Répons at the Armory (Review)

Park Ave. Armory
Répons at the Park Ave. Armory. Photo: Sarah Palay.

NEW YORK – On October 6 & 7, 2017, Park Avenue Armory presented Ensemble Intercontemporain, conducted by Matthias Pintscher, in Répons, a major work by the recently deceased French composer Pierre Boulez. It was the first time that the composition has been heard in New York since one of its early incarnations in the 1980s (the Times was hard on him then). Boulez was an inveterate reviser, and the electroacoustic component of this piece continued to evolve with successive technological innovations. It is also the first large-scale work to be mounted here since the composer’s passing in 2016.

Park Ave. Armory

The performance of the roughly fifty-minute long work consisted of two renditions, back-to-back with only a short intermission (many of the principals had worked up a sweat by the end of the evening; justifiably so!) For our section of the crowd, the first performance found the ensemble and Pintscher seated in the center with the audience surrounding them; with their backs facing much of the audience. Brass textures and the section’s seemingly ceaseless mute changes were on full display; some of the string passages were distant-sounding as a result. For the second hearing, the audience moved to a different vantage point: from our seats the musicians and conductor faced us. There was more clarity in all of the parts.

That said, the change of seating was not a wasted gesture: it made for some fascinating listening to the roles of the various sections in the construction of the work. For my seat partner, a theatre person, it was a treat that permitted one better to assess the affects of lighting and the staged quality of the gestural components onstage. Pierre Audi, mise-en-space, and lighting designer Urs Schönebaum did an excellent job of providing an expansive environment equal to the space in the Armory. The use of global changes of lighting suited the piece far better than would have a busier set of cues.

The seating change paid another dividend: one got a different earful of what was going on behind and around the audience.  Soloists Samuel Favre, Gilles Durot, percussion (mallet instruments); Dmitri Vassilakis, Hidéki Nagano, piano; Frédérique Cambreling, harp; and Luigi Gaggero, cymbalum, were seated in an outer circle, surrounding the audience and the interior cohort of musicians. Their music was treated to amplification and electronic manipulation by longtime IRCAM sound-smith Andrew Gerzso, who worked alongside Gilbert Nouno and Jérémie Henrot, two of IRCAM’s sound designers, to create the impressive and well-balanced spatial effects.

Score for Repons
Score for Répons,
published by Universal Edition.

Répons is labyrinthine in its complexity, formidable in its difficulties. That said, there is a jubilant air to its challenges. In particular, the sensuous nature of the bell-like solo parts, particularly the percussionists’ mallet instruments and the cymbalum, proves irresistible. Although there is much angularity and virtuosity on display, as one finds in a large amount of Boulez’s later work there are also pitches and chord complexes that help to under gird the proceedings and provide the listener with a sense of trajectory amid the flurries of activity. I was quite grateful to have a perusal copy of the score to consult. Universal’s edition of the score is clearly notated and has an elegant layout. Despite the many divisi in Répons, it allows for manageable study of the piece’s materials and flow.

There was palpable enthusiasm from the large number of attendees at the October 7th concert (I opted for this one to celebrate my birthday with Boulez!). It will be interesting to see how reception for his work evolves. Boulez had a somewhat fraught tenure with the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s, but he remained highly regarded in contemporary music circles and his music has hardly been neglected in New York. A memorable performance from a few years ago was a scintillating traversal of Dérive 2 at Miller Theatre. Thus one hopes that the Armory performances will be the first of many retrospectives. The strength of Ensemble Intercontemporain’s presentation should no doubt help to encourage further investigation of Boulez. It was a marvelous event both from the musical and theatrical points of view.

Performance at IRCAM

Sunday Morning at FCM

TMC Fellows perform Anders Hillborg's Brass Quintet during FCM, 7.24.16 (Hilary Scott)
TMC Fellows perform Anders Hillborg’s Brass Quintet during FCM, 7.24.16 (Hilary Scott)

The Sunday concert at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music is always something of a marathon. It starts at 10 AM and is chock full of offerings that usually challenge the ear as much as tantalize it. The Sunday concert has traditionally also been the one that tests the capacities of the TMC Fellows most thoroughly. This year was no exception, although it was a horse race between Sunday’s chamber music concert and Monday’s presentation of Messiaen’s formidable Turungalila-Symphonie, a work that vibrated and thundered with intensity, shaped with eminently detailed care by conductor Stefan Asbury.

 

Ander’s Hillborg’s Brass Quintet is one of his most often played pieces, and one can readily hear why. Its opening antiphonally spiralling textures reveal a kinship to a more recent orchestra piece, Hillborg’s Vaporized Tivoli: both make a similarly captivating impression. There is an excellent use of repeated note textures, and the bold harmonic language makes it clear he’s studied a fair bit of Copland.

 

Brett Dean’s Sextet (Old Kings in Exile) is a cleverly crafted Pierrot plus Percussion piece with a number of scoring touches that set it apart from the average piece in the genre. There’s the clever use of percussion, with bowed vibraphone and gongs occurring simultaneously to create a two-headed beast of an instrument. The middle movement gives a nod to Carter’s Triple Duo by splitting the ensemble into a double trio. There’s also some mid-movement scordatura that changes up the harmony and proves to be quite an impressive feat from the strings. Jonathan Harvey’s Song Offerings, settings of Tagore, featured soprano Sarah Tuttle. The piece combines several of the composer’s harmonic interests, including spectralism, microtonality, serialism, and modality. Glissandos and melismas are ably deployed to further variegate the texture.

Guest conductor David Fulmer leads TMC Fellows in Pierre Boulez's 'Derive 1,' 7.24.16 (Hilary Scott)
Guest conductor David Fulmer leads TMC Fellows in Pierre Boulez’s ‘Derive 1,’ 7.24.16 (Hilary Scott)

David Fulmer has appeared at Tanglewood as a string soloist and composer. In the intervening time he has added conductor to his resume, and he did a fine job leading two pieces on Sunday’s concert. The first was Pierre Boulez’s Derive 1, one of his finest chamber pieces from the 1980s. Much shorter than his later Derive 2, seven minutes compared to nearly an hour, it is a compact utterance, but an eloquent one. Long sustained harmonic regions are parsed out again fast melodic filigrees and rapid trills. Christian Rief led Franco Donatoni’s Arpege, a piece that was originally a vibraphone piece and was later built up to a Pierrot plus Percussion Sextet. As one might expect, the vibraphone’s arpeggios lead the proceedings, in a curious amalgam of post-tonality and minimalist figuration. The ostinatos appear in almost “locked hands” scoring at first, then gradually stagger to create a lustrous shimmering from the ensemble.

 

Fulmer returned to the podium to conduct Harold Meltzer’s song cycle Variations on a Summer Day, settings of Wallace Stevens. The cycle has grown over time; I saw an earlier performance at Symphony Space that had, if recollection serves, around eight songs. It has since expanded to sixteen. Not only are the Variations longer, they have become more elaborate. There is a use of microtones in the winds that is quite attractive. The vocal part, here performed by the estimable Quinn Middleman, takes up far more vertical real estate, casting down into a nearly contralto register and up to high soprano notes. Middleman is billed as a mezzo soprano and her effort here was impressive, but I’m curious if subsequent performances might benefit from using two singers, a mezzo and a soprano, to better capture the distinct registers required by the songs. It is clear that Meltzer has lived with the poetry for a long time, and his settings of it are imaginative, ranging from terse utterances to attractively varied textures. Those who eschew the morning hour on Sundays at the Festival of Contemporary Music miss out.

Happy 90th Birthday Pierre Boulez

Composer and conductor Pierre Boulez turns ninety today. This year will see a number of celebrations of his nonagenarian status. Two boxed sets by recording labels with which he has long been associated up the ante for audiophiles.

Pierre Boulez – 20th Century (DG 0289 479 4261 0) is a 44 CD boxed CD featuring Boulez conducting a panoply of music by 20/21 composers: Bartók, Berg, Birtwistle, Debussy, Ligeti, Messiaen, Ravel, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Varèse, Webern, and Boulez himself. Handsomely yet snugly packaged, it will fit well on the shelf of any enthusiast of modern music. The set was released in February as a limited edition.

March 31st sees the release of Pierre Boulez: The Complete Erato Recordings (Erato 0825646190485), a 14 CD collection. It includes recordings by Xenakis, Donatoni, Grisey, Dufourt, Ferneyhough, Harvey, Höller, and others. These more recent compositions make the boxed set an excellent and complementary companion to the DG set.

Is the prospect of nearly sixty CDs a bit too daunting a starter kit or refresher course? Then perhaps you might prefer Harmonia Mundi’s flash sale. Over at HM’s USA site, you can pick up the Wergo recording of Boulez’s early but essential Structures (WER 6011).

However you choose to celebrate Boulez’s birthday, do celebrate. The contributions he has made to 20/21 concert music can scarcely be measured – even on 57 CDs!