Orchestra 2001 Gives Philadelphia Premier of Boulez Work

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The most recent concert of Orchestra 2001, featuring the Philadelphia premier of Boulez’s landmark Le marteau sans maître was billed as “the new music event of the year” by the Philadelphia Inquirer. I must admit that I went into the concert unsure of that designation, thinking that the world premier of two works by Jennifer Higdon by the Philadelphia Orchestra earlier this month, or last September’s premier of Crumb’s American Songbook V: Voiced From a Forgotten World would better fit that description. After all, the Boulez piece is more than 50 years old. Attending the concert there could be no mistake you were suppose to feel that you were at a major event: I’ve never seen Lang Concert Hall so packed for an Orchestra 2001 concert and both the program notes and conductor told the audience that they were in for a very difficult, but very rewarding piece. And at the end of it I can conclude that although the performance was perhaps over-hyped it was a very interesting and very worthwhile performance.

Boulez was famous for being difficult in almost every way possible. He was difficult to get alone with and would cultivate close artistic and personal friends before viciously turning on them publicly, as he did with John Cage. His works were very complex and rigidity serialist that were both difficult to play and sometimes difficult to listen to. He was the quintessential modernist of the 50’s and 60’s even if he would later be eclipsed by others as far as radicalism is concerned. Le marteau sans maître is in some ways a departure from that since he wished to compose a piece that more than anything communicated on an artistic, human, and emotional level while also being of the most impeccable and complex serialist provenance. In this endeavor he succeeded greatly and Orchestra 2001 gave a very fine performance of this achievement this past weekend.

The piece is scored for a very unusual and small ensemble: alto flute, guitar, viola, alto voice, and a small battery of percussion including vibraphone and xylophone. The sounds generated by this ensemble are as strange and exciting as you can imagine which is why it makes sense that the Philadelphia Inquirer would characterize the concert as they did. This music sounds new. The 1950’s and 60’s saw a huge amount of musical experimentation where it seemed like one year’s avant-garde was deemed to conservative for the next year’s. Much of this experimental work did not make it into the classical repertory even of modern music. In many ways modernist music is a thing of the past even though it can often sound so new and unusual, so an opportunity to hear one of the modernist masterworks should not be passed up (even if it isn’t the easiest listening experience) because it rarely comes along these days.

Le marteau sans maître is divided into nine movements some of which are settings of three surrealist poems by Rene Char while the other movements are instrumental commentaries or interpretations of the poetry. The voice is used in a particularly revolutionary way (especially for 1955). It is more of an instrument than anything else used for color and intensity more than for conveying the words of the poetry. This is also very appropriate for the poems themselves which are more concerned with mood, color, and weird imagery in a surrealist fashion than for the realistic depiction of a scene or narrative of the story. The vocal writing reminds me of how Penderecki would later use the voice, especially in his early vocal works such as the St. Luke passion, which is one of my favorite works by my favorite modern composers. Freda Herseth gave an absolutely wonderful and gripping performance of the daunting vocal writing.

Boulez’s music is very complex in its application of serialist technique, especially in Le marteau sans maître, and it can certainly take a little bit to get used to it especially if you’re not used to atonality or serialism. But the sparse scoring makes the music very transparent so that it is easy to follow and at least hear what is going on with each instrument, even if it’s not readily understandable. Only in the last movement are thick and resonant sounds heard from the gongs which act as a stunning counterpoint to the very clear sounds used before.

In such a complex and sparsely orchestrated score as this every player must have the skill of a talented soloist in order to pull it off. This is one of the reasons that the piece is known as one of the most difficult of the 20th century, and why 10 rehearsals were needed to prepare for the performance. Everyone played extremely well tackling the complex and interlocking rhythms, which moves from complex music to sudden silences, very well. Especially noted was Christina Jennings on alto flute during her solo accompaniment of the voice in the second movement and several solos using virtuosic fluttertonguing. The only complaint that I had with the performance was that there was an intermission in the middle of the piece (although conductor James Freeman did say that Boulez called for a long pause between the movements). It was as if the orchestra was unsure if the audience could take 40 minutes of difficult atonal music in one go. But the last movements grow in complexity, length, and emotional and coloristic impact while drawing on earlier material and it would have been nice to hear that development uninterrupted.

If the middle section of the concert was taken up by a challenging and uncompromising piece, the concert was bookended by more palatable – and tonal – pieces. By far the better of them was Allen Krantz’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, a guitar concerto based on Blake’s cycle of poems. The orchestration is nearly identical to Copland’s Appalachian Spring and there are constant charming references to the feeling of that piece. The drama and story in the music is immediately accessible in a form of musical populism similar to Copland’s and the concerto for wind quintet that Coleman premiered at the last Orchestra 2001 concert. Although the piece wasn’t nearly as complex or exciting as the Boulez it was enjoyable to listen to. Unfortunately the opening sonata for viola and piano by Kenji Bunch – with the composer on viola – wasn’t as enjoyable. The central lament never captured me emotionally or make me care about the subject of the lament and the several complex virtuosic passages seemed to be all about technique with no emotional content.

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