JWR Articles: Live Event - Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra (Conductor: Pierre Boulez) - August 26, 2010

Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra

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Where will they be in a decade from now?

Without a doubt, one of the most satisfying performances of the Festival thus far has been the appearance by the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra conducted by their indefatigable mentor and conductor Pierre Boulez. 113 young instrumentalists and three maestros-in-training from around the world have come to Lucerne to hone their craft and prepare for careers in music.

The proverbial “Catch 22”—especially for conductors—is, if no experience then no audition is largely put to rest as the graduates of this institution (founded by Boulez and Michael Haefliger in 2004) have not only improved every facet of their playing skills, they have also demonstrated what’s been learned in one of the finest concert halls on the planet.

Having already heard a half-dozen orchestras this summer season, it’s become apparent that while the players are eager to do their best and impress “foreign” crowds, they have been more often hampered than driven to excellence by those on the podium. The rapturous applause is some comfort, but for the majority who play more for the art than the cheque, it must be hugely frustrating/disappointing not to be able to perform up to their collective potential.

With the youthful enthusiasm and considerable talents of the current crop of Academy participants, it will be interesting to see where they end up a decade from now. Orchestra, chamber, solo? Perhaps a few will become “gifted” amateurs whose love of music demands another way of making a living (in order to maintain that love and not sink into back-stand boredom).

Stay tuned! We’ll do our best to see where they go.

The program was a stellar example of going to your strength and providing valuable experience to the performers and audience alike.

A pair of works spanning Anton Webern’s career were the most consistently creative music on the bill.

Boulez guided his rapt charges with a bare-hand beat as lean and economical as the Viennese repertoire. He doesn’t need grandiose gestures—understanding why the notes are on the page (and communicating their subtext at rehearsal) is more than enough to bring the emotionally-rich lines to gripping life. The opening pizzicati of Op. 1 soon slipped into a dreamy texture which was then further enhanced by a wonderfully expressive clarinet line before angry power and impassioned colours were deftly thrown upon the taut sonic canvas.

Tellingly, the first stand of Violin I produced pitch-perfect unison—never as easy as that sounds.

Two great minds (Webern, Boulez), surrounded by dozens of able/eager ones combined brilliantly to produce this remarkable result.

Dieter Ammann’s Triptych (“Core”-2002, “Turn”-2010, “Boost”-2001) performed en totale for the first time was another excellent method of preparing tomorrow’s practitioners with the challenges of today’s “New music.” (Labels are so soon outdated—let’s agree to stick with just two types: good, or bad—you decide which.)

Spending countless thousands of currency and investing innumerable hours in the practice studio trying to unlock the mysteries of the standard repertoire seems to be at odds with the “fine arts” when composers ask their interpreters to (a) hit their priceless instruments (somewhat new here: tapping the strings with the screw of the bow) with bows, fingers and hands (b) turn their wind instruments into indeterminate-pitch chambers (c) slap, snap and bend highly strung gut and ribbons of steel (d) add “textless” breath to the mix, unhampered by words or pitch.

All of that and more was provided on cue without shyness or complaint whenever required—that acceptance and readiness wouldn’t have been the norm a couple of decades back.

Of the three movements, “Core” (written second, performed first) lives up to its name and is most certainly the essence of the entire composition. Its mocking brass is especially effective—surrounding the winds and strings with a quartet of percussionists gives a marvellous impression of art under siege. The orchestra was all busyness. The few ensemble misfires went past largely unnoticed by the crowd and, in the final analysis, mattered little: Ammann’s effect remained.

The remaining movements never quite duplicated the intensity or craft. The, initially, engaging dreaminess seemed less “on message” even as bits of Ivesian complexity and explosive bombast provided huge contrast before grateful chimes signalled the sonic meltdown into ever-so-close clarinets who finally found quiet consonance.

Boost had a decidedly primal tone (much mallets, horns and tambourine) but seemed more centred on colour and texture than the subtle subtext of the opening Core. Still, the hall was flooded with a spectacular tsunami of orchestral waves whose effect was equally stunning with its raw power but left no one homeless or injured.

Webern’s Op. 30 was a breath of fresh air in it succinctness. Not a note wasted: so much said in so little time. Where is his heir apparent?

Fun for the orchestra but now wanting much more from the podium, the Poem of Ecstasy was too academic to realize Scriabin’s infamous delirium. Boulez led a disciplined performance which—in this instance—was the polar opposite of the composer’s intention.

Historical Perspective

Poem of Ecstasy
2000, 20’50”
BBC Discs
BBC Philharmonic, Vassily Sinaisky
Four and one-half stars

On March 4, 2000, the BBC recording wizards were on hand in Bridgewater Hall (Manchester) with an enthusiastic audience to capture Scriabin’s cosmopolitan concoction of sound and sensuality. The result is a wonderfully present reading that draws the listener into the soundscape from the first “longing” line. The relatively minor solo interventions from the first-chair players (notably, the clarinet) are uniformly distinguished. Trumpeter Patrick Addinall’s more extensive contributions are brilliantly edgy, easily permeating the massive layers of sound swirling round.

The music seems to have been stirred together in an international cauldron that includes Austria (Mahler: Symphony No. 5 with its equally prominent trumpet), Russia (Rimsky-Korsakov: some of the horn writing has the unmistakeable hue of Scheherazade), France (the orchestral exoticism of Debussy and Ravel find marvellous expression in the orchestration) and Germany (Richard Strauss’s broad brush and chattering woodwinds, Wagner’s seductively vague chromaticism). As fascinating as the textures—from sighing, movie-score violins through heavy doses of bombastic “franaticism” are, there’s little feeling of organic growth, much more orgasmic relief by journey’s end.

Sinaisky wisely goes for the swoop and awe, delivering a performance that any audiophile would enjoy. JWR

Between Performances

During the festival’s 38-day run, a wide variety of non-musical activities will be sampled both in Lucerne and other parts of Switzerland. Because of the excellent local and inter-city transportation system, there’s plenty to see and do within a day’s reach and still be back for the next concert.

If it’s a close-by, specacular view of the city you’re after, then click here to learn more about the current plans for Château Gütsch Hotel. The 1860 landmark is getting a facelift after a remarkable past. JWR

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Conductor - Pierre Boulez
Comparative conductor - Vassily Sinaisky
Passacaglia, Op. 1 - Anton Webern
Core | Turn | Boost - Dieter Ammann
Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30 - Anton Webern
Le Poème de l'Extase, Op. 54 - Alexander Scriabin
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