The Los Angeles Philharmonic is understandably fixated on its move to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in the fall. Opening the nearly completed hall to press and photographers last Wednesday, the orchestra might have been in danger of overshadowing its final concerts in its home for nearly 40 years, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But now that Pierre Boulez has arrived to conduct the orchestra’s final Chandler concerts, visions of the Mouse House have been temporarily vanquished. For the moment, the Chandler is the place to be.
At 78, as conductor and composer, Boulez remains a breath of fresh air. Saturday night in a program of Berg and Bruckner at the Chandler, he made the last major pieces by these Viennese masters sound as if the composers were somehow still with us. The personality of Boulez’s own music is found in its vast circuits of complicated details that create a sparkling aural electricity. And in the same way he illuminates Berg and Bruckner, making them his own.
Berg’s Violin Concerto proved remarkable through a combination of wisdom and youth. The soloist was young. Performing the concerto for the first time, Jennifer Frautschi, a 30-year-old violinist from Pasadena with a fast-rising career, brought a dark, soulful, substantial tone to a 1935 score that Berg wrote in memory of Manon Gropius, who died at age 19 and was the daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler. Berg himself died eight months after completing the concerto, and it is often played as a requiem for the composer, especially since the second movement is pervaded by a quotation from Bach’s somber chorale, “Es ist genung” (It is enough).
This performance, though, was teeming with life. Boulez has long been famed for his clarity, his ability to bring out inner details, although he is also accused of sterile literalness. In fact, the literalness has more to do with finding what makes music tick so that he can actually make it tick and thus liberate it. The clarity Boulez enforces is a technique of expressivity; he understands that each inner line has something to say, and he creates an environment in which the individual performer can say it and the listener can hear it -- even in the acoustically muffled Chandler.
Frautschi is a forceful and thoughtful player, but it was her impetuous youthfulness that was most persuasive. She was her own violinist in this performance, sometimes so much so that her passionate personality seemed slightly at expressive odds with the orchestra’s. But she never inappropriately dominated, and Boulez masterfully allowed soloist and orchestra to coexist and play off each other.
Boulez has come to Bruckner only recently, and he might seem perfunctory to reverential Brucknerians who like nothing better than to lose themselves in grandiose churchy sonorities. But Bruckner’s greatness was as a pattern maker. He glorified God by creating intricate systems of melodic and rhythmic designs, thickly coated in chromatic harmonies. Boulez shows us the logic and craft of Bruckner, but not coldly. The more you hear, the more there is to marvel at, just as the more science you know, the more amazing and mysterious the creation of the universe seems.
The Philharmonic played supremely well. I have heard Boulez conduct Bruckner’s Ninth with the spectacular Chicago Symphony (a radio broadcast) and with the bewitching Vienna Philharmonic (live). Maybe L.A.'s strings aren’t as creamy as Vienna’s nor its brass quite as golden as Chicago’s, but the local band is more flexible, and it brought a level of electricity to Saturday’s performance not matched by these other famed ensembles.
This flexibility is the key to Boulez’s conducting, which exploits the remarkable speed of his mind and reflexes. In the Scherzo movement, for instance, he seemed to be setting several different Bruckner machines in synchronized motion, each an exacting realization of a rhythmic or melodic line and all fitting together with complex but evident logic. The Philharmonic, facile and alert, got it.
Everywhere in the score, there were revelations. The first movement -- monumental Bruckner -- progressed as a great rush of orchestral power. The slow movement, which ends the symphony, was so cleanly executed that Bruckner’s multifold harmonies glowed like a vision of the future.