Expected miracles are no less miraculous than the ones that surprise. Pierre Boulez did, as expected, start the Los Angeles Philharmonic on the road back toward a state of orchestral grace at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Saturday night. The playing he got from his musicians was alert, precise and richly colored. The program was full of challenge, even a few brambles. Yet the quality of the music, and the way it was played, encouraged the not-large-enough audience to hang around and cheer, for a longer time and with better reason, than than on any recent occasion at the Music Center.
Two works were played: the “Formazioni” of Luciano Berio, completed in 1987 and heard for the first time on this coast, and Bela Bartok’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” a two-character opera dating from 1921, done in concert dress. The works are far apart in musical language; drawing parallels between them would be a futile exercise. What they do share, however, is a stupendous range of bravado simply in the use of the orchestra.
The Berio makes no bones about its aim at tonal virtuosity. The orchestra is seated strangely, with violins up back, string basses  down front, and clumps of winds and brass scattered through the ensemble so as to engage in a certain amount of antiphonal byplay. The work lasts about 20 minutes, and seems to move forward on an unbroken energy curve. Powerful, abrasive, aphoristic fragments well up from the orchestra; much use is made of a steady, pounding repeated-note figure, almost like a fusillade.
It’s immensely powerful, appealing, original music which, at the same time, seems to look back to the way Berio and his colleagues — Boulez among them — were composing two or three decades ago, in the throes of a passion for the atonality of Schoenberg and Webern that they would later disown. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of backward look, of course, if such it be. Caught up in the momentum of the work, I had the unshakable sense that I had heard it before, but was hearing it better now.
About the Bartok, there are no such questions of old or new; the sense of newness in this magical  one-of-a-kind score remains. The scenario, with its undertone of psychotic horror that repelled censors, and many audiences, when the work was new, is by now familiar coin; read any half-dozen recent movie scenarios and you’ll find the essence of “Bluebeard” dragged to its imponderable extreme in at least half of them.
But you won’t find, anywhere else, music with the iridiscent glow of this score, the power it has to hold its audiences motionless for its 50-minute duration. The vocal lines are not, of themselves, arresting; what makes them work is the uncanny rightness of Bartok’s range of orchestral color and the way voices and instruments form a unity greater than its parts.
The work is intended for staging, but no production I’ve seen or can envision — including a genuinely off-the-wall production by the New York City Opera in which each singing character was shadowed by a dancer to embody a psychological alter ego —  serves as a visual counterpart adequate to the music. The superb suggestibility in the music itself doesn;t seem to need visual realization.
Under Boulez, the music itself was marvelously realized. Two splendid soloists were on hand: Susan Quittmeyer, a little bothered in her lower range but otherwise brilliantly dramatic as the gloom-haunted Judith; Laszlo Polgar, a stunning, strong bass new to this area, stupendous as the blood-obsessed Bluebeard.  The performance was in Hungarian; the rarely heard spoken Prologue was given in English by Gail Eichenthal.
The singing was fine, but it was the orchestra, and the astounding level of its playing, that capped the evening in both works. There’s nothing of the conjurer in Boulez, at least nothing apparent to the naked eye. His batonless beat is straightforward; he puts on so little show that you usually forget to watch him. Somewhere along the line, however, he does conjure up a way of convincing an orchestra of the rightness of his musical visions, and the results come across as a way of playing in a class by itself.
The opening-night crowd was far too small for the magnitude of the occasion. Two Boulez weekends remain at UCLA, plus a “Green Umbrella” concert at Japan-America on May 22, plus a miraculous weekend at Ojai, June 2-4. From where I sit, Boulez is now, and has been for decades, the most important figure in the  musical world. To our great fortune, there is some unnamable essence in this city — and apparently nowhere else in America –that lures him here every happy now-and-then. I urge you to experience his work for yourselves; it’s a rare and cherishable opportunity.

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