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An Evening of the French Avant-Garde at Symphony Hall


In the 1950s, Olivier Messiaen fathered the avant-garde, one of his protégés at the Paris conservatory being Pierre Boulez. A précis of Messiaen’s compositional activity, “The Technique of My Musical Language,” while focusing on the basic elements of rhythm, melody and harmony, also voyages into matters more profound. In its introductory pages, Messiaen asks for “a true music…spiritual, a music which may be an act of faith…an original music.”

Once the diabolus in musica (the devil in music) during the late Middle Ages, the “tritone” takes on an entirely different meaning for the devout Catholic mystic, Messiaen. For him, it is the musical equivalent of the luminous multi-colored stained-glass windows in the great French churches. The first two notes of “Maria” from Leonard Bernstein’s Westside Story help us to recall the sound of the morphed musical symbol. Under Messiaen’s hand, these two notes disseminate in a continuum of instrumental dialogue and Christian rapport throughout the widely spaced, slowly evolving five-movement work, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (“And I look for the resurrection of the dead”). With melodies and harmonies, thick with these tritones, comes an unworldly music only Messiaen could have envisioned.

The woodwinds, brass and metallic percussion of the Boston Symphony Orchestra were far from stoic in their rendering of this sacred work. Lower brasses, upper winds, chimes, gongs and all sorts of combinations of instruments gradually led up to a fierce yet glorious final sonority, extended over a breathtakingly long time with the full orchestra playing at maximum volume. Bird calls, world rhythms and tritones, all part of Messiaen’s personal musical language, and the extraordinary performance by all the musicians under conductor James Levine’s direction were fully appreciated by the enthusiastic audience. One such member sitting nearby told me how much he welcomed new experiences from an orchestra of this stature. “This music was different, but interesting,” he said, beaming.

It was shocking to many when a young Boulez pronounced the music of Arnold Schoenberg “dead.” Along with other mid-20th century avant-gardistes, Boulez became convinced that the 12-tone ideas of the older Viennese composer needed advancing into a higher math. This, in turn, led the way to a music that eschewed the symbolism of Messiaen and emotions of Berlioz for an objective, more impersonalized statement. And, unlike the personalized, spiritual realm of his teacher Messiaen, whose music embraces a timelessness giving room for reflection, Boulez’s Notations I-IV are, in a word, dizzying.

In the blink of an eye, a phrase or two or more can be missed, and there is no going back, since nothing gets repeated the old-fashioned way. Never mind that Boulez’s tension-driven Notations run less than half the clock time of his teacher’s music; the younger Frenchman’s music is so tightly compacted, its orchestration so dense and busy as to nearly simulate the high squeal and low roar of a team of high-performance formula racing cars. This, with not one, not two, but three harps onstage-could they be heard? The high performance BSO was in full throttle.

That same gentleman, intrigued by the Messiaen, “did not find this music different, it was noise.” It did not help the Boulez any further putting it between these particular compositions: why the pairing between Boulez and Berlioz, coming after the intermission, rather than the more obvious Messiaen-Boulez, coming before the break? An admission from James Levine may answer the question. “All three works on this program are utterly French and utterly individual…I’ve also never put music by these three composers in a single program before-which is another reason why I’m so eager to hear it!”

But it was back in Berlioz’s day when the militaristic term “avant-garde” started to stick to those extremist or bizarre artists who applied original, new or experimental techniques to their work. The Fantastic Symphony by this eccentric composer who sought to make “music freest of all” brought raves of “genius” as well as cries of “charlatan” at its first performance, which took place at the Paris conservatory almost two centuries ago.

Today’s concertgoers who know this singular work will find many similarities in his lesser-known symphony, Harold in Italy. Both were in the forefront of orchestral writing of its time, a genre referred to as “program music.” Berlioz also had his way by writing a symphony with a solo part-for viola. Principle violist, Steven Ansell, represented Harold’s largely nostalgic character with rare naturalness and, in certain moments, touches of dreaminess, imparting life into this instrument’s role as neither protagonist nor subordinate.

Enter the BSO strings. Such opulence of powerful unisons, ringing harmonies, almost palpable warmth-all contrasted the earlier avant-garde offerings on the program. The sudden mood shifts, quirky moves, outbursts of joy, juxtapositions of the tender and passionate, define the avant-garde of yesteryear. The BSO’s outrageously spectacular performance of Harold in Italy was answered by the audience’s thunderous applause.

Steven Ledbetter, Robert Kirzinger, Hugh Macdonald, and Marc Mandel contributed to the richly informative notes on the program. Also included was Andrew Shenton’s centenary tribute to Messiaen.

David Patterson, Professor of Music, University of Massachusetts Boston, studied with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory.

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