to be his own worst enemy; consistently, the ensembles he was conducting outshone his own compositions. He's a guy who likes to rework pieces; indeed, many times they feel overworked. Such was the case with his 1973 piece, ?explosante-fixe?, where it was announced at the last minute that Boulez would be stripping out the electronics from the work. Instead, the London Symphony Orchestra filled in, trying its damnedest to imitate the missing electronics. While they sounded pretty good, it was a far cry from what anyone would term juicy pyrotechnics. The piece, which has historically found its dynamism through the interplay of an ever-evolving goofy piece of electronic equipment and live players, lost any semblance of spontaneity. By hammering out the variables, Boulez took an experimental work of his and packaged it neatly for the airless tomb of the concert hall.

    Back in November, Boulez's own handpicked outfit, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, did several stunning concerts that led me to wonder, who's the real star here: Boulez or his Ensemble? This discrepancy was most pronounced on an all-Boulez program at the Weill Recital Hall. The first half of the concert, featuring Boulez's radical early works for piano and flute, was wonderful: not only was the composing excellent (written between 1946 and 1961 at a time when Boulez was on fire), but the playing was stellar, in particular pianist Florent Boffard and flautist Sophie Cherrier in Boulez's early Sonatine. I've rarely seen such a combination of precision and showmanship, resulting in an electrifying exchange between two instruments I don't usually consider too thrilling; bets are on that in anyone else's hands, a piano and flute duet would've been dull as dirt. It makes me think that Boffard and Cherrier could take a Mantovani duet and make it sing.

    Things took a plunge in the second half, in which works from Boulez's more recent repertoire were performed. Ranging from 1971 (when he started composing again after a decade-long hiatus) to 1997, it's apparent that these days Pierre's been paying more attention to business than to composing. I was looking forward to hearing 1976's piece for seven cellos, Messagesquisse, but found the firepower assembled onstage unfocused?not so much due to the musicianship, but to the uninspired composing. This was confirmed by the next piece, Incises, a solo piano reduction of an orchestral version that was unsuccessfully performed the night before. Meandering and monotonous, Incises never finds a center; instead it almost achieves a stasis?not a good thing unless you're a minimalist, from which Boulez couldn't be further. The final piece of the afternoon was a duet for violin and electronics beautifully played by Hae-Sun Kang and by Boulez's longtime techno-whiz Andrew Gerszo. It's a gorgeous concept, with the electronics ever-so-subtly enhancing and echoing the violin, and for the first few minutes I'd thought that perhaps Boulez had found his voice again. But soon thereafter it fell into the same rut as Incises and whatever technical charm it had was all but lost by the time it ended.

    Fortunately, there was more to these programs than just Boulez's own works, and it was here?in the role of conductor?that he really shone. At their peak last November, the Intercontemporain ripped through Schoenberg's "Suite, Op. 29" from the 1920s. It was crisp and angular and played with an unimaginable ferocity: as if Schoenberg took a classical symphony, shredded it and stitched it back together the wrong way. Big chunks of melody were slammed into wobbly cartoonish patches blasted out by small clusters of wind and string instruments; out of nowhere sugary Romantic piano runs suddenly turned sour. It was hair-raising stuff, brilliantly interpreted and expertly played.

    Likewise, in March the London Symphony Orchestra, featuring soloist Daniel Barenboim on piano, did a frighteningly cool, tightly wound, razor-sharp rendition of Schoenberg's 1942 "Piano Concerto, Op. 42." Musical notes raced around the orchestra with Olympian precision; the flute would seamlessly hand off its riffs to the piano, which would in turn shoot them over to the percussion section, where they would flood into the orchestra and wash over the entire hall. The effect was nothing short of magical. Barenboim, situated in the middle of the stage, acted like an island unto himself, playing in totally different tones and tempos from the rest of the orchestra, trading off between jazz-inspired runs and fist-pounding tone clusters.

    Still, the inconsistency of Boulez's audience appeasement policy compromised what could have been great evenings. Each night I attended, cumbersome warhorses were programmed: a horribly long neo-classical Pelleas und Melisande, "Op. 5" from Schoenberg at his dullest, and two forgettable recent Berio works, Notturno and Linea; even the original 1911 version of Stravinsky's Petrouchka?a work I really love?struck me as fluff.

    Boulez's selection of younger composers indicated another of his weaknesses?it's obvious that he's out of touch and over his head in this area. While the works?one by George Benjamin (b. 1960) and the other by Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947)?weren't bad (in fact the Sciarrino was quite good), they kept firmly within Boulez's exhausted historical lineage. It'd be like including a bunch of contemporary umpteenth-generation painters working in an abstract-expressionist vein in an historical survey: every good curator knows that subtle connections can be made working cross-stylistically between generations.

    The Boulez industry continues to grow each year. This spring, Deutsche Grammophon was splashing around a bunch of embarrassing ads promoting its Boulez 2000 series, trying to bolster his image as a reactionary conductor. One read "To look at composer/conductor Pierre Boulez with his dapper sports jackets and bemused facial expressions, one wouldn't expect him to be a revolutionary. Boulez is, however, credited with a rather inflammatory quote from almost a half a century ago: 'The most elegant way of solving the opera problem,' he said back then, 'is to blow up the opera houses.' It was, to say the least, a conversation stopper, but not to be taken literally. Surely Boulez, who turns 75 years old on March 26, wouldn't be nominated for six Grammy Awards this year were he a genuine musical terrorist."

    As I looked around me these past months at Carnegie, among the sea of blue-haired subscribers I saw only a smattering of younger people. Boulez, whether he conducts once-radical 20th-century serialism or the classics, is facing a withering congregation. It's a shame because, at the turning of the century, an incredible window of opportunity presents itself to the classical music establishment: for the first time in decades, kids are actually interested in this stuff. Rock stars are playing John Cage's music for Merce Cunningham's dance company; DJs who spin dance music in clubs one night are sitting in on musique concrete recording sessions the next. Edgy new-music ensembles are playing Brian Eno tunes and drum 'n' bass groups are remixing Steve Reich. Long-ignored dusty old recordings of classical music are being slickly repackaged and snapped up by kids at trendy records shops around town.

    Things are exploding in every direction and lines are blurring, creating fabulously interesting hybrid situations. Backpedaling with Boulez's narrow historical agenda just feels wrong. But I've got an idea: let's keep him around to conduct the 20th-century repertoire, but have Carnegie bring in Thurston Moore to share the Debs chair as "contemporary music" adviser.