Feting French revolutionaries

By Harlow Robinson
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2010

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It’s hard to believe, but that perpetual enfant terrible Pierre Boulez, the composer/conductor whose trailblazing music has been inspiring and infuriating people for decades now, turned 85 on March 26. To celebrate, Boston Conservatory is throwing him a birthday bash — four concerts in four days featuring his influential work. If the overwhelmingly young and hirsute crowd that gathered for the opening concert on Thursday evening is any indication, Boulez’s music has lost little of its avant-garde power or revolutionary freshness.

Sharing top billing with Boulez in this year’s edition of the Conservatory’s annual New Music Festival (“Celebrating Boulez: Discovering Barraqué’’) is one of his lesser-known French contemporaries: Jean Barraqué (1928-1973). Like Boulez, he experimented in the mid-20th century with alternatives to the system of diatonic tonality that for centuries ruled (or tyrannized, depending on your politics) concert music. Unlike Boulez, however, Barraqué died young and completed only a small body of work that never attracted much attention beyond a coterie of devoted admirers.

Eric Hewitt, artistic director of the festival, writes that Barraqué shared with Boulez a belief in the “musical abstraction of emotional expression.’’ This seemed clear from “Séquence’’ (1955), the lone Barraqué piece performed with gusto on Thursday by the intensely focused members of the Callithumpian Consort and new music diva soprano Jennifer Ashe, who displayed remarkable pitch control amid apparent sonic chaos. A cool Jeffrey Means conducted. Based (sort of) on a dense text by Friedrich Nietzsche and scored for an eccentric ensemble including violin, cello, piano, harp, celesta, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, and unpitched percussion, “Séquence’’ creates a hypnotic, shimmering, multilayered world whose underlying mathematical complexities bend and boggle the mind.

Boulez was represented by two major works, also for soprano and small instrumental ensemble: the two “Improvisations’’ on poems of Stéphane Mallarmé and “Le Marteau sans maître’’ (“The Hammer Without a Master’’). Here, Boulez reached his supreme achievement in the manipulation of serial forms, a flow of silence and sounds arranged in multiple repeating patterns. The human voice (heard singing texts and humming) becomes a mere instrument shorn of its usual romantic baggage. Interwoven with pluckings and truncated, anguished gasps from guitar, viola, alto flute, vibraphone, and xylophone, the result combines music, math, and philosophy in something timeless, eternal, and beyond reason, like the underlying text of René Char: “I dream my head on the point of my knife is Peru.’’

Happy birthday, Pierre. Don’t ever grow up.

Harlow Robinson can be reached at

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this review misidentified the conductor of a performance by the Callithumpian Consort in Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival. The conductor was Jeffrey Means.

At: Boston Conservatory, Seully Hall, Thursday