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La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles

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Boulez Works and Berio Tribute at Ojai Festival

By Marc Geelhoed June 4, 2003

Saturday, May 31, 2003
Libbey Bowl, Ojai, California

Outdoor summer concerts may seem more John Philip Sousa than Pierre Boulez, but not last Saturday evening in little (population: 8,200) Ojai, California. Members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the CalArts New Century Players, and pianist Mark Robson performed 5 Boulez works: the Sonatine for Flute and Piano, the solo violin Anthèmes, 12 Notations for piano, Dialogue de l’Ombre Double for clarinet and electronics, and Sur Incises. The concert was part of the annual Ojai Music Festival, which Boulez directed this year.

The concert began with a short tribute to the recently deceased Luciano Berio, a close associate of Boulez. Prior to the tribute, Boulez said that Berio was the impetus behind two of the works on the concert, Dialogue de l’Ombre Double and Sur Incises. Dialogue was composed for Berio’s 60th birthday, and Berio moved Boulez to write the short piano piece Incises, which was followed by Sur Incises.

A small ensemble came out to perform a chamber version of Berio’s "O King," from the massive orchestral work Sinfonia. The transcription calls for piano, violin, cello, flute, clarinet, and solo soprano, but Boulez substituted a cup-muted trumpet for the vocalist, saying that Berio loved transcriptions and would have approved. The sustained tones, with their pinging accents, were elegantly played, and the trumpet-player (unfortunately unspecified in the program) gracefully evoked the soprano in this respectful elegy.

Early Boulez was represented with the Sonatine and Notations, with the flute and piano work first on the program. Flutist Catherine Ransom and pianist Joanne Pearce Martin made the work dance while easily navigating the tricky meter changes. In addition to the dancing, these members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic aggressively tossed the salvos of violent counterpoint back and forth. Ransom sailed through the flutter-tongued and staccato passages. And if some notes weren’t quite perfect, well, that happens when playing challenging works outside and taking chances.

The Notations were performed by Mark Robson, Assistant Chorusmaster and Assistant Conductor of the Los Angeles Opera. Mitsuko Uchida was scheduled to perform the work, but had taken ill, and Robson, more than merely covering, gamely stepped in. He brought shimmering, Debussyan pastels to the first, marked Fantasque-Modéré, and played down some of the more violent clashes in the work. By bringing out the French colors so important to Boulez’s music, though, the relative lack of aggression can be forgiven.

Martin Chalifour, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, performed Anthèmes, composed in 1992, and made the work’s complicated internal workings sound as logical as Schubert does. He made music out of each phrase, and never got lost in any of Boulez’s thickets. The piece was turned into a work for violin and electronics, Anthèmes 2, in 1997, and it is easy to hear the later work in the first. The glissandos that ascend to oblivion, the detaché staccato passages, and the trills all sound lacking when compared to Anthèmes 2, but Chalifour at least made these connections possible to hear, with technique to spare.

The first half ended with Dialogue de l’Ombre Double, performed by the LA Philharmonic’s Principal Clarinet, Lorin Levee, who performed with the same intelligence as his peers. Dialogue calls for the performer to record a series of "Transitions," a "Sigle initial’ and a "Sigle final," which are played on six loudspeakers surrounding the audience. This "spatialization" of the sound, along with dimming the lights on the soloist during the recorded interludes, creates a stark contrast with the lone musician onstage. The recordings and the soloist only overlap at the beginning and end of their respective sections. This being an outdoor concert, the recorded clarinet extracts were spatialized along with the chirping of crickets.

After intermission, the CalArts New Century Players performed Sur Incises, with Boulez conducting. The work is scored for 3 harps, 3 pianos, and 3 percussionists, who play pitched percussion instruments. The pianists all performed with a glassy, detached tone throughout the work, the better to hear the overlapping sonorities and pounding counterpoint Boulez composed. This was not a relaxed, comfortable performance: each phrase was played with conviction, and the Players were intense and attentive to Boulez’s usual pinpoint conducting style. As in the Notations, there are many moments where resonances are allowed to hang in the air, and, in the open air, they held the audience spellbound.

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