MUSIC : Soldiering on the Front Line

John Henken is a Times staff writer

I n their surface images, at least, Peter Sellars and Pierre Boulez seem almost classic opposites--Dionysian fire and Apollonian ice. The stereotyping, however, overlooks the director-impresario's analytical acuity and the composer-conductor's ready wit.

The L.A. Philharmonic and the Ojai Festival have brought the pair together for their first collaboration, a production of Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du soldat."

"The Soldier's Tale," created in the waning days of World War I with the help of Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz, is an overtly populist telling of a Russian folk story. Boulez, in his fifth stint as artistic director of the Ojai Festival, has paired "The Soldier's Tale" with Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" for opening night, Friday at Libbey Bowl in downtown Ojai.

In parallel conversations, Sellars and Boulez talked about the production and such divergent topics as music and culture in society and the recently deceased Olivier Messiaen (Sellars is staging the French composer's opera "St. Francois d'Assise"--with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the L.A. Philharmonic--for the Salzburg Festival in August, and Boulez was a pupil of Messiaen's at the Paris Conservatory).

On the phone from the East Coast, the peripatetic Sellars proved typically ebullient. Boulez, in his dressing room after a rehearsal with the Philharmonic, was aphoristic until aroused about the need for performers and conductors to do more contemporary music.


Question: So, what are you planning for "L'Histoire du soldat"?

Answer: We'll just do a nice little production. (Laughter.) This was written in difficult times at the end of World War I, to be performed off the back of a wagon. It was written to be a cheap piece to do, quickly, under emergency conditions. We'll do it off a pickup truck.

Q: Literally?

A: Certainly. I hope we'll take the production around Los Angeles next year.

Q: We've heard a lot recently about the arts "healing the city." Can this be part of the process?

A: Once again, the arts were nowhere to be seen. This is extremely topical. The Gulf War is a contiguous experience. We have a country that is adopting the same posture and applying the same solutions to Los Angeles.

The only solution anyone can come up with is a military solution. This is the tale of a National Guardsman. We've seen plenty of soldiers lately. It's very much about what we're living through.

The whole point is you've just come off the battlefield, and the devil is waiting for you at home. Stravinsky and Ramuz had a strong moral vision.

Q: Who else is working with you on the project?

A: The set and costumes are by Diane Gamboa, whose fantastic show "In the Name of Love" just opened at the B-1 Gallery in Santa Monica, and the choreography is by Donald Byrd. The team is terrific.

Q: How has the collaboration with Boulez gone?

A: Pierre, of course, is really terrific and perpetually youthful--bright and funny, and always to the point. We've known each other for a long time.

Q: How much is he involved in your ideas?

A: He doesn't know exactly what I'm going to do, because I don't either. This was a very opportune way to start working together, informal and artistically flexible.

Q: Unlike, say "St. Francois d'Assise" at Salzburg?

A: (Laughter.) By way of contrast, yes. That's a kind of vast and overwhelming undertaking. Just the numbers are staggering. It's designed for the vastness of the stage at Salzburg, and then to go on to the Bastille--and we've just found out that it's too big for the Bastille, something nobody thought was possible.

The set is one element that will be quite amazing. We have one of the last remaining great cathedral artists making a cathedral out of wood on one side, and on the other side will be an extremely elaborate video program. We will have 150 monitors scattered throughout, and one mile of fluorescent tubes. I think it's necessary to match the grandeur of Messiaen's music.

I've shot 30-40 hours of video in Southern California--the deserts and the mountains, birds and flowers--that will be played during the opera in very sophisticated layerings. The performances last from 4 to 11 p.m. with a dinner break, but it will not be dull.

Q: Will the video elements include supertitles?

A: No. The text is comparatively short, and I think it can be read beforehand and during the break. The state of consciousness in this piece is not primarily a textual one, and the production is focused around visual transformations.

Q: How is Messiaen as a theater composer?

A: "St. Francois" is an opera whose immensity we've tried to answer in the production. It's really a series of visionary tableaux that take the audience out of time, into a kind of hyperspace of spiritual rapture.

If your vision of theater extends to religious rites, Japanese Noh drama and Robert Wilson, you'll find it gripping. If you're interested in the life of the mind and the life of the soul, it's marvelous. We're used to a theater that's largely very materialistic.

Q: Such as Salzburg? This doesn't sound like something we would have expected from Salzburg in the Karajan era.

A: In his first season, (Gerard) Mortier has put together four new productions of pieces that are very relevant to our times. "Salome," which is about decadence and corruption; "La Clemenza di Tito," which is about political betrayal and the need to forgive one's enemies so that society may move on--very powerful against the backdrop of events in Eastern Europe; "From the House of the Dead," which asks the question of what liberty means, also set against Eastern Europe, and "St. Francois," which is about a vow of poverty in a materialistic age.

Q: Can something healing, or even confrontational, be expected to work in a comfortable, monied atmosphere like Salzburg?

A: One of the reasons I love doing opera is because you are addressing the power structure, because that's who's in the audience.


Question: What factors go into the programming for something like the Ojai Festival?

Answer: First, you think of the number of rehearsals you can have. We began by being more ambitious. I wanted each concert to have a contemporary work, but that needed more rehearsals.

This is utopian versus realistic programming. I would have liked to do a premiere, but it just wasn't possible.

Then we knew that we wanted to have 20th-Century classics, and a theatrical evening with Peter Sellars. "Pierrot Lunaire" is a kind of counterpart to "Soldat," theatrical but in a different style. Both use small groups, so it is possible to rehearse them outside the orchestra schedule.

Q: How do "Pierrot Lunaire" and "L'Histoire du soldat" work together?

A: "Pierrot" is both a flamboyant end to the Romanticists and a kind of Berlin cabaret, a high-class cabaret contrasted with the populist theater of Stravinsky. "Pierrot" is a kind of imaginary theater--you don't need a lot of props--and "Soldat" is a theater of the poor.

Q: In the past, you've expressed some serious reservations about the viability of much contemporary music theater.

A: I still do. I particularly don't like the musical theater where the musicians are supposed to be actors. That's usually so amateurish.

Q: What do you expect from Peter Sellars?

A: I first met Peter when we were involved in consultations considering the future of the Bastille Opera--which did not turn out as we expected. I was struck immediately by his imagination.

Q: Sellars considers "L'Histoire du soldat" a highly topical piece in the aftermath of our civic violence. Do you need to know, or concur in, his ideas, so that there is no contradiction between his approach and yours?

A: You can make allusions to society. A good piece, I think, is generous enough to give birth to many interpretations.

I'm not against it. I accept ideas, of course, that I don't have. But I don't want to be put into a straitjacket. Concepts are fine, but they must be adaptable. Your original ideas are there to be destroyed.

Q: At the Salzburg Festival this summer, you will be conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the third of the programs you have done here this month (the final performance is today). Is there anything different about planning a program for that situation?

A: Not really. In Salzburg, this program--Berg, Bartok and Debussy--is the most classical, as planned among others I will be doing there. I'm doing my "Repons" twice with the Ensemble InterContemporain, and then a very different but complementary Bartok, Debussy and Boulez program with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Q: You mentioned the need for more rehearsal time as being one of the limiting factors for doing premieres and contemporary work. Does the difficulty of the music also contribute to the reluctance of audiences to accept, or even confront, contemporary music?

A: There are many reasons for that. I don't put the blame on audiences, generally. If performers would do more, the problem wouldn't be so big.

How can they always do the same pieces, their Beethoven and Brahms? I find in that a certain poverty of spirit. It's all right to have this museum of music, but to never go out of it . . . ?

They say it is impossible to play, but when they put the blame on the music and not themselves, it is they who are impossible.

They never put themselves into question--I can't imagine living like that. You have to ask yourself, "Do I do enough, do I have an opinion?"

Q: Amateurs, particularly chamber musicians, used to be among the main consumers of new music, yet they too now confine themselves mostly to earlier music. Is this a loss for the composer and the art?

A: That era is long gone. Who could really perform Liszt and Brahms when they were new? Music is based on the exceptions--exception was the rule of the 19th Century. You cannot blame the 20th Century for specialization.

I was brought up in a very small town, playing chamber music. But I have to ask myself what would have been better--listening to a recording carefully with the score, or performing it? I doubt if you grasp completely the music when you are so concerned with just playing your part.

Q: But of course, few people do that kind of listening to recordings. There is a big difference between the experience of a recording and a concert.

A: It's like having a good picture of somebody, and actually seeing him. Recordings are important as documents, and important for people who live far from the city centers. The danger is that people have a fixation on certain recordings, and then they think that that performance is the score--which puts them in a straitjacket.

Q: What is the place of Messiaen's music in our century?

A: For me, it's a kind of meeting point of many currents, like the rhythmic innovations of Stravinsky, modal language and--very important--the opening to non-European traditions.

Q: How has your own music changed through the years?

A: I'm much more aware of how to achieve very difficult results with very simple means, and that's what virtuosity is all about--the difference between virtuosity and clumsiness.

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