“Has anyone anywhere ever done anything like this?” Peter Yates asked when he began a chamber music series with an all Bartók program in the rooftop studio of his modest Silver Lake home on April 23, 1939. It was a rhetorical question. Nope, no one was giving home-grown concerts of leading figures in new music.
Soon enough, Schoenberg and Stravinsky and Cage would be climbing the stairs to Evenings on the Roof, and Ives would be sending scores that no one else was interesting in performing. But it was, perhaps, the advocacy of French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez that most represented the series’ gift of prophesy in the 1950s. Thus, a tribute to Boulez ended the season of what is now called Monday Evening Concerts this week, a month after its 80th birthday, in the Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall.
The long-running MEC-Boulez relationship began with the U.S. premiere of a young French firebrand’s experimental and soon-to-be-withdrawn “Polyphony X,” which The Times found “weird.” A fascinated Stravinsky attended all the rehearsals, and you can hear an allusion to it in his ballet score “Agon.”
In 1996, Boulez returned Stravinsky’s favor in “sur incises,” his most extensive late work, which is for three pianos, three harps and a tangle of percussion instruments handled by three players. The sonorities of Stravinsky’s four pianos in “L’Histoire du Soldat,” Boulez said at the time, were in his head.
It just so happened that not only did Boulez make his U.S. conducting debut with the MEC but that his last concert in America was also a performance of “sur incises” he conducted at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2011. (With his eyesight failing, his conducting career was all but over and he died five years later.)
The theme for the MEC program was “Élégance Brutale,” describing a meticulous composer unafraid of dangerous choices, and it was built around “sur incises.” There is no question that the work has made a mark. Before conducting a recent performance in Berlin, Daniel Barenboim insisted that “sur incises” is to the 21st century what Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” was to the 20th.
The meaning of “sur incises” is “around” the short piano study Boulez called “incises” (interpolations). Monday, then, was sur “sur incises,” that is, an occasion for some imaginative 20th century perspective. The brutale for the work may have come from Stravinsky, but the élégance is all Debussy.
For this, MEC dug through the Boulez archives for another early, never published Boulez score, a completion the composer made in the early 1950s of Debussy’s “Musique de Scène pour les Chansons de Bilitis.” These are short musical interludes illustrating narrations of the stylized eroticism of poems by Pierre Louÿs. Debussy never got around to finishing it (just as Boulez never got around to finishing too much of his own music), and the completion was music for hire, essentially written in Debussy’s style.
But the orchestration for pairs of harps and flutes, along with a celesta, gives Boulez away. Already, he is demonstrating his incredible ear for sonorities with multiple instruments and dazzling percussion that would become the hallmark of “sur incises.”
Exquisitely played and narrated alluringly by Eva Dolezalová, the acoustical scene was first set by a performance of Debussy’s solo flute “Syrinx” radiantly raining down on the stage, courtesy of Christine Tavolacci stationed in a balcony. The “Bilitis” scene was then followed by Toru Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree” for three mallet instruments, further setting the “sur incises” scene. Gloria Cheng, who was one of Boulez’s favorite pianists, brought brutal elegance to Toshio Hosokawa’s short “Haiku for Pierre Boulez.”
The performance of “sur incises,” which was conducted by percussionist and MEC artistic director Jonathan Hepfer, made a case for the work being not so much a new kind of music for the 21st century, just as “Rite” was for the 20th, but actually a new “Rite.” That is to say it was more brutal than elegant.
At 44 minutes, the reading required nearly seven minutes more than Boulez’s recording. This didn’t necessarily mean it felt slow. Harps, pianos and a host of percussion instruments can sound like being in a forest of gongs, and more time needs to be allowed for reverberation in a sold-out concert hall than in a dry recording venue. There are a lot of bodies for the plucked, banged and struck fortissimo chords to bounce off of.
Rhythm was mastered, and that is primary. So was timbre, also primary. Many passages were arresting, particularly when multi-instrumental clatter coalesced into an effusive ringing that seemed to set all the molecules of space into planetary motion. Thunderous unison pounding had a primitive force. Drama was at hand.
Still, this is complex, dynamically intricate music. When played with forced insistence, those extra seven minutes contributed less the sense of music around “incises” than a perilous insistently circling, a delaying of the landing. What was not for a sublime “sur incises” second, though, was the MEC insistence that its Boulezian DNA contribute to making this the longest-lasting new music series in America. We should all be so vital at 80.