Whatever you want to call it, “conventional” just won’t do. No fewer than eight concerts on “A Day for Pierre Boulez” catapulted listeners into sound landscapes that were otherworldly, bombastic, subtle, sometimes even precious or highly contrived. But the culmination of the day’s marathon events came in the evening when Boulez’s work was performed alongside première performances of others’ tributes. Two of them – by Samy Moussa and Piotr Peszat – were the first works to emerge from the Roche Young Commissions scheme for the Lucerne Festival.

Lucerne Academy Orchestra © Lucerne Festival | Peter Fischli
Lucerne Academy Orchestra
© Lucerne Festival | Peter Fischli

As founder and artistic director of the Lucerne Festival Academy, Pierre Boulez has been an integral part of the festival for many years. While not able to attend the festival himself for health reasons, he would have likely deferred − had he come − to the interests of the other, younger composers whose works he always showed tireless interest in promoting.

Samy Moussa’s commissioned work launched the evening gala. Under conductor Julien Leroy, Crimson for Large Orchestra makes concessions to the simplest of musical progressions and constructs, and includes no fewer than six drummers. Starting with a “big bang”, Moussa’s short piece was as exhilarating as it was approachable, its motifs varying from battles among the galaxies to the sounds of deflating balloons, through to a weighty, bleak motif that bore a “Back from the Tomb” sensibility.

György Kurtág’s musical tribute to Boulez (Petite musique solennelle en hommage à Pierre Boulez 90) came the closest, perhaps, to including some traditional − or at least predictable − harmonies, and its configuration featured a stellar horn section in addition to generous time for chime, marimba and xylophone. A “silvery” work whose many sound clusters seemed to shimmer were evidence of the “lavish abundance of ideas” that Boulez has admired in Kurtág’s work over their long association.

Wolfgang Rihm was in the audience to hear his Gruss-Moment, a work dedicated to Boulez that stages a string quartet against four double bass, then backs up that configuration with a whole host of percussion. In the last half, I noted “a whole lot of pounding going on”, but also a well studied and beautiful ending where three horns wavered slightly, then agreed on a single note, and met on it in unison. That made for a uniquely cool, almost reconciliatory ending.

Matthias Pintscher © Lucerne Festival | Peter Fischli
Matthias Pintscher
© Lucerne Festival | Peter Fischli

Matthias Pinscher conducted his own Osiris, a 20-minute work which is a proper mix of the Jazz Age, Serial music, whining babies, wind effects (both Mother Nature’s and human), and brawn. While I could find little form in it, it called up a stream of impressions: The “waw-waw” of New York in the 30s, a melancholic “lost violin,” an alto sax that scrambled down a musical drain, a tremendous volume of sound followed by what seemed an eternal “drip”. In short, it seemed to cover bases one could liken to “everything under the sun,” but went on a little too long, leaving me decidedly tired.

Piotr Peszat Pensées Étranglées, conducted by Mariano Chiacchiarini, was truly stellar after the interval. The hanging metal sheet, the two flailing rubber hoses to emulate wind sounds, the static of the instruments like an old radio transmission: all were intriguing inventions. Fascinating, and the overpowering breathing sequence at the end affected me viscerally.

Nevertheless, the true culmination of the day’s events was a performance of Pierre Boulez’s Notations I-IV and VII by the players of this year’s LFA, together with members of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Matthias Pintscher, conducting. Widely considered a “classic” today, Boulez’s Notations are sparked by imagination, and target a cerebral tone that he has called “spiritual penetration”. The conductor’s score itself is fascinating. In a shared rehearsal earlier, Pintscher held it up to an astonished audience. Half as big as a card table, each double page contained thousands of scratched signs as dense as a large circuit board.

In concert, each of the Notations was introduced by the piano fragment (1945) that gave rise to Boulez’s orchestration of each over subsequent years (1978, with revisions 1984 and 1998). In keeping with Boulez’s intentions, the orchestra produced a musical texture entirely void of emotion, but one that seemed to “control chance” and underscore the composer’s insistence on the sovereignty of a demanding score. Moreover, exactitude in rhythm and the interrelationships of the tempi for Boulez’s balance of sound seemed to come seamlessly to the young players. Under Pintscher’s astute direction, they kept coming back to a music that was light and transparent, such that their Notations had the clean warp and weft of a fine quality weave.