What a shame the New York Phil Biennial will come only once every other year. In the past week, I and countless other concertgoers have encountered new, rare, and challenging musical works interpreted by artists from all over. The enthusiasm of these performers and the engagement of the audiences show how vital 20th and 21st century music is to concert life, not just in New York but in any city.

Pablo Heras-Casado © Felix Broede
Pablo Heras-Casado
© Felix Broede

Take Pierre Boulez, whose earliest compositional strategy in post-war Europe was a reaction against nationalist music. His concept of total serialism – like Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, but multiplied to include the serialization of duration and dynamic in addition to pitch – radicalized the music scene, and his pedagogy at the experimental music center IRCAM has influenced generations of composers. Mr Boulez, now 89 and still active as a conductor and composer, also made strides in the areas of electronic music, “controlled chance” methods, and spatialization.

So it was fitting that the Biennial event “Circles of Influence: Pierre Boulez” was so wide-ranging. With only eleven minutes of music composed by Boulez himself, the program relied on other works to illustrate the many facets of his influence: “paying homage from different perspectives”, as conductor Pablo Heras-Casado put it. The four pieces – all U.S. premières – created a portrait of Boulez minus Boulez, reminding me of a middle school art exercise in which we were asked to draw an egg without any white crayons, only colored ones.

Most striking was Heinz Holliger’s Ostinato funèbre. An oboist who studied composition with Mr Boulez, Mr Holliger spent sixteen years composing his Scardanelli Cycle (inspired by Friedrich Hölderlin’s poetry), of which Ostinato funèbre is the final part. Based on Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music, K.477, the piece equates ostinato and stasis with death, managing to evoke Mozart without employing any direct quotations. Described by Mr Heras-Casado and co-host Ari Guzelimian as “nondirectional, nondramatic, and nondevelopmental”, the piece easily held our attention with its panoply of timbres and textures. One percussionist rustled a pile of leaves; another poured water into a bowl (at one point, some splashed onto the floor). The first percussionist ripped a piece of paper in half; the second swung a bullroarer through the air like a lasso, creating a high resonating vibrato sound. Meanwhile, other musicians from the Orchestra of St Luke’s progressed through a series of haunting, quiet chords, the lower woodwind notes contrasting with shriller, more wibbly phrases from the strings as well as delicate, blustery flute lines and a fluttering oboe.

Bruno Mantovani’s Turbulences was another nondevelopmental piece, “replacing linear development through juxtaposition” in the words of the composer. Musical lines zigzagged across each other rapidly and incessantly, a wailing woodwind coming into focus as a cello riff cut off, cluttered strains softening and being punctuated by drum taps. The final upward piano phrase was the the piece’s only reference to linearity.

Like Mr Mantovani, Philippe Manoury and Marc-André Dalbavie have affiliations with IRCAM. Mr Manoury’s “mini concerto grosso”, Strange Ritual, was delivered energetically and accurately by Mr Heras-Casado and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s musicians. From the loud, spiky opening staccato to the impatient rattling and final tapering of the percussion rhythms, the ensemble presented a whirlwind passacaglia that was less pointillistic than the other Boulez-inspired pieces. Mr Dalbavie’s Concertino was similarly Baroque in nature as it melted, slashed, and flurried through “transparent textures”. In this more cohesive mass of sounds, the brass migrated slowly up an unfamiliar scale, interspersed with prickly pizzicato from the strings, and finally ended with an unexpected, vexatious chord.

Mr Boulez himself was represented by the quasi-flute concerto Mémoriale (... explosante-fixe ...Originel) of 1985, with Elizabeth Mann as its tireless soloist, and Une page d’éphéméride, a solo piano piece performed by Margaret Kampmeier. As Mr Heras-Casado and Mr Guzelimian pointed out, the piece is not so very removed from Debussy, with its distinctly French colors and resonances. Each spiraling curlicue and cluster of sound was sustained by the pedal for a period before the next, allowing the disjointed smatters to ripple and plash but never quite resolve.

The final stitches in this patchwork portrait of Mr Boulez came with Mr Heras-Casado’s anecdote of Mr Boulez attending a production of L’elisir d’amore, which Mr Heras-Casado had sheepishly admitted to conducting. This came as no surprise given the incredible range in approach and style throughout the evening. For the man who famously proclaimed that “Schoenberg is dead”, Mr Boulez has certainly proven to be a proponent – even a catalyst – for keeping music of all sorts alive and well.

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