Music review: Pierre Boulez and a certain Chicago flutist in New York

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

NEW YORK -- Pierre Boulez, who will turn 85 in March, has slowed slightly. He was here in concerts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Saturday and Sunday nights at Carnegie Hall, and his purposeful, businesslike walk on and off stage was no longer very quick. The pace is now merely quick.

The first night’s program ended with a concert performance of Bartók’s opera, “Bluebeard Castle.” A 1993 recording with the CSO is 58 minutes long. On Saturday he took 59, although the extra minute might well have happened to accommodate the needs of different singers.

Boulez is Boulez. On the podium he appears no less vigorous than he was when he last conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic six years ago, shortly after the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall. And vigor is just what is needed to take advantage of the powerful Chicago Symphony, of which he is conductor emeritus. Boulez, who became the CSO’s principal guest conductor in 1995, has, along with another senior European conductor, Bernard Haitink, been guiding the orchestra through a transitional period without a music director. Daniel Barenboim stepped down in 2006; Riccardo Muti takes over in the fall.

Boulez’s performances with Chicago were of interest for another reason as well. Lately, the CSO and L.A. Philharmonic have become rivals. The appointment of Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles was announced when he was making his premiere with the Chicago Symphony. Chicago at the time was shopping for a music director, and had just fallen big time for the young Venezuelan.


And now there is the Mathieu Dufour scandal. The CSO’s principal flutist had been trying out with the L.A. Philharmonic this season, but he suddenly left Los Angeles in the beginning of January to return to the CSO. The Chicago Sun-Times quoted him as saying of the L.A. Philharmonic, “They have no tradition there – no tradition of sound and no tradition of working together as a dedicated ensemble.” He’s denied that, but the Sun-Times stands by the quote, and the damage has been done.

Dufour was very visible at Carnegie. He appeared as soloist in Marc-André Dalbavie’s Flute Concerto Saturday night and he also had prominent solos in Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” which concluded the Sunday program. He played splendidly.

But I’m not sure that such dedication to a sound is all that desirable. In its fourth season without a music director, the CSO may be a little hung up on maintaining some illusory sonic identity. Does the orchestra really want to hang on to the hard-edged, slaughterhouse approach that Georg Solti made famous in Chicago forever?

Actually, under Boulez, the CSO has a refined, exacting Boulez sound. Like a lion tamer on the Carnegie stage, he whipped the players into shape with his precise, mesmerizing hand gestures. And, at least as far as the winds were concerned, Dufour seemed his right-hand man.

Maybe the orchestra was just nervous Saturday night when it opened its first program with Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” There was some exquisite playing, but only some. Dufour was offstage waiting to go on as soloist in the Dalbavie concerto, and the winds were curiously full of grit.

The concerto, which was written in 2006 by a French composer and former Boulez acolyte who has an exquisite ear for sonority, really does ask for a dedication to a sound – a polished French sound, that is. In this attractive 17-minute score, the flute flares up with fast scales that integrate into shifting harmonic clouds in the orchestra. The ear is more enchanted by color and shapes than by strong ideas.

In Bartók’s opera, on the second half, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung was a spirited young victim of the mythical wife-killer. Falk Struckmann was an unusually sympathetic Bluebeard, strong yet tormented by his deadly fetish. Seven doors of his castle are opened, each to reveal a horror captivatingly evoked by Bartók and made sensationally vivid by Boulez.

Sunday evening began with his own brief “Livre pour Cordes.” Boulez hardly seems to grow old, and he doesn’t like his music to either. This piece, which represents his most rigorous early style, was expanded from a string quartet begun in 1948 to a string orchestra piece that had its final revision 40 years later. It is exquisite, eventful music, full of darting gestures and tiny brilliant explosions. The Chicago strings have a tendency toward thickness, but they were here fleet as well.

Boulez contrasted his string music with Bartók’s Concerto Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra, which doesn’t use strings. Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich were the gripping piano soloists, and the sonic shards from percussion, winds and brass were dazzling.

For the “Firebird,” Boulez made very early Stravinsky sound very modern. Every moment was so fully realized that new dimensions in familiar music were revealed. A spell was created and barely broken by Chicago’s celebrated brass having a bad night.

This was the most magnificent account of Stravinsky’s ballet I have ever heard. But to keep the competition alive, let me add it didn’t erase my memory of the electricity generated when Boulez last conducted the ballet in L.A., 14 years ago.

-- Mark Swed

Related stories:

Flutist Mathieu Dufour apologizes to L.A. Phil

Boulez is a perfect fit