Boulez in L.A.
Boulez Meets Gehry
The artists are introduced by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Executive Director. Walt Disney Concert Hall is the outcome, she says, of “a 16-year quest.” She speaks of an “intersection between two iconic figures,” of rendezvous in a “darkened space,” a midnight party with champagne and whatnot. Gehry’s Hall is, in reality, “a metaphor of transformation.” There’s more: “the curves and surprises of this building invite us,” invite us, reader, “to think thoughts we’ve never thunk before.” She didn’t really say thunk, I thunk it up and wrote it for her.
The Ex.D. is evidently a seminarian. F.O.G.’s plan was to build “a living room for the city.” It will open with “a community concert” for “young people.” This is all the expression of “such a magnificent statement.”
We are waiting, but she isn’t finished with her magnificent statements. Passing on to the other featured guest speaker, she quotes Goethe as saying “architecture is frozen music.” F.O.G.’s idea was to have a sonic progression from one note to whatever. F.O.G. “didn’t like the Haydn symphony we chose, but that’s Frank.”
“He will influence the way we listen to music in Los Angeles,” and the nation will follow. With this, she subsides.
The self-described “instigator” of “rigorous and playful debates” is the Director of the Institute for Art and Cultures, Paul Holdengräber. He speaks of joyously anticipating Disney Hall and the glorious opening season, in those words. He thanks all those who made all this possible at such great length it sounds like Oscar night. “And now,” thirty minutes into the program, “I think it’s time to begin this event.”
Holdengräber rather resembles Tim Curry with a Germanic accent. F.O.G. looks like Steven Spielberg’s father, and Boulez is looking Belmondoish.
F.O.G.: Where’s Ernest?
This is Ernest Fleischmann, the former Executive Director who first brought F.O.G. in to put balls on the Hollywood Bowl shell, ostensibly to improve the acoustics, thirty years before.
FLEISCHMANN: (In the audience.) Where I belong.
Holdengräber puts it to F.O.G.: why music? F.O.G. has just gotten off a plane from Zurich, so he’s a little dazed (Boulez has been conducting the Philharmonic downtown, and preparing for the Ojai Festival).
Why music? Why has F.O.G. taken up the concert hall, at all, at all?
F.O.G.: Walter Mitty... remember Danny
Kaye... thinking he was... something?
HOLDENGRÄBER: I don’t remember.
F.O.G.: At Notre-Dame I heard Gregorian chants... those sounds defined the building for me forever.
His mother took him to concerts. Sir Ernest MacMillan was the conductor. Does Boulez remember him? “No.” (Laughter in audience.) A student of the violin was F.O.G.’s mum.
Why, Holdengräber persists, build for music?
F.O.G.: I’ve been hanging around with Ernest Fleischmann and the Philharmonic for ages, and I’ve sort of related to that.
He first heard Boulez conduct at one of the New York Philharmonic Rug Concerts. I see that someone two rows ahead has dozed off under his chair. No, it’s a jacket. Holdengräber is saying, “the precision and the passion.”
F.O.G.: My idea was to make architecture not imposing and overpowering. There should be a casual character to it, which requires an enormous amount of careful planning and precision.
He discovered that “a conductor doesn’t just wave his hands.” He once dreamed that Ernest called him up to conduct. He awoke in a cold sweat.
HOLDENGRÄBER: Do you ever have such dreams
about architecture, Pierre?
BOULEZ: In my worst nightmares I was not dreaming I became an architect.
Boulez talks about the Rug Concerts, preparing the floor, putting out cushions (“we were worried a little bit there might be cushion fights, but everyone behaved very well”), etc. He describes the Proms at Albert Hall (“That’s a very big hall.”), and the Arena emptied of its seats, with people just standing there for the whole concert. Bad acoustics, he says, mean no contact. The solution is to move the orchestra in front of the stage, have the audience on the stage, and thus “the orchestra is taken within the hall.” It sounds like Répons.
F.O.G.: Disney Hall is a fixed hall. Have we created an anachronism?
Meaning its interior structure is determined and cannot be varied. Boulez answers with a discussion of the spatial apparatus in Berlioz’s Requiem, you want “something more interactive.” He speaks of “a moment of music coming from a moment of the architecture.” He describes conditions at La Cité de la Musique, and briefly discusses two architects he’s had dealings with, the builders of IRCAM and La Cité, respectively.
F.O.G. mentions a problem Boulez has with his pieces, they always must be overtures or first after the intermission, because of all the percussion instruments that must be moved onto the stage. He hopes his solution, which apparently involves raising the back wall when needed, will be found helpful.
BOULEZ: You did it here! Beautiful!
Holdengräber persists with his idea (introducing Boulez, he said he considered it a coup to have found a photograph of Boulez smiling for the program, but that he felt disappointed not to have one of Boulez in a convertible), which is that if Boulez had a nightmare in which he was somehow an architect, what sort of concert hall would he build?
BOULEZ: Well, it is possible to have not nightmares but dreams.
He then presents himself as a sort of Goldilocks (without saying so), with a Big Hall like at La Cité capable of different configurations, a Medium Hall of 1000-1200 seats, and a Small Hall of 500-600. He goes on at some length with his description, until Holdengräber temerariously interrupts him.
HOLDENGRÄBER: I was talking about acoustics.
Without missing a beat, Boulez continues. “Well, therefore...” Holdengräber interrupts him again to say that he once spoke to a régisseur at La Cité who told him that everything is important for the sound, even what people are wearing.
BOULEZ: That’s a little bit overdone.
Some say the sound at La Cité is too dry, but... They have mobile elements to alter the sound. Amplified music (jazz or pop) requires absorbing material. La Cité began five years ago.
BOULEZ: Do we do only quote unquote classical music? No.
Four general types of music are performed at La Cité de la Musique:
Classical—“baroque to extremely
Ethnic—“from the corners of the planet”
Pop—“if it’s very elaborate, not only commercial”
“The mobility of the hall helps.” Gagaku is not treated like classical music.
Holdengräber asks F.O.G. about his “living room for the city.”
F.O.G.: I was misquoted, actually.
Holdengräber then quotes Hockney rather extensively on private vs. public life in Los Angeles.
In answer, F.O.G. describes going to Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall. “Ernest and the Philharmonic set that as a model.” It “stimulates interaction of people both in the foyer and hall.” Not, he says, like the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. He uses the term “Modernist” to describe Berlin’s hall. He ponders the goal: if you can engage people to listen... Is it a voyeuristic thing, to watch people listening? (perhaps he’s thinking of Bergman’s The Magic Flute). “Anybody do that?”, he asks the audience. There is a murmur between assent and laughter.
F.O.G. went to a museum once and saw four Breughels. He pronounces them “extraordinary.” Later, he went back and the museum was remodeling, so the Breughels were in a small room and “didn’t look the same,” so that it took twenty minutes “to get into it.”
Boulez says that at La Cité, a large hall is not so large, and a small one is not so small.
Holdengräber and F.O.G. discuss Boston’s Symphony Hall, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic presented to F.O.G. as ideal, acoustically. “Copy it,” they said. That was a great hall because great musicians had played there.
BOULEZ: You mean that they are missed!
In the course of a colloquy with Holdengräber, Boulez concedes “a bad hall does not help, certainly.” He adds, “you are dependent on these kinds of stupid impressions.” At the Musikverein, the finale of Mahler’s Sixth has a certain sound. The size of the hall is a factor. One built in the nineteenth century will have 1700-1900 seats. “After 2000 seats, problems are happening, because of the space.” At Philharmonic Hall in New York, “which is one-and-a-half times the size of the Musikverein, the sound does not carry to the end,” i.e., the back of the hall. The problem is “psychological,” there is “no contact with the musicians.” Problems increase as musicians cannot hear themselves or each other properly.
F.O.G.: Maybe that’s why acousticians are so conservative. They’re scared.
He introduces Dr. Toyota, Walt Disney Concert Hall’s acoustician, who is seated in the audience. There is a question of guest conductors having different requirements, of stagehands configuring the stage for Mozart “or whatever.”
BOULEZ: You cannot please everybody.
A dry sound, Boulez says, is OK for Haydn, but for Bruckner it’s terrible. A bad hall makes musicians force their playing, whereas a good hall is like...
HOLDENGRÄBER: A good interlocutor.
BOULEZ: Too flattering a hall is also extremely dangerous.
F.O.G.: That guy, Ernest, he was my guide.
FLEISCHMANN: (In audience.) Blame me.
Ernest took F.O.G. to concerts, showed him backstage, the apparatus behind the scenes, what goes on, stagehands, etc. F.O.G. saw Esa-Pekka (Salonen) rearrange the orchestra on risers to reduce its sloppiness. There had been “a gradual denigration of the organization of the orchestra till someone says ‘what a mess!’” What was the reason? “Musicians,” says F.O.G., “are rugged individualists.”
F.O.G. is apparently describing a tendency I have only observed in amateur orchestras, and rarely, where the players load the stage with personal articles. This, he justly observes, is reflected in their playing.
But lest his remark be misconstrued, I would point out how odd it is to sometimes see players in a classical orchestra looking like lackeys, or in a romantic one like employees. Only when Boulez came to Los Angeles to conduct Pli Selon Pli with its vast apparatus did Los Angeles see its Philharmonic as the versatile professionals they are, with all their “gear and tackle and trim.”
F.O.G. wonders how two-hundred-year-old paintings still look fresh. He “relies on natural light” to “caress” his works, it’s “romantic.”
BOULEZ: You are always puzzled, really, by a masterpiece. It seems obvious, but you don’t understand how it came to be so.
He tells a story of Diderot in the dark before a new masterpiece, then seeing the light, and then in darkness again. In response to F.O.G. he says “there are problems I don’t want to be explained.” (Audience laughter.)
Holdengräber brings up computers.
F.O.G.: Inevitably we become obsolete, and there’s a lot of stuff you’re not going to be able to do. The younger generation free-associate and use the technology instinctively, though they haven’t built much.
From idea to construction, F.O.G. explains, “several thousand hands” are involved in his projects. There is a bureaucracy of construction, so the problem is to bring “the whole thing to the end with this immediacy... with feeling.”
BOULEZ: I have no trouble with computers. The computer helps you find material, that’s all. It doesn’t invent thoughts.
He is “interested in the process” but “independent” of it, because he can “create music without it.” But the technology is there, “why not use it?” He speaks of being practically forced to invent “something different. Not a Greek temple, which doesn’t have curves, certainly.”
F.O.G. says Pheidias “thought of curves, movement in sculpture,” etc.
Boulez “visited” F.O.G.’s “Cleveland building.” He was interested that they no longer measure the ground but from other buildings. F.O.G. explains the use of laser pointers for this.
F.O.G.: (To Boulez.) When you compose, how do you think about space?
He’s thinking of Pli Selon Pli, he says, which is “very spatial.”
HOLDENGRÄBER: That’s a good question. (Laughter in audience.)
Perhaps F.O.G. is thinking about the disposition of notes in a good performance, which seem to occupy their own space, filling the hall.
Boulez discusses the distribution of the ensemble in Répons, where the players are surrounded by the audience, who are ringed by computer loudspeakers. F.O.G. brings up Berlioz, who was (according to Boulez) “disappointed” by the large orchestra he tried, as it “could only do slow movements, because of the mass of musicians.” In the open air, cohesion was impossible, etc.
Holdengräber is now ready to spring. In view of Boulez’s requirements for a hall in Paris, “F.O.G. is here.”
F.O.G.: I’ve volunteered for it.
BOULEZ: Who have you volunteered to pay for it?
This hall “is like the monster of Loch Ness, you speak about it always, but...”
“Brahms did this before that, it’s boring to be told that all the time, by a learning process...” It’s important to have “tapes available of new music,” which often suffers from infrequent performance. This should be part of the concertgoing experience. He imagines proceeding “from one hall to another in a promenade, with all this documentation.”
HOLDENGRÄBER: (To F.O.G.) What are your hopes for Walt Disney Concert Hall?
F.O.G. responds by pointing out Dr. Toyota again. “I call him every day and ask him if he’s feeling good.”
“It if makes the musical experience better, great.”
“If the hall is wonderful, then hopefully the response will be wonderful.” (Applause.)
The public is invited to ask questions. What kind of music does F.O.G listen to? He likes things “all over the place.”
F.O.G.: I sometimes listen to Pierre.
Why has he given up the “cheapskate” architecture he used to champion? He hasn’t. The Bilbao Guggenheim only cost “$300/sq. ft.”
La Scala has great acoustics, even in the last row, how come? Boulez explains the hall’s “not long but high, so you don’t lose the energy of the sound.”
This discussion of acoustics finally begun ends there. F.O.G. “can’t announce Disney Hall’s cost publicly yet, you’ll eventually hear it, they packed a lot of stuff into it.”
“Form follows function, I don’t think that’s very important. I don’t... I don’t know... I think... you have to see it for yourself... figure it out.”
The following questions were not asked:
“F.O.G., you once said ‘Every architect who’s any good, no matter what they say, is trying to make some kind of personal mud pie.’ Would you care to dilate on that?”
“M. Boulez, did Xenakis really say you represented ‘something not far from absolute evil’?”
An Ojai Concert
Even before you enter Libbey Park, you’re faced with a maze of trivialities masquerading as an art show, which seems to put the musicians off their mettle.
The concert turned out to have a theme. There’s a motivic idea in many of Boulez’s pieces, or rather a sort of technique which comes out as motoric staccato notes played “with xylophonic precision,” sometimes developed at great length. None of the performers knew how to play this sequence, and the effects were more or less evident, culminating in something of a débâcle.
The Sonatine is a charming work, fitted exactly to its demands for the soloist and the piano. An easy interchange between the accompanist, sustaining the metrical dialogue while relieved of the total effect, and the flute carrying the tune but not obliged to play Bach in ripieno. It stands bold in brisk conclusions, lively themes, alert phrasing and vivid harmonies. Put it in every flutist’s repertoire like the Franck sonata in the fiddle case, irreplaceably.
One had not been forewarned by Los Angeles Times interviews with the musicians belaboring their parts, but it did rather seem that Anthèmes I was played for the gesture rather than the notes, as if the syncopations of the Eroica were not exact dispensations of both. Nevertheless, it’s a new kind of writing for the violin, a very skilled and agile thing that shows off the instrument in all its colors. Perlman should be playing it. Even in an inadequate performance, its strength and richness are incomparable.
Boulez was wrong to withhold Notations from the public for decades. It’s Boulez on a smaller scale, speaking the same language as the First Piano Sonata in brief, and probably the best way for the pianist to grasp the situation at once, if not entirely. Mitsuko Uchida was replaced because of illness by the répétiteur of the Los Angeles Opera, who was a dab hand with it until that sequence left him with no plan of attack.
The only sure success of the whole program, as a performance, was achieved by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s co-principal clarinetist, Lorin Levee, in Dialogue de l’Ombre Double with recorded tape. Afterward, as he took his bows in several curtain calls, he finally patted the music on his stand to signify modestly that he had learned the piece and played it.
So well did he play it that its dramatic consequence became manifest. Rapid figurations and trills suddenly breathed a nuance of Stravinsky’s pieces, answered by the clarinet on tape with a whiff of The Miraculous Mandarin. Back and forth, all expressed in warblings and chirps, until the loudspeakers began to divide under the trees, and again the sound flickered around the park in answer to the soloist, and finally a penetrating scream (or rather a sustained tone) subsumed all the dialogue into a transcendence, and you could understand why someone said once that Boulez should write an opera.
At the intermission, I strolled out the side path over to the playhouse and back, and passed someone saying that Saturday nights were for musicologists, that’s when they play the avant-garde stuff. The same sort of nonsense I heard at Royce Hall one night, after Ginastera’s Harp Concerto.
Sur Incises has the barbaric yawp of steel drums in single notes at various points, with pianos, harps, vibraphones, marimba, bells and timpani. It requires the ability to play that motoric rhythm at double speed all together (it briefly evoked something as seemingly antithetic as Danses Concertantes), and needed about 42 more rehearsals, even with professors of piano on their benches (it was written in 1998). Suddenly, you could understand Stravinsky saying Pli Selon Pli was “monotonously pretty and pretty monotonous.” Is this what he heard, a resonant muddle? That’s not what’s written (amplifying the whole concert didn’t help, Boulez conducting Webern’s Konzert is enough sound), to be sure. A work comparable to the second Structures, the recording proves that.
This was not the first time Boulez has had to muddle through at Ojai. There was the time all the horn players fizzled out in the Four Russian Peasant Songs, or the Rossignol was so out of tune I would have walked out on it whether it was raining or not (it was).
Still, the frogs and crickets heard all night responded to the pool of sound Sur Incises made with a little up and down figure that was pleasing.
Stravinsky is one of the foundations of Boulez’s music, and if you know Schoenberg and Messiaen, you’re home free. Otherwise, it’s rather likely to leave you in the lurch, but where have you been?
It turned out that Berio had died on the Tuesday before (that very night Boulez met Gehry). Berio understood raw sound as the essence of the art. Heifetz’s tremolos in a cadenza express precisely the same discovery as the Chemins.
Boulez opened the concert with an unscheduled performance of O King. Because “there was no possibility” of finding a singer on such short notice, a muted trumpet was substituted. Berio was rather keen on “transcriptions,” said Boulez.
The Executive Director of the Philharmonic left an example of her prose in the program booklet. The Artistic Director of the Ojai Festival, Ernest Fleischmann, had announced his departure, and praises were forthcoming.
“We often speak of seminal events,” said the Ex.D., “but do we ever speak of seminal leaders? In Ernest’s case, such a definition rings clarion. His vision, his energy, his taste have helped to shape a vibrant musical landscape that extends well beyond the borders of our state. Many stand on the shoulders of his achievements.”
Fleischmann has his own note in the booklet, hoping to see contributions for a new orchestra shell in Libbey Park, to replace the one conducted in by Stravinsky, Boulez, Copland, and Craft. Doubtless he has an architect in mind (in the event not Frank O.), nous n’irons plus au bois.
Reading the program notes, you wonder why Ojai can’t obtain the services of writers equal to the occasion, until you find Joshua Fineberg’s adequate remarks.