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Dropping the Torch

New York
Weill Recital Hall
11/19/1999 -  
Arnold Schoenberg: Suite; Chamber Symphony # 1
Ensemble Intercontemporain, Pierre Boulez Workshop Ensemble, Pierre Boulez (conductor)

What should have been an embarrassment of riches turned out to be just an embarrassment last night as the renowned composer and conductor Pierre Boulez led two chamber groups in performances of important works of Arnold Schoenberg at the adjunct Weill Recital Hall adjacent to Carnegie Hall. Maestro Boulez is one of three featured artists at Carnegie this year (the others are Barenboim and Pollini) and he is inaugurating his residency with lectures and workshops designed to familiarize the next generation of players with the intricacies of twentieth century musical performance. As a lifelong advocate of the music of Schoenberg, I was extremely pleased to hear of this program, especially since on the very next night Leon Botstein would be conducting the Chamber Symphony a few blocks up the street at Alice Tully Hall. As he approaches his 75th birthday, Boulez seems to want to impart whatever wisdom he can to the youth of the world so that this vital music will always be heard. There is no way to exaggerate the importance of this type of emotion and the sold out crowd was obviously one dedicated to the preservation of the great works of the modern ouevre and included pianistic luminaries Leonard Stein and Mitsuko Uchida. This would all have been heaven on earth for a critic whose nostalgic music of his youth was not Elvis or the Beatles but rather the truly rebellious works of the Second Viennese School except for one little detail.

I have always suspected that Pierre Boulez is grossly overrated as a musical communicator. His tenure at the New York Philharmonic was disastrous in every way and left this town with a ruined and broken ensemble which, twenty years later, is still a pile of bleeding chunks. Years before I became a critic I journeyed into town to hear two concerts on what I thought would be a fabulous weekend at Carnegie Hall. The Philharmonic under Boulez was to play Mahler's Symphony # 7 on Saturday night and his Symphony # 9 on Sunday afternoon. The 7th has parts for a mandolin and guitar in the Serenade which is the fourth movement and so two students from Juilliard were engaged to perform. They stood out blatantly as they were the only two musicians who paid any attention whatsoever to Boulez while the rest of the orchestra lounged around and played miserably and pretty much whenever they felt like it. For the only time in my life I sold the tickets for the Sunday concert on the street and took my wife for a nice dinner instead.

Now, twenty-five years later, Boulez is still out of touch with his musicians. The Ensemble Intercontemporain played well enough (two movements of the Suite) but they are no longer molded and shaped by Boulez but rather by David Robertson. The students from the workshop seemed lost and drifting and the Maestro appeared to not be even listening as he nonchalantly waved his arms around. I have heard a number of these young performers before since many of them are currently at local conservatories and know that they are intent upon aspiring to the highest quality of performance level (the very fact that they were picked to appear with Boulez should indicate their commitment) and yet the resulting musical product was indeed quite weak. The performance of the Chamber Symphony was not together at all, either rhythmically or harmonically, and it was as if Boulez' attitude was that it should be sufficient that he is Boulez and that the crowd need not concern themselves with petty details like the actual music before them.

This program consisted of only forty-five minutes of music and so seemed to be a bad value for a ticket buyer's money. Like that old Woody Allen joke, the food here was so bad and such small portions…

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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