First-rate Boulez in the BC capital – Nov. 4 2008

First-rate Boulez in the BC capital
OPUS Magazine – WEST NOTES – Elissa Poole
Aventa Ensemble, Bill Linwood, conductor
Phillip T. Young Recital Hall, Victoria
Sunday, November 4

A piece that contains within itself the potential for continuous expansion need never end if we take the word “continuous” at face value. Pierre Boulez takes it close to that, which is why he has so many unfinished compositions on his desk. Consider Dérive II for 11 instruments, which was given its North American premiere by Victoria’s superb Aventa Ensemble under the direction of Bill Linwood this past November. Boulez constructed it from a set of chords derived from the letters of Swiss conductor Paul Sacher’s last name – S (E flat in German) A, C, H (B natural in German), E, and R (or re, which in French is a D), the same six notes he has used as a basis for several other pieces. In other words, Dérive II acknowledges, by its very existence, the idea of continuous expansion. But that’s not all, since this particular piece has been evolving since at least 1988. When Boulez recorded Dérive II in 2002, it was 25 minutes long. This latest version doubles that. We can even imagine – though we do not need to hear it and Boulez, who is 82, may not feel he needs to write it – yet another version twice as long again.

The word dérive in French translates roughly as “drift.” It is tempting to put the title to work, to think of those six pitches (as well as their every timbral manifestation) as having been thrown into a current, where they catch against debris, divide, disperse, and multiply, but “drift” in English hardly captures the white-water speed at which this happens.

Marked trés rapide, Dérive II is exuberantly active music. It also explores – with reference to Ligeti and Nancarrow – the idea of overlapping periodic structures on multiple rhythmic levels. Its surface is never still: There are a couple places only – little more than musical blinks – where the piece stops to grab a breath (Aventa’s excellent percussionists Masako Hockey and Philip Rempel were in constant motion for almost 60 pages of score).

What does adding another 25 minutes contribute our perception of this music? We could say it offers a more encyclopedic picture of the material’s potential (including much new horn writing, beautifully realized by Darnell Linwood), but it wouldn’t embrace what is most remarkable about the expansion. Dérive II, in the 2002 version, has edges. It feels like a piece, a dazzling display of combinatorial ingeniousness, yes, with Boulez’s trademark virtuosity, sensuous appeal and fabulous abstraction, but, in the end, still “only” a piece. Its more recent incarnation, however, envelops listener (and player) in a highly concentrated conceptual process that is absolutely fluid. We too, are wondrously adrift, and at the risk of sounding New Age, it alters the parameters of the listening experience. Listen to Dérive II, 2007, and you know that there is no limit to “continual expansion.” <blockquote>You’ve had a glimpse of infinity, and lo and behold, it’s a nice place to be.</blockquote>

Dérive II was not the only piece on the program, but it certainly overshadowed the other two – Gregory Lee Newsome’s lulling in medias res and Kaija Saariaho’s Lichtbogen. By no means a minor work, Lichtbogen (inspired by the Northern Lights and superficially reminiscent, in its languorous glide and shifting timbres, of Debussy’s Nuages) was a well-chosen counterpart to the Boulez. The transformation of material, the supple transitions from one frame to another, and the composers’ shared textural inventiveness staked out compatible, albeit quite contrasting territory.

Certainly both pieces demanded, and received, expert playing. Nothing says capital city better than a first-rate new music ensemble devoted to ambitious, important programming. Victoria has that in Aventa.