If we are to believe the usual wisdom that Los Angeles is a town in the thrall of typecasting, how are we to explain the extraordinary reception Pierre Boulez got at the Japan America Theatre Tuesday night?
How is it that the West Coast premiere of a major new work by the master of complexity could be given so warm and enthusiastic a reception here, on the coast where the first skirmishes in the Boulez rebellion, which gave us Minimalism, occurred 25 years ago? After all, when Boulez's new high-tech 35-minute flute extravaganza, " . . . explosante-fixe . . .," had its American premiere a couple of years ago at Carnegie, New Yorkers were decidedly lukewarm, and a great many walked out.
Is Los Angeles really more musically sophisticated than New York? Or are local audiences more easily snookered by a very intimidating French intellectual?
Neither, I suspect, is the case, given the evidence of a recent mini-survey of Boulez's works, which included not only Tuesday's Green Umbrella program by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, but also a performance of Boulez's most famous early work, "Le Marteau sans Mai^tre," performed by the Southwest Chamber Music Society over the weekend.
Two clues to this enigma were offered at preconcert talks. Conductor Jeff von der Schmidt, before the Sunday evening performance of "Le Marteau" at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, noted that although one can now find laborious analyses that will reveal the function of every one of the zillions of notes in the dauntingly intricate score, he wasn't particularly interested. Boulez himself noted Tuesday, "I may be wrong, but I'm right for me," speaking about why he reversed the order of two short pieces, "Derive I" and "Derive II."
These were both extraordinary statements. The fearsome importance of notes that only an obsessional expert could explain have always been considered the true modernity of Boulez's music. And Boulez will probably never be allowed to forget just how angry a young man he once was, insisting that his dogmatic path of systematically controlling every pitch, rhythm and timbre be followed on penalty of irrelevancy.
But, ironically, now that Boulez is, perhaps, slightly irrelevant himself (the revolution against him having made both Minimalism and Neo-Romanticism the prevailing styles), it may be easier to see the real value of his music. He is a composer with an ear for the kinds of exotic sounds that have long been the hallmark of West Coast music; he layers his material with the fascinating skill of a special-effects wizard, and he exploits virtuosity for the same theatrical reasons that Liszt and Paganini did.
It has been said hundreds of times how businesslike a conductor and composer Boulez is. Yet one of the great acts in music today is Boulez conducting his short 1965 masterpiece "Eclat," as he did once more Tuesday night.
Boulez here is hardly different from, say, Teller, when the magician, Penn's straight-faced partner in a business suit, does something you simply can't believe. Boulez leads "Eclat," written for all manner of resonating percussion, that way. His conducting looks like sleight of hand, a remote-control signaling of a dazzling array of thrilling resonances. There were literally oohs and ahs from the audience.
" . . . explosante-fixe . . ."--which requires three solo flutes and choirs of strings, woodwinds and brass along with a special computer rig set up in the middle of the audience--exploits a similar, if more up-to-date, form of theatrical sonic trickery.
The computer, however, seems to do less than advertised. However sophisticated its programming is in responding to real-time music, the main effect is to give a pleasing technological sheen to the proceedings, pleasant, that is, to anyone who enjoys the brightness that loudspeakers can add (but possibly sheer torture to anyone allergic to flute sounds). The amplification will surely be useful when it is repeated Saturday night as part of an all-Boulez program at the outdoor Ojai Festival.
The real pleasure of the work is in the instrumental writing and Boulez's ability to completely absorb the listener in an ever-changing essence of overwhelming flute sonorities. The principal solo flute (performed by French flutist Sophie Cherrier) is a MIDI instrument, hooked up to the computer, (with surprisingly attractive colored wires), and it is echoed by the two other acoustic flutes (the Philharmonic's Janet Ferguson and Catherine Ransom). But all the other ensemble instruments seem to be attuned to the flute as well, either supporting its timbres or sounding as if they were fractured versions of them.
The Southwest players did not sound quite as impressively liberated from the notes as the Philharmonic did under Boulez, though "Le Marteau" was not without sonic charm, and the soprano, Phyllis Bryn-Julson, a veteran Boulez performer, was gratifyingly rock-solid.
Luciano Berio, the Italian composer who was often credited with humanizing Boulez's modernist school, also made a musical appearance on these programs. Bryn-Julson gracefully and dramatically sang "Sequenza III" and "Folk Songs"; the Philharmonic's Thomas Stevens' offered the unfailingly effective trumpet showpiece written for him, "Sequenza X." This is the kind of Berio that normally steals the show. But on these nights, Boulez proved a trouper with the best of them.