Aside from some occasional friction between our respective governments, the United States and France have traditionally enjoyed a close reciprocal understanding -- and never more so than in the field of classical music. It sometimes seems as though every significant American composer from Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson in the 1920s through Philip Glass in the 1960s made a pilgrimage to the French town of Fontainebleau to attend Nadia Boulanger's celebrated music classes. Meanwhile, Pierre Boulez, the leading figure in the Parisian postwar avant-garde, spent much of his conducting career in America, and even served as the music director of the New York Philharmonic for a period in the 1970s.
Over the weekend, La Maison Francaise, at the French Embassy in Northwest Washington, offered a French-American Contemporary Music Festival, featuring artists from both countries in performances of works by Claude Debussy, Elliott Carter (yet another member of the "Boulangerie"), Boulez, Robert Dick and Pascal Dusapin. And while the physical presentation was skimpy and slapdash -- there were no program notes whatsoever, not a word of biographical information on the players or composers, few of whom are exactly household names -- the performances were inevitably committed and sometimes inspired.
Friday night's program began with a terrific rendition of Debussy's Violin Sonata by Rolf Schulte and pianist Marc Ponthus. Schulte's playing has changed amazingly little in the 30 years I've been listening to him: It is always cool, precise, perfectly pitched and charged with deep feeling that never overflows into schmaltz (a quality to which his generation of violinists was profoundly allergic).
Carter's Piano Sonata (1947) followed immediately, in an authoritative and proportionate performance by Charles Rosen, who has been one of the composer's champions for half a century. The sonata was an important piece for Carter at the time, marking his first steps away from traditional celebratory Americana (such as the "Holiday" Overture, which is exactly what its title might suggest) and toward something knottier and more challenging.
And yet the sonata now sounds most old-fashioned at just those moments when it must have once seemed most experimental -- when Carter asks the pianist to use the sostenuto pedal (the middle appendage on a grand piano) to bring out harmonic overtones, as a sort of acoustical ghost of what is being played. Today, this comes across as a gimmick -- as the same sort of awkward, cosmetic bow to modernity that George Crumb would later do to death when he repeatedly instructed pianists to strum the inner strings of their instrument.
Aside from this dubious "innovation," the sonata seems a spinoff from Copland's vastly superior sonata of a few years earlier -- a hard, clarified mixture of open harmonies and craggy dissonances. Carter's only other large piece for piano, "Night Fantasies" (1980), which Rosen helped commission, is a much stronger testament to his gifts. Still, this must be the only work in the repertory in which it is more interesting to watch the feet of a pianist than the hands.
It is rather quaint to see Boulez's Piano Sonata No. 3 (1955-1957) still classified as a "work in progress." To be sure, James Joyce trotted his own "work in progress" around Europe for almost two decades before publishing it as "Finnegans Wake." But does it really take half a century to finish a single piano sonata? Or is it perhaps time to acknowledge that these two spasmodic movements are all we are ever going to get?
In any event, this is one of the least congenial of Boulez's pieces. He has been touted for the complexity of his music, but Boulez's real genius is for orchestral color (in the roughly contemporaneous "Pli selon pli," for example, he melds the sounds of bassoon and piano in the afterglow of evanescent chimes, with the snare drum pattering away like distant rainfall).
A composer writing for solo piano has no such palette to work with, and this sonata comes across as a succession of icy crashes and furious pokes at the keyboard. I was reminded of cinema verite, that succession of disparate, rapid-fire images so popular in the films of the late 1960s. Likewise, the sonata is so densely packed with events that the final effect is, paradoxically, an overwhelming sameness; whether in film or on the piano, all those images and ideas are never given time to take root. Ponthus played the sonata brilliantly, however, with a fierce bravura.
The program closed with Dick playing his own "Eye in the Sky," for open-hole alto flute. He is one of those rare creators (think of Liszt with the piano or Paganini with the violin) who have effectively reinvented his instrument, creating an entire glossary of fresh techniques. He explores the considerable in-between that separates silence from full flute tone: I've never heard the instrument sound so much like an eerie, desolate wind. Best of all, Dick manages to incorporate his innovations into elegant musical narratives: "Eye in the Sky" has a clear beginning, middle and end, and takes no showoff detours in the course of its progression.
Saturday's concert was devoted entirely to works by Dusapin, whose music is new to me, although he seems to have quite a following in France and at least a foothold in Great Britain. The program began with "Musique fugitive" for string trio -- a sound-effects study in shimmers, shudders and dive-bomb buzzing dating from 1980, when the composer was in his mid-twenties -- and continued through two etudes for piano that were written in the late 1990s. These last were very beautiful indeed, taut, reiterated sonic modules that expand and contract like images in a kaleidoscope.
The excellent players included Ponthus, the Quatuor Diotima and Haleh Abghari, whose high, dry, sweet and piercingly pure soprano voice proved a fine complement to Dick's piccolo in a piece titled "Shin'gyo." She was equally winning in the solo piece "IL-LI-KO", which seemed part chanson, part dramatic declamation, part nursery rhyme, part muttering rant, and always interesting and original. If only we'd been told why it was written -- and what it was all about!