Dusapin Outscape : Berlioz, baroque and Weilerstein

The UK premiere of Pascal Dusapin’s Outscape with Alisa Weilerstein, Prom 7 at the Royal Albert Hall, the BBC Symphony orchestra conducted by Joshua Weilerstein (Alisa’s younger brother).  Dusapin is one of the true greats of contemporary music, A high-profile and prolific composer whose work is performed by some of the top names in new music, and well represented on recordings.  For a change, that fount of skewed non-knowledge, Wikipedia, is worth reading, so kudos for whoever did the entry on Dusapin.

Long, brooding lines from the lowest register of the cello set a pulse, shadowed by bass clarinet.   The cello seems to be channeling something beyond audibility. I wondered if the piece grew from silent bars. Background noises – the tapping of wooden blocks, free-wheeling, piping piccolo.    Slow, swaying movement built up of almost imperceptible tones and intervals   Weilerstein draws out the line, which gradually levitates up the scale.  Orchestral colours change, as the cello voice rises and falls, the clarinet calling extended legato.  For an ostensibly “slow” piece, there;s a lot going on, subtle gradations created by carefully poised control.  Eventually the pace builds up, the cello weaving wild, angular lines,  then suddenly retreats to low, plaintive  lines which gradually fade.   A beautiful piece that seems to circulate in its own seamless sphere.

In the context of this programme, one might be tempted to think in terms of hyper-fervid dreams, but I think that would be pushing the case too far.  It’s good on its own terms.   Like so much of Dusapin’s work, it’s meticulously refined and exact. If you mess with microtonality, it ends up mush ! Fortunately Weilerstein is a virtuoso, so there was no danger of that happening.  Dusapin’s Outscape  is a joint commission between the BBC, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Paris, and Stuttgart Opera.  Joshua Weilerstein conducted on this occasion. Outscape has also been conducted by Susanna Mälkki (Paris), Markus Stenz (Stuttgart) and Cristian Macelaru (Chicago).  There’s another performance in November in Porto with Baldur Brönnimann and Anssi Kartunnen.

Before Dusapin, Jean-Féry Rebel Le Chaos from the 1737 ballet Les Elémens, a good choice since this links the French baroque to modern avant garde. As I’ve written before (please see here), the connections are very strong indeed : music history didn’t start and stay in the late 19th century.  The baroque spirit, though exuberant and audacious, predicated on the idea that civilization was an improvement on barbarity.  Hence Chaos, which which order emerges : art, not abandon.   French baroque dance was formal, almost a form of stylized exercise : thus again the need for firmness of concept.  Dusapin studied with Xenakis, an architect before he became a composer.  Hence concepts of mathematical precision and detail,  from which grew developments like microtonality.  (lots more about Xenakis on this site)   Precision isn’t restrictive by any means. Clear thinking is a basic springboard for sophisticated creativity.

Romanticism wasn’t “romantic” in the modern sense of the word. The Romantic fascination with death, and the unnatural was a means of pushing boundaries, of exploring dangerous emotions.  For many, that meant experimenting with mind-altering experiences in many different forms.  Drugs and alcohol free inhibitions. They’re a short cut to the subconscious and the adventures within. Yet they are also an escape from reality. The interval feature on the BBC repeat broadcast is informative and worth listening to, for background on the early 19th century use of drugs.   Opiates were semi-respectable, even though the dangers were recognized.  How far Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is drug-induced reverie or not, there’s no point in speculating since it’s a very fine piece of music, enhanced by dramatic extremes.  Not unlike Grand Opéra in purely orchestral miniature.  Another connection between Dusapin, who writes a lot of very abstract opera, and Berlioz.

Joshua Weilerstein is an interesting speaker.  Presumably more preparation had gone into Dusapin’s Outscape, since this Symphonie fantastique was more reverie than nightmare.  It was good, though, to dwell on the less histrionic parts of the piece and focus on the orchestration. 

Original Source: Dusapin Outscape : Berlioz, baroque and Weilerstein

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