PIERRE BOULEZ AND THE LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY: INHERITING THE FUTURE OF MUSIC

This two hour plus dvd of the 85 year old Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy is well filled. Documentary footage of master classes, rehearsals and spoken intros from Boulez are mixed with performance footage of Debussy’s cubist “Jeux,” Boulez’ own “Notations,” and “Repons,” (we desperately need a film of the full performance) Stravinsky’s “Rite,” Stockhausen’s ‘Gruppen,” and a student composition. This serves as an excellent primary introduction to Boulez the teacher and Boulez the communicator. He clearly and rightfully has the intense respect of his students, whom he (sometimes humorously) interacts with, giving lie to the silly myth that he is merely a stuffed-shirt academic. The students at Lucerne are, indeed, inheriting a lifetime’s worth of aesthetic dedication.

The filmmakers follow Boulez’ cue, structuring the film itself with commendable lucidity and professional visuals. It helps tremendously that the Lucerne summer festival provides beautiful location footage. Although Boulez remains an ambiguous personality, he is devoted to what he loves and, in his advanced years, he remains remarkably active in order to ensure the survival of contemporary music. Only the most jaded viewer will be unimpressed. Equally valuable is some of Boulez’ recollections on peers such as Bruno Maderna.

A delightful and valuable example of music on film that is not only an apt homage to an unquestionably great composer, conductor, and teacher, but also a homage to the younger musicians following the lead of the veteran avant-gardist. Boulez seems in no hurry to slow down and we can only hope that he will have many active years ahead of him.

*review from 2012.  Pierre Boulez died, at the age of 90, in January 2016. This was one of the final filmed documents of his work.

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“BOWIE IN THE BASEMENT,” works for the Thunder-Sky Art Gallery showing, April 29th, 2016

Pardon Me When The Kingdom Comes, (oil pastel on canvas board) ©2016 Alfred EakerPardon Me When The Kingdom Comes, (oil pastel on canvas board) ©2016 Alfred Eaker

“The more horrifying the world becomes, the more art becomes abstract.” (Paul Klee)

The works here represent a pivotal time in my life (1980) when I discovered both the music of David Bowie (Scary Monsters And Super Creeps) and Pierre Boulez (Fold Upon Fold) in 1980. Both were aesthetic channels out of what then was a kind of hell. They both represented the outsider, rising up to so-ciety. Through their approach to art and the status quo, each spoke a cool, brutal language that, at 16, powerfully resonated.

Alfred Eaker easel 1981-2016

Paint easel 1981-2016

Of course, it’s more complex than that and, oddly enough, both died in January 2106-in the pulse of winter. When news of Boulez’ death came, I was literally working on a canvas, from a series of drawings I thought I had lost, but had recently discovered in one of many boxes I was getting round to unpack ( a year after the move). The drawings were first made at concerts I attended of Boulez conducting avant-garde music (including his own) in Chicago. His death was expected. He was 90 and had vanished from the music scene two years before. Only a week prior, I had lamented to my wife that Boulez was fading.

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THE SHORT FILMS OF OLIVER HERRMAN

Pierrot Lunaire from 'One Night, One Life (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann) Christine Schafer

Oilver Herrmann was quickly proving to be an artist of provocative potential after creating the innovative short films “Dichterlieb” (2000), “One Night, One Life” (2002), and “Le Sacre du Printemps” (released 2004). Tragically, Herrmann’s life and career were cut short when he died of a diabetic stroke at the age of 40 in 2003.  A few months after his death, his partner, soprano Christine Schafer, a specialist in 20th/21st century music, gave birth to their second child.

Pierrot Lunaire (Arnold Schoenberg) from 'One Night, One Life (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann, Pierre Boulez) Christine Schafer.

All three have been released on home video with “Dichterlieb” and “One Night, One Life” available together and “Le Scare du Printemps” on a second DVD. The primary interest in the “One Night, One Life” collection is Herrman’s film of Arnold Shoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” conducted by modern music specialist Pierre Boulez and starring Schäfer. A bit of history may be needed for Schoenberg’s atonal[1], expressionist melodrama. Set to Albert Giraud’s text, the poems, usually spoken by a soprano, are delivered in “Sprechgesang” (spoken singing).

Pierrot Lunaire (Arnold Schoenberg) from 'One Night, One Life (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann, Pierre Boulez) Christine Schafer.

Upon its 1912 premiere, “Pierrot Lunaire” predictably offended the traditionalists. Much publicity was made about it, mostly bad, but at least this was a period when new music and new composers actually grabbed headlines. As late as the 1970s, conservative NY Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg claimed that “Pierrot Lunaire”‘s’ failure to enter the standard repertoire was an indictment of contemporary music. Yet, the 21st century has (somewhat) rendered Schonberg’s assessment as premature. If not quite part of the daily repertoire diet, “Lunaire” is extensively recorded and performed. One might envision it someday becoming as commonplace as Beethoven.

Pierrot Lunaire (Arnold Schoenberg) from 'One Night, One Life ( DIR. Oliver Herrmann) Christine Schafer

However, together, Herrmann, Boulez, and Schäfer produce a commendable effort to rectify its potentially harmful respectability. The proof is in the pudding as far as music forum reviews go, with the hopelessly puritan music fans expressing outrage towards Herrmann’s blasphemous filming of music that was labeled blasphemous in 1912. One would think, with the combination of Schoenberg, Boulez, Herrmann, and Schäfer, blasphemy would and should be expected. Schoenberg is a composer who was and remains spiritually antithetical to the tenets of fundamentalism, and yet, long dead in his grave, he holds no sway with that lot. Fortunately, the principals speak blasphemy fluently and refuse to appease those who prefer art-music to be neutered, polished, and pedestaled. Schoenberg’s sense of danger is not only intact, but expanded upon.

Pierrot Lunaire (2002. DIR. Oliver Herrmann, Pierre Boulez) Christine Schafer.

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RIP PIERRE BOULEZ

Very sad news of Pierre Boulez’ death came today as I was in the middle of revisiting, reinterpreting, and working on a series of paintings from action sketches I made during his concerts. I attended more Boulez concerts than any other musician. The last time I saw him was in 2009, conducting Edgar Varèse and Elliott Carter.The first paintings I did (from literally hundreds of sketches) came from two concerts: His Chicago Mahler 7th in 1994 and another Chicago concert (1999), which included his own “Sur Incises,” and the music of Luciano Berio and Arnold Schoenberg. In between, I saw him conduct the music of Bela Bartok, Gustav Mahler, Augusta Read Thomas, Claude Debussy, Alban Berg, Richard Wagner, Anton Bruckner, and Maurice Ravel, but I was never more excited than when he performed his own music. I will never forget the performance of his own “12 Notations.” Boulez introduced me to Hugues Dufourt, Brian Ferneyhough, Xenakis, Luigi Nono, Messiaen, Ligeti, Birtwistle, Stockhausen, Frank Zaappa, and countless others. I have long took to heart something he said during a talk I attended: “We must be cultural omnivores and raid all the art forms to enhance our own medium.” Boulez talked as much about painting (Kandisnky) and literature (Joyce, Kafka, and Artaud) as he did music. Listening to him talk and make music was an electric experience. He made avant-garde music fun and, yes, sexy. When his Ring Cycle (with the late Patrice Chereau) was released on TV (in the 80s) the traditionalists were up in arms. Now, it has rightly become the yardstick, bringing to mind something Boulez said (after he was ‘released” from the NYP) about his role in promoting twentieth century music; “Like a trace of poison in the food, it will take hold.” Breaking my own rule of not posting a work-in-progress, here is a detail of my 2016 oil on canvas “Varese In Chicago, 2009 (Boulez Conducting). RIP Mr. Boulez

Varese In Chicago, 2009 (Boulez conducting). Oil on canvas (in progress) @2016 Alfred Eaker

AVANT OPERA ON FILM

Boulez Chereau Rheingold

In 1976, at Pierre Boulez’s suggestion, Wolfgang Wagner brought in the 31 year old progressive French stage and film director Patrice Chereau to produce a new “Der Ring Des Nibelungen” cycle for the centenary of the Bayreuth Festival, and aptly teamed him with Boulez as conductor. The result scandalized and shook the entire opera world. Conservative musicologists, such as arch conservative NY times critic Harold C. Schonberg, loudly expressed moral outrage and pointed to this production as an “opening of the flood gates” (some hysterically labeled this a Marxist “Ring”). Four years later, television director Brian Large filmed the Chereau/Boulez Ring and televised it over a period of a week. It was a ratings and critical smash.
Over 30 years later, this production’s power and legend remains undiminished. It was the first complete filmed “Ring” and is now looked upon by most as pioneering and the greatest of its kind.

BOULEZ CHEREAU RING

The stand out cast, which includes Donald McIntyre, unforgettable as Wotan and Heinz Zednick as Loge personified,has hardly been bettered. Richard Peduzzi’s stage design and Large’s camera work are exemplary, but this remains Chereau and Boulez’s Ring.

Donald McIntyre's Wotan. Boulez. Chéreau Das Rheingold.

Chereau, who was unfamiliar with Wagner and the work, endows this Ring with a fresh perspective. His is a penetrating, industrial age, Freudian ring, idiosyncratically interpreted in political, social and psychological terms.

BOULEZ CHEREAU WAGNER RING

The avant-garde advocate Boulez, who had previously conducted a radical, acclaimed “Parsifal”, brings an equally fresh perspective to this much interpreted work. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, accustomed to playing Wagner with opaque rolling thunder,came dangerously close to striking in protest or Boulez’s complex, brisk, diaphanous, minimalist approach. Continue reading

SHIFTING SANCTUARIES: FROM BROTHER COBWEB TO BRUCKNER

Services at my mother’s Pentecostal church were frenzied and long, but there were unquestionable moments of inspired surrealism. From the late 1960s up until about 1980, I was allowed to take my drawing pad to her church and frequently sketched some of the impassioned chaos and performance art playing out before me.

In the early 1990s I found a couple of my childhood sketchpads and began a series of paintings from them. The first of these (and the best) was titled Brother Cobweb, after a comic strip I created on those wooden pews. Although my fictional preacher was not featured in the canvas, it contains Brother Cobweb’s essence and probably stems, in part, from a pronounced influence from Gauguin’s Primitivism.

David Dancing Before The Lord, and Healing Service depict the one time pastor of that parish. Glossolalia and Spiritual feature my mother caught up in charismatic moments. The Apocalyptic Sermon was based off a ho de ho diatribe, delivered by the original pastor (and father of the pastor in the previous paintings). I was intrigued even though it was decidedly not of my spiritual brand.

Proving the old maxim that there is nothing new under the sun, I took a small sketchpad with me to a series of Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts I attended in the late 1990s.  Although I had found much identification in the music of Anton Bruckner, this was the first time I had actually been to a concert of his music, which was conducted by maestro Daniel Barenboim.

The later canvases depict the music of modernist Pierre Boulez , as conducted by himself and Barenboim. My application of Boulez’s kaleidoscopic palette of colors probably is the direct influence of the Blue Riders on my own work.

Although these are a small portion of the paintings from both periods, it is curious, in retrospect, to note that the more intimate compositions are of Barenboim’s Bruckner. Even Barenboim’s Boulez feels more immediately intimate than Boulez’s Boulez.

In personality, the Jewish, extrovert, phenomenally successful Barenboim stands in sharp contrast to the orthodox Catholic introvert Bruckner who struggled most of his life for even meager recognition. Yet, Barenboim located his identification plane in Bruckner’s efforts to erect the metaphoric temple. How authentically Barenboim conveys that can be debated between musicologists and armchair critics.

Attending the concerts, seeing Bruckner performed in the flesh, channeled through Barenboim’s personal, proselytizing zeal for the composer, I found the conducting attune to the expressive, earthy directness of the composition, as opposed to an enigmatic spirituality, which is another way to perform Bruckner, of course. In that sense, I felt Barenboim nailed an inherent, organic character found in Catholic art and expression. My own interpretation of  Catholicism is as an earthbound faith, optimistically grounded in humanity.

Belatedly, I sensed a connection between both groups of works that transcends the mere physicality of action drawing in a sketch pad or my subjective interpretation of what was playing out before my eyes. Of course, the two worlds are as far apart as can be imagined. I will quickly dismiss any proposed, erroneous conclusion that might be drawn from those who  feel Bruckner’s symphonies too long  (and therefore I was simply whittling away my time). Quite the reverse, I often find myself wanting Bruckner’s music to never end, while I almost always anxiously retreated from those charismatic church services. Therein lies a latent connection, perhaps.

When my grandfather introduced me to art and music, I felt this my desired state of nirvana. My exploration of both began very early and through those multifarious Pentecostal layers of heat strokes, feverishly pounding at me through the slaying in the spirit,  I unwittingly sought a nexus akin to what Bruckner’s music later, inexplicably provided. In the depth of my interior, I yearned for a sense of shifting sanctuaries.

Interestingly enough, Boulez later tackled Bruckner himself, which initially sent shock waves throughout the music industry. The avant-garde boogey man Boulez conducting Bruckner was seen as something amounting to a type of ideological treason. Yet, when his performance of the monumental 8th symphony was released, it received near universal critical accolades (Reportedly, Boulez consulted the seasoned Brucknerian Barenboim about which edition to use). Boulez’s Bruckner was hardly of the traditional school and the appeal of the results will naturally be dependent on subjective priorities. Aside from that, there remains enormous potential in the latent strangeness and lack of predictability in Boulez, late in career and life, engrossed in the Bruckner 8th.

My expressed observation of these services, separated by 20 years and vastly opposing aesthetics, is filtered through an admittedly idiosyncratic sensibility. In no way will I suggest that others came away with the same or even similar experiences.

©2014 Alfred Eaker

Brother Cobweb Eaker 1995Brother Cobweb © 1995 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker %22Healing Service%22Healing Service ©1995 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker %22Dancing before the Lord%22David Dancing Before The Lord ©1995 Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker %22Speaking in Tongues%22Glossolalia ©1996 Alfred Eaker

alfred eaker %22apocalyptic sermon%22Apocalyptic Sermon ©1996 Alfred Eaker

alfred eaker %22SPIRITUAL%22 (oil on canvas)Spiritual ©1996 Alfred Eaker

Barenboim in ChicagoBarenboim conducts Bruckner ©1998

DIGITAL CAMERABarenboim Conducts Bruckner II ©1998

DIGITAL CAMERABoulez in Chicago ©2000

Barenboim conducting Boulez in ChicagoBarenboim conducts Boulez in Chicago © 2000

©2014. Alfred Eaker

An Aptly Titled Boulezian Primer

This two hour plus dvd of the 85 year old Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy is well filled. Documentary footage of master classes, rehearsals and spoken intros from Boulez are mixed with performance footage of Debussy’s cubist “Jeux,” Boulez’ own “Notations,”and “Repons,” (we desperately need a film of the full performance) , Stravinsky’s “Rite,”Stockhausen’s ‘Gruppen,”and a student composition. This serves as an excellent primary introduction to Boulez the teacher and Boulez the communicator. He clearly and rightfully has the intense respect of his students, whom he (sometimes humorously) interacts with, giving lie to the silly myth that he is merely a stuffed-shirt academic. The students at Lucerne are, indeed, inheriting a lifetime’s worth of aesthetic dedication.

The filmmakers follow Boulez’ cue, structuring the film itself with commendable lucidity and professional visuals. It helps tremendously that the Lucerne summer festival provides beautiful location footage. Although Boulez remains an ambiguous personality, he is devoted to what he loves and, in his advanced years, he remains remarkably active in order to ensure the survival of contemporary music. Only the most jaded viewer will be unimpressed. Equally valuable is some of Boulez’ recollections on peers such as Bruno Madera.

A delightful and valuable example of music on film that is not only an apt homage to an unquestionably great composer, conductor, and teacher, but also a homage to the younger musicians following the lead of the veteran avant-gardist. Boulez seems in no hurry to slow down and we can only hope that he will have many active years ahead of him

BLUEMAHLER CYCLE: SYMPHONY ONE

BlueMahler’s intensely subjective and brief presentation of his personally ideal recorded cycle of the Gustav Mahler symphonies.

Arnold Schoenberg claimed all that is representative of Mahler is to be found in his First Symphony and I sure as hell am not one to argue with Schoenberg, so the first is the inevitable place to start.  Naturally, no single interpretation can say everything there is to say, so here are a choice seven performances and I will start with Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein is to Mahler what Wilhelm Furtwangler was to Beethoven during the war years. Since the days of Bernstein, the recorded Mahler cycle has become annoyingly faddish, but, in the end, Bernstein’s Mahler remains one of the most vital for the ages.  In Bernstein’s DG recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, this legendary conductor flings off any idea of a hair shirt; he is buoyant, bright, and contagiously enthusiastic.  After the first two bucolic movements, Bernstein invests the funeral march with humor, aplomb, and zest; a bit like the adolescent enthusiasm for Edgar Allan Poe. Bernstein follows the march with a prophetic finale that literally sears everything in sight.

Rafael Kubelik leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a poetic performance which milks every ounce of color from the composer’s palette. It will wash right over you. The Marketing team at DG knew what they were doing when they chose a painting from Gustav Klimt for the cover.  This performance has had a considerable reputation since its release. It is well deserved.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: BOULEZ CONDUCTS THE MAHLER LIEDER.

MAHLER LIEDER.

In his recordings of various artists’ song cycles,Boulez,it
seems,often has been inspired to producing some of his most profound
performances.
His classic recordings of the little performed songs of Ravel,
Schoenberg, and Berg still remain the yardstick by which all others
are measured.
Now, comes his arrival of three Mahler lieder and the results are
something to celebrate.
Indeed, this may prove to be his best Mahler yet.
In the Ruckert Lieder, Boulez coaxes both the Viennal Players and
Violeta Urmana into producing sensuous sounds and colors which could
come straight out the most transparent Klimt paintings.
It’s my personal favorite of the three, but that opinion is already
biased, as I have a definite soft spot for this piece.
Thomas Quasthoff is appropriately noble in the Lieder eines fahrenden
Gesellen and Anne-Sofie von Otter has arguably never been more
profund than in the Kindentotenlieder found here.
Boulez proves here that he’s far more than ‘just’ a musical
intellect, he also has acute rhythmic instinct.
Each singer is perfectly cast, the sound is superb and Boulez’s
conducting is among his most crystal clear and lucid to date.
Like his other song cycles, this should prove to be a
genuine ‘classic’.

MAHLER SYMPHONY 2

This is a highly theatrical Mahler 2nd,not theatrical in the narrative sense, but something more akin to the theatricality found in Oskar Schlemmer’s “Triadische Ballet”.

Boulez’s vision of the “Resurrection” seems more conceptual performance art than opera house minded. This is a resurrection imbued with cubist light (think Georges Braque’s ‘Candlestick”, his lighthouse from “Harbor in Normandy” or the cool light colors found in Schlemmer’s “Four Figures and Cube”.

I was reminded much of the (often surreal) gnostic preoccupation with light and while this may not be a hardcore believer’s orthodox “Resurrection”, it certainly springs from a uniquely individualistic perspective.

Those wanting a full throttled, operatic, goose bump inducing “Resurrection” should be steered towards Leonard Bernstein’s let you hair down Sony recording with New York.

Personally, I want them both.

MAHLER SYMPHONY 5

This is a much recorded work, yet Boulez has something to add.

Some reviewers have claimed this is Boulez’s most ‘traditional’ performance of Mahler’s works and point to the pretty standard length of the famous adagietto as evidence.

I disagree.

Boulez’s approach to Mahler (like his Wagner) has been strongly Debussian from the beginning, and this fifth is one of the most pointedly Debussian, for this is not the stereotypical approach of hazy impressionism, but the diaphanous prism of ‘Jeux”.

For, the most part, Mahler shed his Wunderhorn skin with this pivotal work and so too does Boulez divorce the work from the nostalgic associations it has since acquired (Kennedy’s funeral, “Death in Venice”), yet he doesn’t jump the gun towards an easily predictable, superficial route to clarify his point. He savors the adagietto as an unraveling composition in it’s own right, drawing out every nuanced color,yet without over sentimentality.

Boulez yields supreme control over the whole canvas and there is elegance aplenty.
This is a challenging performance and, upon repeated listening, yields many surprises and rewards.

* My take on the Boulez Mahler lieder from a 2005 Fringe post. 5 years later, it is still the one I always pull out. Posting it here, along with my take on Boulez’s M2,  and M5 (strangely, I never wrote on his M7, possibly his most idiosyncratic Mahler and, therefore, my favorite).  DG will be releasing Boulez’ adagio from the M10, later this year (You have to give it to Boulez, he has never accepted the Cooke addition as valid and still refuses to conduct it, regardless of how popular it has become. His Sony recording of the M10 adagio was once described as having the quality of steel and I agree).

Of course, DG will undoubtedly release that with a coupling and I am hoping they do so with Boulez’s Bruckner 7th or 9th, both of which he has performed in Chicago. Boulez’s DG recording of the Bruckner 8th stunned many, myself included.