The ideal follow up after spending over five weeks at the 2010 Lucerne Festival in Summer (including a concert by the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra and an interview with the Canadian contingent of this year’s ensemble—cross-references below) is a viewing of the film by Günter Atteln and Angelika Stiehler chronicling three years of this internationally recruited orchestra and its sage artistic director, Pierre Boulez.
By many accounts the octogenarian composer/conductor has mellowed somewhat in his sunset years, getting new life, energy and purpose from the eager musicians as they prepare to launch their own careers in our most universal art.
The three-week, intensive Academy—like the film’s structure—consists of conducting masterclasses, a composer project (here featuring Ondrej Adámek’s bleating-brass-rich Endless Steps), interaction between maestro and mentors, a recreational side trip to the mountains, the logistics involved in mounting Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen and a portrait of Boulez. The very generous bonus section (71 minutes) has more thoughts from Boulez on the 2009 season’s repertoire surrounded by excerpts from the actual performances of Debussy’s Jeux, as well as the venerable artist’s own Notations, and Répons.
With such an enormous subject and, one can only assume, hundreds of hours of material from which to choose, the filmmakers have managed to cover a lot of ground with the same sort of musical precision and clarity that is at the heart of Boulez’s music-making methodology: succinct, thoughtful and with a few moments of deliciously vague conclusions.
Tellingly, like their teacher, none of the conducting students use batons. With Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on their stands, it is instructive to see how hands-only gestures work (or don’t) from a variety of viewpoints. The shot du jour is the archival footage where a very-much younger Boulez is working through a score with Stravinsky (some 40 years+ his senior) and then cutting back to present-day Boulez and young Adámek taking friendly suggestions as to how his music might be improved (“Cutting is easy, adding something [is] much more difficult.”).
As the So You Think You Can Conduct competition intensifies (Gruppen is written for three orchestras with three conductors; nine “contestants” are vying for the perfromance honour), it’s great fun to be a fly on the wall as winners are chosen (“Kevin will be safe” ...). Not long after those decisions are made, Boulez recalls working with Stockhausen and Bruno Maderna on the 1958 première. “None of us had any conducting experience so we had to work extra hard.”
Yet that last comment speaks volumes to the film’s overarching subject matter. There are very, very few conductors before the public today that have the depth of knowledge and compositional understanding of someone like Boulez and a complete mastery of the art of gesture. If Boulez hadn’t thrown himself into the conducting arena to ensure excellent performances and frequent programming of his own creations and other contemporary music, then the realization of the vision for the Lucerne Festival Academy would not be nearly as successful as it has been since its inception in 2004. (Another marvellous scene shows the players in absolutely concentrated attention during performance, only to relax into a huge wave of collective satisfaction once their current mission had been accomplished: these are musicians that any orchestra would love to have in its ranks.)
All of which begs the question: Who is waiting in the wings to fill the shoes of such a well-rounded artist and human being when Nature takes its course (hopefully not anytime soon: Elliott Carter will soon have his 102nd birthday and shows no signs of slowing down)?
Whenever that day does arrive, here’s hoping the Atteln and Stiehler will be re-engaged to capture that transition with the same care, respect and insight. JWR