Ojai pays trib­ute to Pierre Boulez


OJAI — Trib­utes this year to Pierre Boulez’s 90th birth­day have been plen­ti­ful in Europe and will con­tinue to be at sum­mer fes­ti­vals. In Amer­ica, where the rev­o­lu­tion­ary French com­poser has al­ways been more ad­mired as a con­duc­tor than for his mu­sic, not so much.

In fact, Amer­ica’s best­known con­tri­bu­tions to late 20th cen­tury and 21st cen­tury mu­sic — Min­i­mal­ism, neo-Ro­man­ti­cism, im­pro­vi­sa­tion, the New York School avant-garde, the in­fu­sion of pop cul­ture into clas­si­cal mu­sic — have been ei­ther a di­rect re­ac­tion against Boulezian com­plex­ity and dogma or Amer­i­can obliv­i­ous­ness to for­eign in­flu­ence.

The Ojai Mu­sic Fes­ti­val is a dif­fer­ent story. Although Boulez has had a ma­jor pres­ence in the U.S., no­tably as mu­sic direc­tor of the New York Phil­har­monic in the

1970s, Ojai served as his most con­sis­tent Amer­i­can mu­si­cal and spir­i­tual haven. He was mu­sic direc­tor seven times be­tween 1967 and 2003.

Wed­nes­day night, the fes­ti­val paid trib­ute to Boulez with “A Pierre Dream,” a mul­ti­me­dia trib­ute to Boulez with a re­mark­able stage de­sign by Frank Gehry.

More re­mark­able still, the fol­low­ing four days and nights of this year’s ex­panded fes­ti­val, with per­cus­sion­ist and con­duc­tor Steven Schick as mu­sic direc­tor, presents a vast col­lec­tion of work by nearly 50 com­posers, most con­tem­po­rary and Amer­i­can, meant to put Boulez in a broad and not nec­es­sar­ily co­pacetic con­text.

“A Pierre Dream” sets a be­guil­ing scene for the fes­ti­val. Gehry de­signed a dozen rec­tan­gu­lar screens. Six are held on poles and car­ried by ac­tors, who move in in­tri­cate pat­terns around the stage while im­agery is pro­jected on them with as­ton­ish­ing ac­cu­racy, cre­at­ing a mag­i­cal vis­ual coun­ter­point to the struc­tural f lu­id­ity of Boulez’s mu­sic.

The pro­jec­tions in­clude archival footage of Boulez speak­ing and con­duct­ing. We see him with Stravin­sky. We see him last year at home, frail but feisty. We see the usu­ally for­mal Boulez in swing­ing ’60s Lon­don wear­ing a polka-dot shirt straight out of Carn­aby Street.

Cre­ated by Bri­tish com­poser and writer Ger­ard McBurney for the Chicago Sym­phony, the most Boulez-friendly orches­tra this sea­son, the 90-minute por­trait of Boulez felt at Ojai as though he might be a cu­ri­ously pro­gres­sive Amer­i­can in the Thoreau, John Cage and Gehry tra­di­tion. If you don’t move you stay par­a­lyzed, Boulez ob­serves. You can­not make new mu­sic out of old ma­te­rial, he ex­plains, just like 20th cen­tury ar­chi­tec­ture needed new ma­te­ri­als like glass and steel.

Near the end of the pro­duc­tion, Boulez says that art should not be thought of as op­er­at­ing on a tra­jec­tory but is more like a tree. We go from mo­ment to mo­ment, a branch at a time. The mo­ment is what mat­ters. A mar­velously tan­gled tree grows be­fore our eyes. We think we un­der­stand its struc­ture, but we can never fully grasp its mean­ing.

This, how­ever, sim­pli­fies Boulez’s bi­ases. Great art, he says, pro­vokes you to dis­cover your­self. But he is also a com­poser who has al­ways thought about his place in his­tory, not only as a con­duc­tor tire­lessly re­vis­it­ing his in­flu­ences but adamantly pro­scrib­ing the fu­ture of mu­sic.

Most im­por­tant, his own work, which “A Pierre Dream” does a very good of pre­sent­ing, con­sists of con­stant re­work­ing of ba­sic mu- sical ideas from his early pieces.

For him, one thing al­ways leads to an­other, and that is a labyrinthine process he can never stop.

Wed­nes­day night, ICE and red fish blue fish, this year’s res­i­dent en­sem­bles in Ojai, of­fered daz­zlingly vir­tu­osic per­for­mances of ex­cerpts of Boulez’s work early and late. Pi­anist Ja­cob Green­berg played “In­cises,” a small pi­ano solo writ­ten for a com­pe­ti­tion, as though it were ex­plo­sive jazz.

Flutist Claire Chase un­cov­ered a raw the­atri­cal­ity from Boulez’s early, adamantly se­rial “Sona­tine.” Schick con­ducted ex­cerpts from the 45-minute “Dérive 2,” which will end the fes­ti­val Sun­day, with breath­tak­ing rhyth­mic em­pha­sis but less at­tuned to the kind of ex­pres­sive el­e­gance that Boulez’s own per­for­mances em­pha­size.

Oc­ca­sion­ally the pre­sen­ta­tion could be overly lit­eral. Boulez com­pared the mo­tion in a small pi­ano piece to the quick and quiet ac­tiv­ity of gold fish, and there, on the screens, were gold fish. He com­pared “Dérive 1” to the mo­tion of an air­plane, and one flew by on the screen.

This was ef­fec­tive in mak­ing Boulez ac­ces­si­ble with­out se­ri­ously wa­ter­ing down the com­plex­ity of the mu­sic or the ideas, but there were oc­ca­sional lapses. For all Boulez’s talk about living in the mo­ment, he was also a com­poser who ex­pected his au­di­ence to come well pre­pared for that mo­ment.

His set­tings of Mal­larmé, he once said, were meant for lis­ten­ers who had al­ready ab­sorbed the po­etry. Mel­lissa Hughes sang them with care. But read­ings of Mal­larmé and of Boulez by actress Anna Bowen in a grandil­o­quent Broad­way man­ner took the Amer­i­can­iza­tion of Boulez too far even for Ojai, where this el­e­gant French­man once good-na­turedly dined at Car­rows late one night when all the town’s fine restau­rants had closed.

That will be the fes­ti­val’s chal­lenge. Ojai will not let Boulez’s mu­sic stand still. It will be, as never be­fore in this way, played in an en­vi­ron­ment of new Amer­i­can mu­sic that arouse out of much of what Boulez has op­posed, es­pe­cially pop mu­sic and Min­i­mal­ism.

Even spir­i­tual havens must move or they will be par­a­lyzed.

Lawrence K. Ho Los An­ge­les Times


of Pierre Boulez, right, is part of the Ojai Mu­sic Fes­ti­val’s Frank Gehry-de­signed mul­ti­me­dia set.

Lawrence K. Ho Los An­ge­les Times

PI­ANIST JA­COB GREEN­BERG’S per­for­mance is recorded by mo­bile de­vices dur­ing “A Pierre Dream” show in Ojai, in honor of Pierre Boulez’s 90th birth­day.

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