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).
Lion in winter. Concert audiences now whoop and whistle for their artists, and I couldn’t help but wonder how this affects Maurizio Pollini. At sixty-nine, he has been before the public for fifty years, ever since winning the Chopin International Competition in 1960 at the age of eighteen. His white hair is wispy on top (this is art, so let’s call it an aureole). He still walks briskly to the piano and hits the first keys with unnerving alacrity. When Rosa Ponselle made her London debut, the veteran diva Nellie Melba gave her a friendly warning: nothing but nothing could induce British audiences to give a standing ovation. Dame Nellie was reportedly quite put out when her young American rival earned a standing ovation at Covent Garden every night. Pollini earns the same, even when he ends his program, as he did last night, with Boulez’s fearsome Piano Sonata no. 2. One way to insure that posterity will consider you a fool is to mock modern music, but in the annals of unapproachable and uningratiating works, the Boulez sonata must attain a kind of summa.
It was the title of the concert that first caught my eye, a pun and a gratuitous film reference joined in unholy wedlock, with no objections raised from my pew. Then I noticed the performers. The Guildhall Ubu Ensemble are apparently no mere youth orchestra composed of Guildhall students, but “the musicians of tomorrow playing the music of our time.” I would condemn the arrogance and dubious accuracy of that statement, were I not too busy praising the superb choice of name and happily envisaging a future where all musicians pretend to be influenced by seminal proto-Surrealist literature.
Schoenberg and his two most famous pupils, Webern and Berg, appear to be everywhere this season, receiving the most polished performances by the most distinguished musicians and ensembles. This is a somewhat absurd understatement when one speaks of the likes of Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Serkin, Alan Gilbert, John Harbison, David Hoose, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, and, soon, James Levine, but polish and musicianly mastery are the bare minimum for this uncompromising music, which is difficult for the players and, at least by reputation, for the audience. It is important to realize, however, that once performances are as plentiful and as excellent as they have been in New York and Boston over the past few months, the difficulty for the listener seems miraculously diminished. I’m sure all of these conductors have given serious thought to making this body of great works accessible and appealing to concert-goers, and all of these performances have been eminently accessible, with no trace the smoothing-over or dumbing-down.
To hear a program of music by Mahler and the members of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern) five days after the earthquake in Haiti is to experience questions about the role that the arts, and music in particular, plays in our lives. Burke and Kant recognized two categories of artistic experience, the beautiful and the sublime, one characterized by orderliness, balance, and grace, the other by overwhelming power. Beauty is associated with the works of humans, and the sublime with the acts of nature (and/or God, depending on your persuasion). Both pieces on the second half of the Vienna Philharmonic’s program (Webern and Mahler) contained climactic moments that can only be described as devastating, as close as art can get to imparting the experience of disastrous loss. As we read the papers about the destruction of a country, we struggle to find the connection between our own lives and the unimaginable suffering and trauma being experienced by our neighbors and fellow humans. Music can help.
For most of its history music criticism has been almost as fleeting as music itself. If a person, for whatever odd reason, wanted to read a review of some past concert, it would have been necessary to consult a newspaper archive in a library, hardly a Herculean task, but an effort in comparison to the instantly-available databases we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. And, now that print journalism seems to be dying out, and publications like our own Berkshire Review for the Arts maintain permanent access to all published articles (and there is a readership for some of them long after the event they record) it is easier than ever.