It was an exhilarating ending to a remarkable concert series: Pierre Boulez and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, ending their three weeks at UCLA’s Royce Hall, not with a whimper but a bang — many bangs, in fact.
The piece was Edgar Varese’s “Ameriques,” the first work completed by that Franco-Italo-expatriate upon settling in New York in 1921. Somewhere in a program note Boulez confesses a fondness for musical outsiders; this Varese certainly was. (So was Charles Ives, whose “Three Places in New England” also appeared on this program.) Every one of Varese’s surviving twelve works postulates its own esthetic laws, and follows no tenets gleaned from any previous work. That makes him wonderful to hear, hard to write about.
“Ameriques” — identified by the composer as a kind of tone-poem tribute, not only to his newly adopted country but to its whole hemisphere — is as wild and unruly as any work I know. Yet, there is a unifying core, the composer’s obvious fascination with the most famous and widely-discussed work of its time, Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps.”
Huge chunks of “Le Sacre” are ripped out of Stravinsky’s context and cast into the volcanic melee of “Ameriques,” — there not merely to be cribbed verbatim, but newly digested and redefined. The whole piece becomes, among its many other things, a homage to a work that Varese already recognized as the enabling force for a new musical century.
But “Ameriques” does not sit quietly on a shelf as a historical footnote. Boulez and his marvelously responsive orchestra hurled the work at a stunned Royce Hall audience on Saturday night, and the response out front was a series of “what hit me?” looks that clearly suggested that the immense power of the work was still alive.
As with most of his work here since his arrival a few weeks back, Boulez surely had planned this concert not only as powerful musical entertainment but as a testimonial to the creative shock. I doubt if any sane conductor would want to maintain the programming of these three weeks as a standard for symphonic fare over a season; the exhaustion upon performers, audiences — not to mention critics — would be formidable. As a one-time experience in total immersion, however, these have been overwhelming events.
Before had come the Ives pieces, those amazing — if at times persnickety  — ventures into twisting the tail of the musical tiger and carefully notating the roar. I confess to a problem with Ives, a difficulty at times in sorting out what happens in his music through accident and what through the outlay of compositional effort. “Three Places” is the one orchestral work that gives me no trouble, however. I love the colors of the piece,  intense and gorgeous; the incredible show-off counterpoint in the second movement (which, absent Boulez, could otherwise gainfully employ a whole corps of conductors, one for each meter); the deep spiritual calm of the final “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” music as deeply beautiful as just the sound of its name.
All these were magically detailed by the orchestra under Boulez — again, as in the Varese, clearly motivated by his passion for nonconformist music. But is sheer musical beauty ever truly “nonconformist?”
This concert began with music of Boulez himself: the first and third Mallarme Improvisations from his “Pli selon pli” and the string-orchestra version of   the first part of his “Livre pour cordes.”  Without the need to push such music into journalistic pigeonholes — “this passage derives from the Impressionists, this from Mondrian” — the artist’s sensibility informs this music; we hear it as line, but also as color. And when in one of the “Improvisations” the mallet-instrument players set up a racketing that is hot, loud and golden, we react to its beauty with all of our sense at once, each engaged in its own definition of music.
Once again (as at last Monday’s “Umbrella” concert, Phyllis-Bryn Julson sang the Mallarme pieces with infinite, awesome skill. All three of these works are listed for the last of the Ojai Festival programs this coming weekend, along with a further lavish outlay of the music Boulez tends to perform better than anyone else around. The miracle continues.

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