Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich play Boulez
Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill
Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Pierre Boulez turns 90 Thursday, March 26. During his decades, he has demanded a great deal from both performers and audience. His musical vision is as uncompromising as his notes are challenging to play. Consequently, his music doesn’t get performed all that often, even as his 90th approaches. While our classical institutions seem to celebrate every round-numbered anniversary of the birth and death of most every major composers, very few American ensembles dare to tackle Boulez’s music, even now.

The Triangle could count itself lucky, then, to be one of only four stops in the U.S. on Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich’s tour of the complete Boulez solo piano music, alongside Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Emil Kang and Carolina Performing Arts deserve praise for taking a risk on such a daring program. Even though Memorial Hall was less than half full (with even fewer sticking around after intermission), those there witnessed a remarkable evening.


Aimard and Stefanovich both did their best to bring the audience into Boulez’s world. Before each piece, they gave fairly expansive introductions—playing excerpts, talking about what Boulez was thinking, setting the stage for the sounds that followed. And what sounds they were.

Stefanovich was the real star of the evening. She was given the most difficult pieces on the program—the second sonata, which she called “impossible,” the manically witty Incises, and the monstrous second piano part in Structures, deuxième livre. She brought out the musicality hidden within Boulez’s flurry of notes. She turned music that can so easily become blocks of concrete into a series of swirling shapes (a squiggle here, a circle there, a jagged zigzag elsewhere). When the music called for it, as at the end of the second sonata or the thunderous final cadenza in Structures, her hands transformed into 10 cobras prowling the keyboard, striking everywhere at once with a terrifying force.

Aimard’s performance was no less impressive, even though he had (somewhat) fewer notes to play. He was at his best in the earliest works on the program, Notations and the first sonata. Both see the 20-year-old Boulez grappling with musical history and his relationship to it. Over the course of Notations’ 12 miniatures, Boulez encapsulates Messiaen, Schoenberg, Bartók, Webern, Debussy, Varèse and Stravinsky, lingering on the elements of their music he found most important. The first sonata represents Boulez’s first serious attempt at serialism, with the viciousness of “a young man who wants to make another French Revolution,” as Aimard put it. He managed to find a surprising amount of space in the first sonata, luxuriating in Boulez’s open chords and gestures. It was almost playful.

I was, however, less impressed with the third sonata and Une page d’éphéméride. While both pieces were full of wonderful individual sounds, I had trouble finding a narrative. Much of this is on Boulez: The third sonata allows the performer to choose his or her own adventure, which necessarily makes the form more diffuse. After the clarity of the other works, these felt under-developed.

Structures, deuxième livre, featuring both pianists, closed the program. The work has a complicated form, where the performers are given a certain amount of freedom about when to play. What results is the portrait of a long conversation or of a long relationship. The players chatter back and forth, sometimes finishing each others’ sentences, sometimes riffing on an idea the other offers. They have deep discussions, conversations, fights. They ignore each other or cut one another off. Sometimes they sit back and marvel at what the other does. And a few times, in the middle of the work, the two strike a series of unexpected unisons that were incredible to behold. The drama left me speechless.

Over the course of the three-hour performance and the question-and-answer session that followed, it because increasingly clear that these two were advocating for this music. They wanted us to take notice and to give it a chance. At one point, Stefanovich remarked, “We need to change our vocabulary [when talking about Boulez] from difficult, dissonant and challenging, to complex, rich and beautiful.”

Before the concert, I was a bit skeptical of such. I left totally convinced she was right.