Anthony de Mare Plays the Music of Sondheim at Symphony Space
Michael Daves' Fourth Annual Brooklyn Bluegrass Bash at The Bell House

Celebrating Pierre Boulez's 90th Birthday at National Sawdust

by Steven Pisano


(Photographs by Steven Pisano.)

Last week at National Sawdust a series of four concerts celebrated the 90th birthday (back in March) of French composer, conductor, and music writer Pierre Boulez, a greatly admired champion and practitioner of 12-tone and serialist composition. Pascal Gallois conducted the highly regarded International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), which recorded the concert for a future release.

The final concert of the series last Saturday began with “Polifonica-Monodica-Ritmica” by Luigi Nono, which despite my admitted antipathies towards serialist music, had an entertaining tension throughout. Mostly random percussion, even the silences had a well-measured tautness to them.

But while Nono kept me wondering what was coming next musically, Boulez’s “Eclat” and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Kontra-punkte,” which followed next on the program, made me wonder what I was eating for dinner. Pad Thai? Pizza? Pastitsio? My mind kept shamelessly wandering off to anywhere but focusing on the music. To my amateur ears, this music is strictly an acquired taste.


I did, however, pay full attention to the extremely meticulous and passionate ensemble playing by the musicians of ICE. If it can be said of some singers that they could warble the phonebook and it would sound great, then it also could be said of ICE that they could play random street noise and make it sound musical.

During the final piece of the night, Boulez’s “Le Marteau sans maître (The Hammer without a master),” the band was joined by Hungarian mezzo soprano Katalin Károlyi, who sang a series of surrealistic poems by French poet René Char. Here, there was more of an apparent effort by Boulez to write music with some sort of form. Still, I can’t imagine anyone going home and popping this into the CD player after a long day at work.

At the risk of sounding uncharitable, my takeaway was that if Boulez’s reputation endures, it will be less for his compositions than for his widely acknowledged influence on others, as well as his long career as a celebrated conductor (including the NY Phil back in the 1970s). Nevertheless, Pierre--bon anniversaire!