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MUSIC REVIEWS : Boulez & Ensemble Deliver a Tough-Minded Program


A little sunniness, a couple of smiles, finally enlivened the fourth and fifth parts of the otherwise sober program Pierre Boulez and his touring Ensemble InterContemporain brought to Westwood Tuesday night. And not a moment too soon.

These visitors from Paris, the celebrated French composer-conductor and his 31 instrumental associates, had not appeared here together since the group made its U.S. debut 7 1/2 years ago on a basketball court at UCLA. This time, they occupied a more commodious university facility, the 1,456-seat Wadsworth Theater, off-campus. A large and serious audience greeted their appearance.

The uplifting portions of the program, after intermission, comprised Boulez's own "Derive 1" (1984) and "Derive 2" (1988), shortish, pungent and engaging pieces tight in construct and lean in rhetoric, and the sometimes jazzy, usually lighthearted Piano Concerto (1987) by Gyorgy Ligeti. These provided contrast to works of more limited color and character: Edgard Varese's "Integrales" (1925), Antoine Bonnet's "Les eaux etroites" (1991) and Elliott Carter's "Penthode" (1984-85).

The two "Derives," here performed by 12 players, proved complex and intriguing, delicate exercises in ornamentation and pattern-making, finally haunting. Ligeti's jaunty and provocative Concerto uses the solo piano as principal in an ensemble of 15 virtuoso instrumentalists. Young Dmitri Vassilakis was the resourceful and relaxed protagonist, achieving an apprehendable continuity in a demanding role.


Throughout, Boulez's conducting again achieved its admired probity. He brings truthfulness and a love of detail to every work falling under his gaze; each composer on this agenda benefited from this analytic approach.

In Varese's "Integrales," played by 15 soloists, the musicians produced a pristine and transparent performance. The Bonnet piece--the composer's program note did not attempt to explain its title, so why should we?--seems to follow an unstated scenario replete in skittish and cheerful behaviors expressed in an atonal but ungrating idiom.

"Penthode," a work written for and dedicated to these performers, is another of Carter's simultaneous-action pieces; in this case, five disparate quartets producing sounds that, in the words of annotator Paul Griffiths, "race along more or less independent routes at the same time." That may describe why the work appears to meander even longer than its 19-minute length would indicate, but it does not explain why the totality does not grip the listener.

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