Vela Pulsar

Gérard Grisey’s “Le Noir de L’Étoile” at Yellow Barn, Putney, VT, Friday, May 25 at 8.16 pm

On 25 May 2012,  Yellow Barn presented a unique event: an open-air performance of Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Étoile. This roughly hour-long work for six percussion players encircling the audience was Grisey’s response to his discovery of the sound of pulsars. Neither Grisey, although he taught at Berkeley  for four years, nor the largely European movement to which he belonged for a while, Spectralism, is very well known in the United States. Last year’s American tour by Les Percussions de Strasbourg in which they played Le Noir de l’Étoile (for a review of their Lincoln Center performance, click here) and the New York Philharmonic residency of Grisey’s pupil, Magnus Lindberg, have done something to correct that. Susanna Mälkki recently conducted Grisey’s 1977 work, Modulations, with the San Francisco Symphony, reviewed here by Steven Kruger.

Conductor Susanna Mälkki. Photo Simon Fowler.

Susanna Mälkki conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Grisey, Prokofiev, and Sibelius, with Horacio Gutiérrez, piano

Music making, one supposes wryly, can sometimes be a battle of influences. In this instance, simply put, how does one reconcile late romantic Sibelius with the compositional methods of Pierre Boulez? The very thought might give one chills….

I was intrigued to hear IRCAM’s Susanna Mälkki recently, and not simply to touch base with the new generation of influential women at the podium. I wanted to experience how her musical approach would walk the line between cerebral pointillism of the Boulezian sort and the kind of broad Barbirollian phrasing favored by Leif Segerstam, with whom she studied. Mälkki was one of the principal cellists in the Gothenburg Symphony — for Sibelius lovers a considerable entry on the romantic side of the ledger — but I find myself disappointed to say that in this instance the French modernists appear to have won most of the battles of influence.

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