CSO’s Beyond the Score “a pierre dream” – Review –Rich, Multi-layered Portrait of Boulez and His Music


About a year ago, Gerard McBurney, the Creative Director of Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Beyond the Score series, flew to Los Angeles to pitch architectural great Frank Gehry to consider making a set for the first Beyond the Score program ever dedicated to a living artist, Pierre Boulez.  Gehry listened silently for 45 minutes or so and then invited the CSO visitors to his inner sanctum studio where he keeps his models.  There, Gehry steered them to his model of Pierre Boulez Hall in Berlin, an infinitely adaptable performance space commissioned by Daniel Barenboim.  Soon after, in seconds, Gehry drew his sketch for the set, which became the program cover for this event and the first sign that this was a new incarnation for the ever innovative Beyond the Score Team.



When you first gazed at the stage you saw Gehry’s stamp at once. Instead of one screen above, there were many panels, each showing Boulez at different ages and morphing at slow speed into another image.  Meanwhile decorative light patterns populated the stage.  The orchestra members were fit between the set, as opposed to the other way around.


How perfect that an architect whose Pritzker Pavilion stamp on Millennium Park may now be the most iconic image of the city skyline played such a key role to this multimedia homage to Boulez’s music.  From Boulez’s own words we learned that he often thought of his music being akin to the new materials that the 20th Century provided for construction—steel and glass, for example, in lieu of simple bricks and wood.



It’s in that context that one hears the new-to-the-world chord juxtapositions in Boulez’s music.  The program included excerpts from Boulez’s:  “Incises (2001); “Dérive 2” (2009); “une page d’éphéméride” (2005); “Anthèmes” (1992); “Messagesquisse” (1977); “Dérive 1” (1984); and several works inspired by the French poet Mallarmé.



For some this was a fitting tribute to a musician they consider a defining voice of 21st Century music.  For many who specifically subscribe to the Beyond the Score series to learn about classical music this was likely an introduction to music they had not heard before. 



By using Boulez himself to explain his explorations of hard intervals to change the vocabulary of harmony, we all—novices and longtime Boulez-schooled alike—gained a layered appreciation of how Boulez’ new sound grew from his drive to break out of any preconceived box.  Of his own and others genius Boulez said, paraphrasing, “In the first phase you are in the dark.  In the second phase you know it.  But when you go further and beyond “how” to “why” you are in the dark again.”    These words were woven like a poem through the program, as if to remind that we can learn of Boulez and his work but that the creative muse that brings his work to life, just as with any artist, remains shrouded in mystery.



But perhaps what packed the most wallop in this program was the tightly interwoven video projections.  At times we were watching patterns on the panels move with the music, or at times seeming to make the music move, somewhat akin to expressionist art works like “Lumia Suite” by Thomas Wilfred that aimed to mold art to the form of music in the early 1970’s. 


At other times one of the actors who had been moving the panels around as the Boulez story was told would use his i-phone as a camera to project live images of the musicians playing shot from behind and projected in slightly sepia-tinged black and white. 



This was visual confection throughout, interrupted here or there for actors to excerpt Boulez center stage or by piano’s side up front, or of course for Boulez’ excerpted music erupting from the stage’s edges with memorable solos by clarinet (John Bruce Yeh), violin (Robert Chen) soprano (Mellissa Hughes), the percussionists (Cynthia Yeh, Doug Perkins, Ryan Kahlbaugh, Patricia Dash, Charles Settle, and Stephen White), standing out among the full sounds of the ensemble.



Boulez turns 90 in 2015.  He was named principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1995 and later the Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus in 2006.  A more fitting tribute to Boulez than this first ever Beyond the Score program of a living artist is difficult to imagine. 



Click for this link to the Beyond The Score channel on the CSO’s Sounds and Stories website.


Beyond the Score and other CSO programming continues in Symphony Center through June. For information on future concerts and tickets call the box office at 312 294 3000 or visit the CSO website.


Chicago Symphony Orchestra

220 S. Michigan Avenue

Chicago, IL  60604




Photos:  Todd Rosenberg

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