BSO Plays Music of Messiaen, Boulez, and Berlioz

Et expecto ressurectionem mortuorum, Olivier Messiaen

Notations I-IV, Pierre Boulez

Harold in Italy (Op. 16), Hector Berlioz

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Friday, 24 October 2008

Sometimes I worry that my particular brand of love for Jane toes a fine, but distinct, line between nuisance and comedic relief. She puts up with a whole lot: I constantly talk to her during lecture, disturb her while she’s in the middle of her experiments, push my fiber pills on her like I were a dealer, tell her dirty jokes (loudly) when we’re in public and insist on detailing the most horrific details of my ever-faltering love life.

Don’t think for a moment that I don’t appreciate it.

So Friday night at BSO’s Repartee Series was supposed to be my shot at bit of normalcy. The BSO’s concert series is aimed towards an interesting slice of the concert-going population, an audience between the ages of 21 and 38. The entire point of the evening was to try not to embarrass Jane: not only was I on my best behavior, but I had even dressed up to go to the symphony. And the reception was spectacular — light guitar and violin music accompanied cocktails and crudité in the small room, full of people, we entered that evening — a wide variety of people too, from young professionals to students like ourselves. The conversation was sparkling, the company was interesting, and everything looked good until — well — the program.

Messiaen, Boulez and Berlioz don’t make for an easy evening—the first two were writing in the mid-to late twentieth century whose names are often synonymous with inaccessible and the third is the often-maligned, early nineteenth century French composer whose Romantic style and appreciation of Beethoven have earned him infamy. Oh, poor, poor Jane — I really did try this time.

That said, the Repartee Series was surprisingly effective. Introductory remarks by BSO cellist Mickey Katz initiated a dialog with the audience about the very contemporary music they were about to hear—and surprising too: Mr. Katz certainly encouraged the audience to pay attention to specific details of the music and this was expected. What was surprising to hear was that even Mr. Katz even tends to zone out. It was a relief that in an evening full of incredibly difficult music, here was one of the initiated telling us it’s OK, even expected, to be bored with some of it.

But what a concert it was: Western music, in many ways began in the cloisters of the cathedral of Notre Dame with the development of polyphonic organum as formalized by Leoninus and Perotinus. It’s this same tradition that haunts us nearly one millennium later, as French composers returned to the Gregorian chant tradition as a basis for composition. Olivier Messiaen’s Et expecto ressurectionem mortuorum, acknowledges this tradition and incorporates these ideas in very novel ways with different ideas surrounding tonal systems. Composed with an ensemble of wood winds, brass, and metallic percussion, the work explores Messiaen’s deep appreciation and faith in Catholic mysticism combined with pan-cultural spirituality.

It’s a difficult work (and loud) to listen to. Messiaen’s work was a stately expression of majestic grandeur. Friday’s performance was careful to balance the intellectual groundwork of the music with the deep spirituality that pervades it. Levine’s BSO centered around the central motifs and plainchant-like motives that offer a narrative for the piece and, most importantly, make the piece interpretable.

But more than interpretable, Messiaen’s work was moving — it was crushing to hear the plaintive De profundis in the first movement, through the chorale sections in the third movement, and ultimately uplifting to hear the driving pulse of the gong in the fifth movement — and I heard the voice of a great multitude.

It’s not to discredit the concert, however, that the Boulez offered no such consolation. As with the Messiaen, the work was thoughtfully performed. Pierre Boulez, a student of Messiaen, approaches music from a very different perspective in his orchestral transcriptions of his piano work Notations I-IV. The contrast was not unwelcome — to hear Messiaen’s bold phrases compared to Boulez’s dense orchestral texture highlighted the vast spectrum of thinking in the late twentieth century, even within works stemming from a similar tradition.

It was initially disappointing to conclude the evening with Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy (Op. 16): Although it seemed anticlimactic to end the evening with music from a French composer writing in the early nineteenth century, Levine’s programming revealed the virtue of re-listening to traditional music with new ears.

After an evening with Messiaen and Boulez, Berlioz’s ear to the non-traditional became obvious: a programmatic symphonic viola concerto, the work tells portions of the Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Perhaps most novel, however, were passages that might have been written in the past century—confusing shifts of tonal center punctuated the first movement while a transcendental viola solo (simple arpeggios in the background of an orchestral march, here, performed expertly by Steven Ansell) highlighted the novel sound world Berlioz was forging. Perhaps most interesting (and novel for Berlioz’s day) was the fourth movement when a string quartet and the viola soloist leave the orchestra and, midway through the movement, play from backstage.

It was surprising that Harold in Italy turned out to be the most difficult piece of the evening. As well as it was performed, I was relieved to see Jane turn to me and gawk at the length of the symphony after the first movement — I had the exact same thought. Sure, it was enlightening to hear Messiaen and Boulez, teacher and pupil, in grand summary of music as it has come to stand now.

Berlioz has his place in this conversation, an innovator thinking nearly fifty years ahead of his time. If nothing else, it was impressive to see the BSO utilize its full talents to faithfully represent music from all walks of composition. And it’s worth having some faith in Levine’s programming order for the evening: it takes hard work, often as much as an evening of straining to understand the music of our own time, to really comprehend the music from a past era.

Friday night’s concert was educational. Although an unconventional and initially terrifying experience at the symphony, what made the evening so gratifyingly difficult is also what made the evening so rewardingly interesting.

Jane. Maybe it’s just best to think of all the cool stories you’ll have to tell …