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Classical Notes

BSO-composer relationship proves fruitful

The BSO will play the US premiere of a work by Henri Dutilleux. The BSO will play the US premiere of a work by Henri Dutilleux.
Email|Print| Text size + By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / November 23, 2007

The music of Henri Dutilleux runs deep in the Boston Symphony Orchestra's collective memory. The orchestra's involvement with the 91-year-old composer stretches all the way back to the 1950s, when Charles Munch conducted several performances of his First Symphony. Soon after, the orchestra commissioned Dutilleux's Second Symphony ("Le Double"), which Munch and the BSO premiered in 1959 (and which James Levine revived in 2005). Another commission, "The Shadows of Time," was premiered by Seiji Ozawa 10 years ago.

So it's fitting that Dutilleux's newest work is one of those celebrating the orchestra's 125th anniversary. "Le Temps l'Horloge," ("Time and the Clock") is a cycle of three songs for soprano and orchestra jointly commissioned by the BSO, Japan's Saito Kinen Festival, and Radio France. Written for the American soprano Renée Fleming, it was premiered at the Japanese festival under Ozawa's baton in September. Next week it arrives here for its American premiere, with Fleming singing and Levine conducting. (The program also includes works by Berlioz, Duparc, and Debussy.)

In an e-mail exchange translated by his assistant, the composer wrote that the commission was initiated by Ozawa. Dutilleux was especially honored that the piece would be shared by "three orchestras coming from different continents, each of them having played an important part in my composing career for 50 years." (The Orchestre National de France is Radio France's house orchestra.)

He called Fleming "a great artist" and wrote that "I constantly thought of her voice's character, of her power of lyrical expression" while writing the piece. He compared his "elation" at working with her to his first meeting with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom Dutilleux wrote the cello concerto "Tout un monde lointain," one of his best-known works.

"Le Temps" lasts only about nine minutes, yet it is a significant entry for Dutilleux, a composer known for his extreme fastidiousness. According to the French newspaper Le Monde, "Le Temps" is only the third score he has completed since "The Shadows of Time." The contrast with Elliott Carter, who is eight years Dutilleux's senior and who seems to grow more prolific with each passing year, is striking.

Those nine minutes are filled with the kind of highly refined, intricately sculpted music that has been Dutilleux's calling card for decades. "Le temps" is awash in instrumental color that's both shadowy and rigorously clear; depth and light play off each other in a kind of fluid dance. The score makes use of several unusual instruments for effect, including vibraphone, celesta, and accordion.

Dutilleux wrote in his e-mail that the three poems are linked by the notion of "space-time," an idea to which many of his titles allude. Two are by French poet Jean Tardieu, and have a somewhat otherworldly cast. The first, "Le Temps l'Horloge," humorously contrasts time as it appears on a clock and time as it's experienced subjectively. In the second, "Le Masque," the poet imagines an encounter with a mysterious bronze mask in the desert, and the meeting brings intimations of eternity.

Quite different is the third poem, by Robert Desnos. Desnos was a surrealist poet and a member of the French Resistance. He was imprisoned in a series of concentration camps and died at Theresienstadt shortly after its liberation. The poem set here, simply called "The Last Poem," is inscribed on the Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation in Paris. It is a brief but poignant meditation on waiting and absence: "I've dreamed so much of you. . . . So loved your shadow/ That I've nothing left of you." Dutilleux's setting is one of great restraint, as if he were treating the poem as a fragile, easily broken object.

Dutilleux added that he considers the piece unfinished and plans to add a fourth song: a setting of Baudelaire's "Enivrez-Vous" ("Get Drunk").

At Symphony Hall Thursday through Saturday, and at Carnegie Hall in New York on December 3. 888-266-1200, bso.org

Reich retrospective

Steve Reich, one of the great adapters and transformers of minimalism, is the subject of a two-day retrospective at New England Conservatory.

The four-concert festival, which is under the direction of Stephen Drury, will include the local premiere of Reich's "Daniel Variations," which commemorate Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who was murdered in Pakistan in 2002.

Wednesday and Thursday, 617-585-1122, concerts.newenglandconserva tory.edu

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