I know Boulez is supposed to be a great conductor--something about structural clarity--but I've never gotten the sense that his interpretation is the best--that is, until I heard him lead the CSO through Debussy's La Mer Friday night. Also on the program are his Symphonic Fragments from the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Ligeti's Violin Concerto, and Ravel's Mother Goose Suite. The program repeats on Saturday November 27 at 8pm. More often than not, Boulez makes the orchestra sound really good but without taking any chances that could lead to any sort of transcendence. But in the case of the pieces on this program, it was magical.
rvw: Boulez works magic with CSO
The program opened with a relatively obscure set of pieces by Debussy--4 Symphony Sketches from The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Not too light, never ponderous, the set of sketches opened the concert with a reverie that wakens into a dream that is perpetually approaching wakefulness--all that in the first sketch. Lush orchestrations but simple, the pieces sound like Debussy imitating the more (neo)classical mentality of Ravel, cleanly executed by Boulez.
Then came Ligeti's violin concerto, an effervescent journey through the clouds, like the soloist, CSO concertmaster Robert Chen, is soaring through an obstacle course in the sky, moving through interlocking gates of 5ths, avoiding cascades of raining high notes, and only rarely having a foundation in the bass from which to leap. Chen's virtuosity matched the incredible demands of the score, intellectually sensuous yet not unemotionally detached, and received heaps of ovations from the enthusiastic crowd.
After the intermission, Ravel's Mother Goose Suite was, perhaps, too similar to Debussy's opening piece. Ravel's work, however, being much more well known, demonstrated why: more than just a succulent concatenation of sonorities and rich orchestration, the work has more shape and significance.
And to conclude, the piece that much of the audience came to hear, braving the sub-freezing Black Friday temperatures: Debussy's La Mer. Boulez took the first movement a bit quicker than I've heard and avoided any over-dramatic tempo manipulation, which, for me, caused the piece to sparkle. Or maybe it was the orchestra: there was something more rich, more brilliant about the tone of the orchestra that helped me get lost in a world of sound. And for once, the sound, the notes, the music trumped any visions of ships on the ocean.
This was a great program from start to finish: incidental music as preface and interstice to more serious works, leading the audience from start to finish without holding any hands.
Totally Recommended. (Go see it with your one last chance.)