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The Big Game

Boulez at Severance

It seemed appropriate on this weekend when thousands of fans are making the hajj to the Big Game that I would be in Severance Hall on Saturday night. Was there any concert hall in the world that on that night offered a proposition as compelling as Boulez and Aimard in an all-French program with the Cleveland Orchestra? Hey, London, Berlin, Vienna! Whaddya got? New York? Don’t even ask.

Like most Super Bowls, this failed to live up to the (self-generated) hype, but hell yeah, I’m still glad I was there.

On the plus side, I heard a staggering Ravel D-major Piano Concerto and a very charming G-major Concerto, too. I witnessed Le Maitre, six weeks short of his 85th birthday, bouncing onto the podium with his no-nonsense, lets-make-some-music éclat. He looks like he could go on forever, and let’s pray he does.

But this was not an ideal evening for music-making. The audience seemed fidgety. There was a fair amount of coughing (February on the Great Lakes), and when Boulez gave the downbeat to Messiaen’s L’Ascension, the Cleveland brass broke wobbly from the gate. It was the musical equivalent to a shaky exchange on the snap on the first play of the game. It didn’t help that as the Cleveland brass struggled to find their footing, a cell phone breeped loudly in the balcony. We couldn’t see his face, of course, but Coach could not have been pleased.

Look, L’Ascension isn’t the ideal way to ease into a program, but whether it was Seasonal Affective Disorder or the recent labor troubles, the great orchestra’s playing was insecure all night. Unsteady entrances and less-than-elegant (by Cleveland’s admittedly Olympian standards) ensemble work dotted the evening, and that’s a shame, because L’Ascension is a work I had wanted to hear. Boulez has not recorded it commercially (though this series of concerts is being taped by DG for autumn release).

The ork rallied, led by limpid and eloquent work from the World’s Greatest Viola Section and from the winds (english hornist Robert Walters came up big all night). This was not the big organ sound that some conductors bring to Messiaen’s orchestral works. Boulez was characteristically clear and there was none of the near vulgarity other conductors can find in this composer. There was no ecstatic religious mysticism, either, only echoes of Ravel and Debussy, the composer who would follow on the program.

Clarity was the essence of the Ravel G-major Concerto, which was played with a reduced orchestra and a mercurial lightness of touch. This went as much for Pierre-Laurent Aimard as it did for Boulez and the orchestra. The pianist played the adagio simply with almost no pedal, but with an emotional directness that caught one off guard. The closing Presto had a thumb-in-the-eye insousiance that was impossible to resist.

Still, it seemed just a bit lightweight, and I think that is exactly what Boulez and Aimard had in mind, because intermission was followed by a D-Major concerto that was startlingly consequential. It started early, opening with contrabassoon, low strings and bass drum setting a spooky midnight scene. Boulez got a very dark sound from the by-now fully engaged orchestra; it was almost Holstian at times. Aimard matched it with a ferocious concentration. But he was never monochromatic. Hammered march figures followed dreamy, heavily pedaled fantasy. Boulez is the most objective of musicians, and he would scoff at me saying this, but he turned this showpiece for a pianist who lost his right hand in World War I into most simultaneously martial and militantly anti-war performance imaginable. It was completely unexpected and knee-bucklingly moving. And it was recorded.

Concluding the concert with Debussy’s Iberia could seem like ending a meal with the appetizer when it had begun with the main course, but I think Boulez knew exactly what he was doing. The alto saxophonist Lee Konitz is fond of beginning tunes with the improvisation and not playing the melody until the end. The evening could be read as a mini-seminar on French music in the first half of the 20th century, moving from flower (Messiaen) to root.

So Boulez’s sequence made a certain amount of sense, and for all it’s surface glitter and pictorialism, Iberia is as serious a piece of music as L’Anscension is. But it didn’t sound that way last night. Sure, Boulez played the piece as he would Mozart, with clear, light-filled textures. There was little perfume in Les parfums de la nuit but plenty of fresh air surrounding each line. Still, listening to the 1993 recording of the work with these same forces revealed that something else was lacking — a little tension, maybe. A sense of purpose. Iberia builds to what promises to be a big ending and stops suddenly just a bit short of it. This ending inexplicably took the audience by surprise and a few tentative claps melted back into silence, as though waiting for the real, slam-bam ending to come. Boulez looking graciously perplexed, turned to the audience and opened his arms, as if to say, “That’s it. Please feel free to applaud now.”

It was an appropriately equivocal ending to a concert that was less monolithically overwhelming than other Boulez visits to Severance have been. Still, there was no place else on earth where I would rather have been.

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