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The Control Freak Decontrolled

It was 41 years ago when Pierre Boulez, the newly arrived dark cloud on the New York scene, first sat down with me to discuss the future of the C-major scale and similar weighty matters. He had only recently emerged as a pulverizing presence on the musical landscape; in one famous interview, he had called for the destruction of all the world’s opera houses. He had terrorized avant-garde circles with an article titled “Schoenberg Is Dead.” He had cast a menacing shadow already in Los Angeles in 1957, when his first acclaimed masterpiece, the abstruse, daunting Le Marteau Sans Maître, turned up at the Monday Evening Concerts. Robert Craft, who was trying to rehearse the work, had thrown up his hands in despair after 50 hours of struggle; Boulez, who happened to be touring the U.S. as music director of Jean-Louis Barrault’s theatrical troupe at the time, was summoned to the rescue. It became Boulez’s American debut as a concert conductor.

Over coffee in a Greenwich Village café, we spoke about total control. His musical ideal, or so he proclaimed, was “to annihilate the will of the composer in favor of a predetermining system.” With electronic means, he claimed, “one could exert one more degree of control over the eventual shape and sound of his music. Gaining this control [is] a necessary step in our development.”

That was the Boulez of 1962, a considerable distance from the Boulez of 2003 who last month led the Los Angeles Philharmonic — with endearing flexibility — through the out-of-control morass of a Bruckner symphony and a loose-jointed Haydn symphony in the orchestra’s final programs at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (and had been scheduled for even more blatant glitz, the Burleske of Richard Strauss, until that item was dropped). At Ojai a week later, during the Q&A after a revealing pre-Festival interview of Boulez by Ara Guzelimian, I asked him whether he would have deigned to conduct that work (or indeed any work) of Strauss back in his terrorist days, or even as recently as 10 years ago. “Of course not,” answered Pierre Boulez, and delivered an atypical Boulezian smile.

The nexus of Boulez and Ojai, inscrutable on the surface, has been one of the most stimulating phenomena on the musical map; this was the seventh recurrence. Six concerts were spread over three days; every one — even the Saturday-morning “family concert” with the Armadillo Quartet in a delightful, nicely chosen gathering of bits and pieces — became memorable in its own way. First and last there were Philharmonic programs led by Boulez. On opening night the final work was Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, music I have lived with from its beginning — December 1, 1944, in fact, when I was an usher at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Still, there were orchestral details — the muted brass in the first movement, the swirls of string tone in the third — that I have never heard so clearly set forth as on this magical night at Ojai. On Sunday there was more Bartók and more swirls — the Third Piano Concerto, with the mysterious nocturnal mutterings around Hélène Grimaud’s piano.

The marvelous Susan Graham was on hand, first for a master class that friends tell me I shouldn’t have missed, then for a ravishing revelation of exotic colors — and gown to match — in Ravel’s Shéhérazade, and finally for a solo recital nicely seconded by Brian Zeger’s piano, with a lovely range from the Brahms Gypsy Songs to the insinuating charm of French-operetta numbers to a free-thinking, devastatingly moving version of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Marino Formenti — finally on his way to a deserved worldwide career, with a Lincoln Center debut and a Cleveland Orchestra gig on the books for next season — gave another of his unique, eclectic piano recitals, from a 16th-century keyboard piece to the Beethoven Opus 110 to the Boulez First Sonata to a couple of rather aimless brand-new works. Somehow I remember the Beethoven best, above all Formenti’s exhilarating capturing of the ecstasy of its final few pages.

 

On Saturday night, and almost into Sunday morning, there was the music of Boulez himself. It moved — and truly moved — along a 53-year timeline from the enchanting small Douze Notations of 1945 to solo pieces for violin and flute to the rapturous Dialogue de l’Ombre Double (for live clarinet immersed among its echoes on tape) to the ecstatic Sur Incises of 1998 that may rank as his non-vocal masterpiece.

This is what I wrote at a Green Umbrella performance in 2000: “Like many of his recent works, Boulez’s Sur Incises builds upon (Sur) the 1994 piano piece Incises. Its performing space, a stage with three harps fronting three pianos, with three gatherings of percussion across the back wall, takes your breath away even before the music starts. The music swirls and swoops; vibrant and pulsating here, dreamlike there. You think back to the obsessive percussive clatter of Boulez’s Mallarmé settings, of the Répons that fills vast spaces like an erupting volcano. This work has all those colors, but also something more: charm, ease, the urge to ingratiate that must signal a new Boulez. You had to wonder: Can anything be more beautiful than this setting?”

At Ojai there was an answer: “Yes, something can,” which the birds and frogs and soft breezes confirmed.

I heard my first Ojai Festival in 1981, and haven’t missed one since. This was the best. I may have written that of others, but never with more assurance. Ernest Fleischmann, who has guided its destiny in recent years, steps down now; if he needs a further monument than the one of him we already cherish in our estimation, let it be this extraordinary weekend, its triumphant proclamation of the mingled roles of music and the human spirit. The Cleveland Orchestra’s Tom Morris takes over as artistic director; next year’s musical star will be Kent Nagano. I don’t envy them the shoes they now must fill.

Obiter dictum: There’s no space this week for the L.A. Opera’s Don Giovanni. If you need my yes/no vote, let it be the former. It is, to cite the critic’s favorite cop-out word, interesting. Erwin Schrott, the Giovanni himself, is worth the trip from anywhere.