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at Curtis Hall, Fine Arts Building

March 5, 1988

Last fall, when composer Pierre Boulez came to Chicago for his first extended stay here in almost 18 years, he enthusiastically agreed to coach young Loop Group performers. This local 20th-century music ensemble was to perform Boulez's masterpiece Le marteau sans maitre ("The Hammer Without a Master") in a concert originally scheduled to coincide with Boulez's memorable two-week October residency as guest conductor for the Chicago Symphony. State support fell through, however, and the performance had to be rescheduled for early March, at a time when Boulez would be touring Australia with his own L'Ensemble InterContemporain.

Boulez's interest in the Loop Group is a sign of its growing importance, for he is arguably our greatest living figure in music. Once a radical, outspoken enfant terrible who advocated that concert halls and opera houses be burned to the ground because they were dead monuments to an irrelevant past, Boulez is now known as one of the world's greatest interpreters of that past. The leading serialist--or twelve-tone composer--of his generation, who once said that serialism would become "the only musical direction of the future," Boulez later abandoned and today dismisses the entire movement as "a moment in music." The frustrated artist, who once vowed he'd never return to his native France, has now headed the world's largest experimental music research center for over a decade--IRCAM (Institute of Research for the Coordination of Acoustics and Music), located in Paris at the Centre Pompidou.

Contradictions? Not for Boulez. As he put it recently, "I don't want my statements to be frozen--they should always be tied to a date. Such statements serve a purpose for a particular moment, and then we move on. Life must be in constant movement and flux, never static." Indeed, as Boulez now approaches 65, the flux of life has taken him from rebel to pillar of contemporary music. Musicians from Sir Georg Solti to Frank Zappa genuflect to Pierre Boulez.

To hear a major Boulez work performed live is always a great and rare privilege, as the overflow crowd gathered for this concert at Curtis Hall indicated. This was by far the largest audience I have seen at a Loop Group concert--despite its innovative programming, it has usually attracted the same small group of composers, students, and friends that make up the audiences for most Chicago New Music events.

This audience was treated to what Boulez himself refers to as "my Pierrot Lunaire," a reference to Schoenberg's classic work, which was as innovative and influential in the first half of the century as Marteau has been in the second, since its first performance in 1955.

Although the title is taken from the title of (recently deceased) French poet Rene Char's 1934 set of surrealistic poems, this is hardly program music. Boulez assumes that the listener knows these three poems or has access to them, and builds on that assumption; the words and syllables are often stretched out melismatically over time, weaving in and out of complex and colorful instrumental timbres made up of flute, viola, guitar, xylophone, vibraphone, and percussion.

Marteau was the second half of this Loop Group concert. In his intermission fund-raising announcement, the group's founder, president, and guru Ray Wilding-White remarked on how difficult the work would be to perform, but the warning proved hardly necessary. It was immediately clear that Marteau was being performed by a capable but nervous ensemble, walking on eggshells the entire time. The group had all they could do just to count the work's awkward rhythms and metrical changes and make proper entrances--which, for the most part, they did, thanks to the precise but very slow beat of conductor and Loop Group music director James MacDonald.

Unfortunately, the fact that just playing the score was so taxing meant that many of its subtle nuances of color, balance, and dynamics were lost. Although Marteau is a fiendishly difficult work, and to play it at all is a feat of remarkable virtuosity--let alone to play it as well as the Loop Group did--the fact remains that, for it to work its full magic on the listener, it must not sound difficult. I am reminded of the observation often made about actors--that there are some who want to "show" their acting to an audience, and others who want to engross the audience so fully that the acting disappears. Likewise for New Music: a pianist such as Maurizio Pollini can make the Boulez Second Piano Sonata sound like Schumann, making us forget that New Music is supposed to be difficult to play and to enjoy. As Boulez himself has so aptly put it, "You must be convinced to be convincing." It is a pity that a player's injury prevented the Loop Group from rehearsing with Boulez as planned last fall, for all that such talented young performers need to become a first-rate ensemble is strong musical leadership and more time playing together.

Local mezzo-soprano Neva Bailey did a fine job of expressing the breathy, dreamlike quality that the score calls for, although the non-French-speaking audience members had little idea what she was singing, since the program printed the poems only in the original French, providing no English translations.

The first half of the concert featured surviving sketches from a "lost" opera of Claude Debussy, La chute de la maison Usher ("The Fall of the House of Usher"), with a libretto by Debussy based on the famous short story by Edgar Allan Poe.

In 1976 a Yale graduate student in Paris stumbled upon some Usher pages while doing Debussy research at the Bibliotheque National. Under the guidance of a Yale professor, she proceeded to reconstruct a performing version of about one-third of the opera. Debussy may have left the opera more or less completed in rough-draft form before his death in 1918, but it seems that pages of the score were torn out and given away as souvenirs by Debussy's widow after his death, leaving only the first 21 pages or so intact. More and more of the lost pages began to surface, however, and by 1977 a version was prepared that is believed to contain about two-thirds of the opera.

The Loop Group gave the work its Chicago premiere, presented in concert form in one act and two scenes. It was generally sung adequately by Jane Green, Sheldon Atovsky, John Murrya, and David Huneryager. In lieu of orchestral accompaniment, Robert Pherigo provided an accurate but slow piano accompaniment that unfortunately lacked the mystery we associate with Debussy.

That this incomplete work was presented unstaged, without orchestra, and with little attention to dynamics, and that it was sung by singers difficult to understand, generally in poor French (with no libretto or plot synopsis in the program--either in French or English), prevented this from being the revelatory experience it might have been under better circumstances.

Still, the Loop Group is to be congratulated for its clever, innovative programming and its commitment to its stated purpose--to present 20th-century works performed by the finest young Chicago talent. Fulfilling that goal fills a serious void in the Chicago music scene.


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