"M. Boulez at my house at 9:30,” wrote Olivier Messiaen in his diary in 1944. “Likes modern music,” he added. It was the understatement of the century. Pierre Boulez went on to become the perfect avatar of the postwar avant-garde, the one who permitted no compromise, no concession, no half-way, no consideration of values.
-- Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise
It never ceases to amaze me that Boulez, this ultra-modern, ultra-avant-garde, ultra-anti-establishment composer, whose thorny intellectual criticisms lashed out at everyone from Schoenberg to Stravinsky to Ravel over the course of his life, is a figure transfigured once he steps onto the conductor’s podium. He led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program that featured Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, Dalbavie’s Flute Concerto, and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle last week that showed just how deeply dedicated he is to the music of those composers.
The concert, part of an 85th birthday celebration for the CSO’s Conductor Emeritus, kicked off with Ravel’s Tombeau, a collection of four dance movements that recall both a bygone golden age of French music and the friends that he had lost on the front lines of the first World War. Calling the work simplistic would be a gross overgeneralization, but there was a definite naiveté at times that Boulez brought forth through his understated conducting. Sweet music, like the menuet’s opening oboe solo over a lush bed of strings, set the stage for a climactic finale that featured the oboe and english horn particularly well as they traded phrases back and forth seamlessly.
Mathieu Dufour, Principal Flutist of the CSO and the current subject of a minor kerfluffle with the Chicago Sun-Times, stepped in front of the orchestra for Marc-André Dalbavie’s Flute Concerto, which had its charms despite not being a virtuosic barnburner. Played particularly well, as is the norm with Dufour, the flute solo was more like an additional voice in the orchestral texture, interspersed among open-string quartal chords and pillars of harmonic density.
The main event was undoubtedly Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, which takes the adage “Be careful what you wish for...” to a whole new level. Judith (Michelle de Young) sang with vulnerability as she arrived at her new husband’s brooding castle for the first time, remarking on its damp walls and darkness. As five doors within are opened at her insistence, the castle’s secrets are revealed, shedding light on her new husband (Bluebeard, sung by Falk Struckmann)- the walls are covered with blood, and his power and wealth have been built on cruelty and deceit.
As the fifth door is opened, Bluebeard’s kingdom is revealed to Judith, and the CSO’s infamous brass section burst forth in all its blazing glory. Unsatisfied until she knows every last truth about her husband, unable to turn back, Judith demands that the remaining two doors be opened, causing a descent back into darkness and sealing her fate in Bluebeard’s imprisoning fortress.
Boulez never faltered as he led the CSO through this drama, and there’s no doubt that the orchestra pays closer attention and plays more cohesively under his direction. Little touches like the spot-on supertitles and interaction between de Young and Struckmann went a long way towards making an already interesting work positively riveting.