Pierre Boulez is, beyond reasonable argument, the dominant musical personality of the last half of this century.
In its ability to lure this provocative Frenchman into its midst — as guest conductor, teacher and new-music advocate — in an ongoing relationship dating from 1969, the Philharmonic must be doing something right.
The Boulez programs over the years suggest a broad, generous survey of this century’s music, along with the prime generative forces from the more distant past.
Friday’s program explored two pathways leading toward today’s music: first, the dissolution of traditional harmony proposed in Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” Prelude and carried forward in the mists and half-statements of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1899 “Transfigured Night”; second, the chest-pounding brutalism in the early works of Bela Bartok, specifically his 1918 “Miraculous Mandarin” ballet.
Intellectual connecting threads, perhaps; yet there was nothing pedantic in Boulez’s probing, alert conducting, or the clear-textured playing he drew from the orchestra.
The earmarks (a word carefully chosen) of Boulez’s conducting are well known: the balance, the meticulous matchup of the orchestral components, the clarity that seems to surround each sound with the exact amount of air. The wonder is the way Boulez can arrive on the scene and instill these ideals into an orchestra virtually overnight.
The sounds were wonderful in themselves — the shimmering nocturnal infinity in the final measures of the Schoenberg, the raw, savage mockery throughout the Bartok, with its eerie choral interjections near the end. A few in the not-quite-capacity audience fled mid-performance. Those who stuck it out were superbly rewarded.