Sunday, January 24, 2010

Modern Music

Boulez, Bartok & Stravinsky

“The aim of music is not to express feelings but to express music. It is not a vessel into which the composer distills his soul drop by drop, but a labyrinth with no beginning and no end, full of new paths to discover, where mystery remains eternal.”
- Pierre Boulez

Even at sixty I must be a fairly modern person in the sense that musical compositions considered modern or contemporary may be at least as old. Last night I heard a composition by Pierre Boulez which was originally composed in the year of my birth. While he has revised it since then (it was originally written for string quartet) it is still considered contemporary if not avant-garde in its modern sound. Better yet I was fortunate to hear the composition, Livre pour cordes, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer. It is a spare composition for strings alone with intricate lines of music for the various players. The contrasts within the piece were striking and the use of rests - open spaces - notable as the piece seemed to shimmer with brittle edges in the evening. An acquired taste, but not unpleasant, the music was thought-provoking.
More accessible was a performance of Bela Bartok's Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Orchestra (1940). While composed a decade before the Boulez work it also resounds with modernist dissonance, but in Bartok's distinctive style highlighting folk melodies and percussion. The presence of two pianists, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, and percussion soloists, Cynthia Yeh and Vadim Karpinos, in front of the orchestra was the focus of my attention and they were all excellent performing a work of daunting difficulty. The result was an exciting evening of music from the near past. The concert concluded with a truly audience-pleasing composition, Igor Stravinsky's music for the ballet The Firebird. Just the sort of dazzling orchestration for which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is uniquely suited to perform and they did not disappoint.

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