"Illuminating Boulez" Review-The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's MusicNOW Hosts a Tribute to Pierre Boulez

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series continued on April 3 with “Illuminating Boulez”, a concert honoring the legacy of the late legendary French composer/conductor and former CSO Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus Pierre Boulez. Held at The Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph, the program, introduced by Mead Composers-In-Residence Elizabeth Ogonek and Samuel Adams, showcased three pieces by Boulez, and two newly commissioned  world premiere works in his honor. In a telling twist of fate, Pauline Oliveros had scarcely completed her commissioned work, “For Two or Three Instruments”, when she passed away; Marcos Balter then edited his own commissioned composition, “shadows of listening”, creating a double homage dedicated to both Boulez and Oliveros.

Musicians from The Chicago Symphony Orchestra with musical guests perform "Derive 1" by Pierre Boulez

Conductor Cliff Colnot led musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and musical guests, a number of whom were shown in filmed interviews along with clips of the composers. Featured performers included Stéfan Ragnar Höskuldsson, flute; Conor Hanick, piano; Katinka Kleijn, cello; and Conor Hanick, piano, Rob Kassinger, bass, was also interviewed on film.

The 3 Boulez pieces were “Derive 1”, 1984; “12 Notations for Piano”, 1945; and “Memoriale”, 1985. All 3 pieces are highly complex, challenging, and rigorous in organization and content, while rich and colorful in tone, with interesting and often unusual musical combinations. This juxtaposition of extreme logic imposed on extreme bursts of sonority is characteristic of Boulez’ genius.

Conor Hanick performs "12 Notations for Piano" by Pierre Boulez

“Derive 1”, a “miniature” for 6 instruments, begins with a 5-note chord and takes off from there; 5 more such chords devolve from the first, accomplished by “shuffling the intervals”. If one listens closely, the ingenious work spins out from these chords, ebbs and flows, and then returns to the beginning point.

“12 Notations”, 1945, Boulez’ first published work, has been explained as an angry young man’s scornful take on Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-note technique. It consists of 12 brief piano “miniatures”, each 12 bars long. The pieces are remarkable, every one uniquely striking; together, they can be said to constitute an exploration of “many of the different aspects of musical composition and thought”. They run the gamut of issues that eventually came to constitute Boulez’ unique style, such as alternating simple with complex ideas and mixing together traditional ideas in new ways. Although each “notation” is quite brief-from under one minute to 2 and one half minutes in duration- each still resounds as a distinct and intricate musical entity, fascinating and intricate, both separately and together. Compellingly and intensely performed with beautifully articulated fingering by a rapt Conor Hanick, the 10-minute piece was almost overwhelming in its scope.

Cellist Katinka Kleijn performs "shadows of listening" by Marcos Balter

“Memoriale” is, like much of Boulez’ work, a rethinking or reorganizing of earlier work. In 1972, after the death of Igor Stravinsky and a call by “Tempo” magazine for commemorative works, a call which Boulez declined but found inspiring, he created a piece called “explosante-fixe”. This work was soon replaced by another and expanded version, which ultimately was transmuted into a tribute to flautist Lawrence Beauregard. This composition, for flute and 8 instruments, sounds almost like a delicate piece of chamber music in part, ebbing, becoming hotter, the whole a sensual and intricate meld of lyrical sensuality. The stunning efforts by flautist Stéfan Ragnar Höskuldsson projected a strong yet ethereal beauty.

Both “Derive1” and “Memoriale” were lovingly conducted and tightly controlled by the virtuoso baton of Colnot, a past master at the music of Boulez.

Mead Composer-In-Residence Samuel Adams with composer Marcos Balter and cellist Katinka Kleijn

  Composer Pauline Oliveros, known for the technique known as “Deep Listening”, composed an unusual set of 4 “doubled” ideas, or ideas and their reverse commands, “For 2 or 3 instruments”, 2016. Just as the title is ambiguous, so are the sets of instructions to the musicians, and so was the result as presented at MusicNOW. It has a strange “Emperor’s New Clothes” feel to it. One can’t tell exactly what is being said with these very minimal musical expressions. They sound eerie and withdrawn, and often there seems to be virtually no discernable sound- certainly no rhythm or melody. Reverently performed by Kassinger on bass, Kleijn on cello, and saxophonist Mars Williams, it was an unusual bit of improvisational modernity.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Principal Flute Stéfan Ragnar Höskuldsson perform "Memoriale" by Pierre Boulez

 Finally, the second world premiere played was composer Marcos Balter’s reworked double homage- its revisionist construction itself a paean to Boulez- “shadows of listening”, 2017. Jauntily introduced by the composer and cellist Kleijn, to whom it was dedicated, this is a work for cello accompanied by live electronics. Performed in an immersive style by Kleijn, dressed in white gauze and centered on a dimly lit stage, accompanied by Samuel Adams on electronics, it was an eerie yet often emotional and melodic piece complete with uncanny-sounding low vocalizations by the cellist.


Conductor Cliff Colnot leads musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and guests in "Memoriale" by Pierre Boulez

For more information and tickets to the upcoming and last MusicNOW concert on May 22, and all the great programs of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, go to the CSO webite




All photos by Todd Rosenberg

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