Music / Berkshire Review / Opera

Openings: Boston Musica Viva plays Boulez, Marteau sans maître, and Nelsons and the BSO present Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier

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Pierre Boulez
Pierre Boulez

Boston Musica Viva
Tsai Performance Center, Boston University
September 24, 2016

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall
September 29, 2016

One hoped and expected there would be performances of Pierre Boulez pieces in Boston this season to honor this great musician who died last winter. The Berlin Philharmonic, hardly a local group, will play one piece on its visit here in November. I don’t see anything else on the horizon. So, many thanks to Boston Musica Viva, our fine contemporary music ensemble now in its 48th year, for opening its season with Boulez’s perhaps most significant work, Le Marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a Master, 1954-57).

This roughly 40-minute piece consists of nine movements (or an Introduction and eight movements) for a soprano/mezzo and small ensemble, four of the movements setting poems of Surrealist poet and French Resistance fighter René Char. The title of the piece does not “mean” anything, nor do Char’s lines:

The red caravan on the edge of the nail
And corpse in the basket
And plowhorses in the horseshoe
I dream the head on the point of my knife Peru

and so on. Surrealist artists—poets and writers, visual artists—presented shocking images and shocking juxtapositions, and thereby sought to stir up and release deep and repressed desires in readers or viewers, leading to a disruption of civilization as we know it, and political transformation—very ambitious. Boulez takes Char’s poems in a rather different direction. He joins them with his music to create a radical openness to possibilities of meaning, feeling, and direction or purpose. We are far beyond the Freudian unconscious, recognizable passions, and issues of this-worldly change. We know not where we are, in a way almost unprecedented in the arts. We are on another planet, which is our own.

Boulez wrote the piece using Arnold Schoenberg’s tone row technique for strict ordering of notes in non-tonal music—no easy-to-follow melodic and harmonic movement, no comfortable resolutions to home keys—and used even further ordering controls for the duration of notes and how they are “attacked” (played staccato or legato). One does not hear the structuring patterns, but one senses a deep ordering as it were behind the scene—unstructured music does not sound the same as this. Moreover, the “invisible” structuring allows the composer great freedom and creativity (not all composers are capable of this; Boulez was). Even with the structuring there are infinite choices to make, infinite possibilities. A great achievement of the piece is its unique sound: Boulez uses viola, flute, guitar (no bass instruments), and percussionists playing vibraphone, xylorimba (resembling balafon or marimba), various drums, gong, tam-tam, and more, as well as voice, to produce a somewhat Asian sound, but not really—it is simply ethereal/sensual and like nothing else. There is a constant change of rhythm, stimulating and disorienting at once. Is this music? Where might it go? Are these words? What might music and words become? Some of the piece’s movements without singer are called “commentaries” upon one or another of the poems. What is it for music—this music—to comment upon words—these words? One is put into a steady alert-making suspense about such questions.

Richard Pittman led the ensemble in a remarkably poised and rhythmically clear rendition. Boulez’s own account for his DG “Complete Works” is more flowing and sensuous. Some accounts are more aggressive. I really appreciated the light BMV cast on the piece, keeping a certain distance from the sensuality, making us feel the start-and-stop of the rhythm—it was dance-like. Jennifer Ashe sang with all the virtuosity and precision demanded by such music, but with a creamy and attractive voice bottom to top more than what is usual in contemporary music performance. She kept us aware of the humanity at the heart of all this strangeness.

The Boulez came after intermission. Yu-Hui Chang’s “Binge Delirium” (2007), a virtuosic percussion piece, virtuosically performed by Robert Shulz, made for a good curtain-raiser. And the ensemble offered the premiere of its commission from Chang’s Brandeis University colleague David Rakowski, “Arabesques I Have Known,” a three-movement work featuring the group’s excellent pianist, Geoffrey Burleson—a bit monotonous but worthwhile. The best balance for the Boulez was Steven Stucky’s “Cantus” (2015), commissioned by BMV and premiered last season just after Stucky’s premature death—another master recently gone, at a much younger age than Boulez. This piece for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and battery of percussion, creates, like the Boulez, a unique sound world, in this case lush, rich, polyphonic as compared to the Boulez. A couple of rising figures suggestive of bird cries go through constant permutation with an endless singing effect, cries rising from the rich background, all ending with manic, firm gestures upward, easy to associate with a dying man’s final words in a positive vein, looking beyond.

R. Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier: Andris Nelsons, Renée Fleming, Franz Hawlata, Susan Graham. Photo Winslow Townson.
R. Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier: Andris Nelsons, Renée Fleming, Franz Hawlata, Susan Graham. Photo Winslow Townson.

On the very evening of this Boston Musica Viva concert the Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its season with Andris Nelsons leading a performance of the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, which everyone seemed to find dazzling. I caught up with BSO the next week for its first regular subscription program, a concert presentation of the complete Rosenkavalier (1911) of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which was an indeed dazzling event. This great opera presents adult, complex characters undergoing the pain—and in some cases certain ecstasies—of life changes. The feelings are serious, though the artistic mode is comedy, even allowing for some slapstick—Strauss called the work “Comedy for Music”—an operatic tradition going back to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Rosenkavalier’s principal character, the middle-aged great lady Marschallin Marie-Thérèse, suffering the loss of her young extra-marital lover, Octavian, shows a mix of love of life, sensitivity to passing time, fear, consciousness of God, underlying melancholy, and in the end bravery and a commanding deportment in public—all reminiscent of opera’s largest characters: Mozart’s Count and Countess in Figaro, Verdi’s Violetta in La Traviata, Wagner’s Hans Sachs, Brünnhilde, and Wotan… Has Der Rosenkavalier opened the way for any subsequent opera? Might it still?

The characterization of the Marschallin and the others here is made possible by a canny and powerful musical embodiment on the part of Strauss, drawing the 18th-century setting and story, with its social hierarchies and prejudices (still enduring in Strauss’s day? enduring even now?), through the medium of late-19th-century lushness (waltzes, colorful large orchestra, Wagnerian-Mahlerian free vocal declamation), spiked with modern dissonances and musical distancing devices. The large Act I is especially impressive, inflecting many musical styles, never resting, to follow the psychological evolution and dramatic interaction—from the prelude suggesting sex, to the early-morning intimacy of the lovers chatting, and on through the step-by-step disconcerting intrusion into the Marschallin’s boudoir of servants, merchants, an Italian tenor (gorgeously sung here by Stephen Costello), a trio of aristocratic orphans seeking charity, and finally the Marschallin’s coarse relative Baron Ochs, seeking help to execute his engagement with Sophie Faninal, the young rich daughter of a bourgeois family, and at last the Marschallin left alone, feeling metaphysically alone, looking in the mirror and reflecting on her life. In Act II Octavian, as a relative of the Marschallin and Ochs, visits the Faninals and presents the traditional silver rose to Sophie to seal the engagement, and the two fall in love singing a sublime duet with Sophie’s stratospheric high notes—she seems a creature from as strange a planet as Boulez’s—Octavian, the young man, being of course a role for a woman, a mezzo-soprano, adding a dimension of gender flux to the whole proceeding akin to the love narratives of Strauss’s contemporary Marcel Proust (and going back to Mozart’s love-and-sex-sick young man Cherubino in Figaro and other “trouser” roles of that era, and before that Shakespeare’s romantic comedies, where women—played at the time by boys—disguise themselves as men and are fallen in love with by women—played by boys…). After much rambunctiousness, where the coarse Baron Ochs insults Sophie and is challenged by Octavian, and then fooled by Octavian dressed as a girl, to expose himself as a lecher, Act III ends with perhaps the most beautiful writing ever for female voices, in the Trio where the Marschallin gives up Octavian to Sophie and the two exult and also feel some uneasiness, and are then left alone to resume the duet from their first meeting.

Andris Nelsons led a grand, flexible, colorful performance, spectacularly well played by the orchestra. The orchestra sang when it needed to, spinning long lines, and shocked and jolted with plenty of bite when that was called for. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Voices Boston (children) were superb—full of life and dramatic commitment—as was the entire, very large, cast of soloists. Most of these have long experience in their roles, and they fully acted them out, suitably costumed, moving about the stage, using props, so one ended up feeling one had witnessed and heard a full production, getting as close to this opera as possible. Soprano Renée Fleming as the Marschallin commanded the stage throughout Act I in her home and during her return in the latter part of Act III when she intervenes to set right the chaos at an inn with the young lovers, Ochs, and Sophie’s father, Faninal. Fleming was in great voice, her German diction clear (something I have complained about in the past), every word and note seeming deeply meant, also every gesture of body and face, as she lived out this role. Mezzo Susan Graham as Octavian does not at this stage have the face of a 19-year-old boy, but she is tall and lithe, moves about with agility, and sings as strongly as ever, winning one entirely into belief in her in the part. She was very funny disguised as a girl, a simple maid in the Marschallin’s service, to mislead and embarrass Ochs. Soprano Erin Morley sang Sophie’s challenging music with ease. She is small and has a lovely, expressive face surrounded by feathery dark hair—she was believably attractive to Octavian, even in comparison with Fleming’s Marschallin, and showed both vulnerability and pluck. Every soloist was good, right down the line of 20 or more. If the principal women hadn’t been so fine, bass Franz Hawlata would have stolen the show as Ochs. In grand voice, he was funny and grotesque, but all too real as an upper class man with a scary sense of entitlement about women’s favors. Seems they are still around.

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