Part of what worked so well about this concert was that it worked in spite of itself, or at least turned surface weaknesses into strengths. A giant video screen hovering above the stage blocked the balcony view of the brass and percussion section; its presence afforded the audience a portal into the mind of Pierre Boulez, who selected the program but was unfortunately unable to attend. A spoken introduction forbade audience applause after certain selections. All this seemed far less Orwellian and actually contributed to the interpretation of the music when taken in context.

Pierre Boulez © Harald Hoffmann/ DG
Pierre Boulez
© Harald Hoffmann/ DG

At first, the exclusive concentration on works from a single decade (the 1910s) seemed narrow-minded, particularly since most of them came from the pen of Stravinsky. Yet this proved to be the evening’s greatest strength: these selections offered deceptive contrast, a detailed insight into this era, and a wide array of meta-structural connections that made the concert much more than an assortment of great music.

One of the basic ways in which the program was organized was by ensemble size. As described in the verbal introduction to the program, the pieces were arranged to reflect a parabolic structure in regard to their instrumentation. The full orchestra for Debussy’s Jeux was the largest of the evening and, after a series of varying chamber works, the final two Stravinsky selections (Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra and the Pulcinella Suite) returned to a pared-down version of the full ensemble. While the staging changes required for such diversity would seem impractical and distracting, the concert organizers handled them with remarkable effectiveness by using the entire stage to offset chamber groups and even employing a hidden trap door to bring up a piano.

This same structure also worked on more abstract levels. For example, the music’s use of harmony and tonality reflected this same large scale motion, as there was noticeable contrast between the relatively large ensemble works and the dense and tonally ambiguous chamber pieces. Stravinsky’s output covered a wide spectrum of styles and this program reflected his development well.

Understanding this abstract structure greatly contributed to the understanding of Boulez’s primary intention for building this concert: he wanted to illustrate how music of this decade struggled to emerge from the shadow of both Pierrot lunaire and Rite of Spring. The progression of consonance to dissonance and back to consonance served as an interesting meta-commentary on how music from this era was initially eclipsed by these revolutionary works, struggled to adapt (the program notes cite both Ravel and Stravinsky as adapting “new adventurousness” to their composition after hearing Pierrot), and eventually evolved beyond them.

Debussy's Jeux was largely dismissed upon its premiere because of its sporadic and intentionally undeveloped assembly, but postmodern society holds this in higher regard. This disjunctive nature set the tone for the evening, appearing in the construction of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella as well as Boulez’s combination of Ravel’s Trois poemes de Mallarmé and Stravinsky’s Three Japanese Lyrics and Two Poems of Balmont into a large hybrid.

The deft subtlety of Boulez’s program would be for naught without effective execution, and the evening was also consistently musically excellent. The implementation of chamber pieces allowed for greater individual showcasing than is typical for CSO concerts, and several performers demonstrated their diverse skills with aplomb. John Bruce Yeh’s interpretation of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo was a clear standout, as he moved seamlessly from the opening dissonant, yet lyrical, movement (each note sounded individually crafted) to the virtuosic finale, heavily influenced by jazz phrasing. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke also deserves mention for her astounding blend with both of her supporting chamber ensembles, as does trombonist Jay Friedman and bassist Alexander Hanna for having great fun with rare solo opportunities in Pulcinella.

Sasha Cooke © Dario Acosta
Sasha Cooke
© Dario Acosta

The ensemble playing was also largely sublime under Cristian Macelaru's conducting. The CSO’s greatest asset continues to be its lyrical interpretation, particularly within dissonant and angular passages. The phrasing of the wide intervals in the “Tsaraiuki” song from Three Japanese Lyrics was an especially vivid depiction of this. Not only does this attention to phrasing add musical depth to their interpretation, it also contributed another uniting element to the program.

Boulez’s program was excellent not because of its musical content, which was fine itself. Its greatest asset was that everything worked together to relay a concise idea, and this was supported by a variety of concrete and abstract connections.