Music Review : Pierre Boulez Concocts a Gallic Feast


Pierre Boulez isn’t a very sentimental man not on the podium, at any rate--and he doesn’t care much about dubious traditions.

Thursday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Gallic master conducted an extraordinarily responsive Los Angeles Philharmonic in a stimulating evening of French music--music presumably close to his heart as well as his homeland. The results, for the most part, involved revelations.

For the most part? The qualifier is ironic because it applies not to the familiar robust virtues of Boulez’s Debussy and Ravel, but to the challenge of some unfamiliar music by Boulez himself.

The novelty, receiving its West Coast premiere, was “Le visage nuptial,” a.k.a. “The Nuptial Countenance.” A convoluted cantata evolving around five sensual poems by the surrealist Rene Char, it spans a rather dense and difficult half-hour.


The history of the piece is significantly tortuous. The first version, an introspective chamber effort, dates back to 1946, when the composer was barely 21 and still developing under a benign spell that fused the expressionism of Alban Berg with the exoticism of Olivier Messiaen. On several occasions over the decades, a restless Boulez expanded, thickened and toughened the structure drastically.

The current edition--massive, heroic, even portentous--materialized only in 1989. At last, according to Kathy Henkel’s illuminating program notes, Boulez regards his problematic opus as “finished, finished, finished.”

It may be that. But is it good, good, good?

The evidence on Thursday, alas, didn’t seem particularly positive. Char’s hot emotions are contradicted at virtually every turn by Boulez’s cool, analytical restraint. The erotic imagery of the text often gets submerged in turgid modernist formulas. The crucial words uttered (also mumbled, screeched, floated and slathered) by a pair of virtuosic sopranos and women’s chorus tend to get obscured by symphonic clangor.


The sound washes are interesting, but there isn’t much dramatic contrast here. The appeal to the intellect outweighs any appeal to the emotions. And despite Boulez’s celebrated concern for clarity uber Alles , the textures often resist penetration.

Perhaps the cantata has undergone too many muddling transformations over too long a time span.

Perhaps W.C. Fields, an old musicological sage, was right. “If first you don’t succeed,” he said, “try, try again. Then give up. No sense being a damn fool about it.”


The Philharmonic performance, politely applauded by a full house of first-nighters, seemed competent at worst. Phyllis Bryn-Julson and Lucy Shelton, avant-garde divas par excellence, executed their high-wire duties fearlessly. So, I think, did the women of Paul Salamunovich’s Los Angeles Master Chorale, trained by Grant Gershon (his program credit was printed so small, only an ant could read it). Boulez’s bare-hand signals--no old-fashioned baton for him--enforced calm accuracy even in moments of cataclysmic stress.

Calm precision also marked the conventional portions of the concert. But here the cerebral approach proved an interpretive advantage.

The Parisian maestro certainly does not subscribe to the theory that Debussy and Ravel were wispy wimps whose music must sigh and whimper, whisper and shimmer, in order to achieve stylistic purity. Boulez likes to deal in primary colors as well as fragile pastels, and, thank goodness, he doesn’t like to dawdle over obvious effects.

He opened the program with an unusually solid yet sensitive performance of Debussy’s “Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune.” Then, after his own centerpiece, he brought suave momentum and even a soupcon of charm to Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’ocean,” in contrasting tandem with the non-aquatic splash of the same composer’s “Alborada del gracioso.” Finally, he made mighty, taut, tensely disciplined waves in Debussy’s “La mer.”


Incidental intelligence:

* Although the gentlemen of the orchestra sported their now-customary white tie and tails, Boulez, ever the individualist, asserted sartorial independence with a tuxedo.

* The concertmaster chores were shared by Sidney Weiss and his associate, Alexander Treger. This odd variation on musical chairs is usually played here only for concertos.

* Los Angeles Philharmonic concert, to be repeated tonight at 8, Sunday at 2:30 p.m., at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center. Tickets $6-$50 (also senior and student discounts), (213) 850-2000.