Merci, Monsieur Boulez…

When I first learned of the passing of Pierre Boulez on Tuesday, January 12, my first thought was the first memory that always came to my mind when his name came up. It was late May, 1992; I was sitting with him in the green room of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center…and he had just thanked me

That wasn’t my first personal memory of the man who eventually towered over the second half of 20th century as a composer, and then, somewhat unexpectedly, made his mark as a conductor. I was a senior in high school in 1972, my hometown of White Plains, NY just a 37-minute train ride from Grand Central Station. I knew next to nothing at that time about Boulez’ music, and all I knew about him as a conductor was that he didn’t use a baton—and the local chatter in the press was that he had been such an unusual choice to replace Leonard Bernstein at the helm of the New York Philharmonic. I was curious, but I might have gone regardless of who was on the podium; after all, I would be in college in less than a year, and it was sure to be farther than a train ride and a couple of subway stops to hear the likes of the NY Phil.

It’s possible that I was attracted by something like a Strauss tone poem on the program that night, but all I have remembered from that performance over the years, was the opening work, the overture to Genoveva by Schumann. An obscure work by any standards, but on this occasion it stuck in the ear because the execution was so poor. I remember bungled brass entrances, a general raggedness and an almost palpable malaise from the whole ensemble. I related all this to my band director/clarinet teacher at my next lesson; Mr. Renino nodded gravely and said there were early signs that the new maestro was either not fully engaged by some of the safe repertoire required by the subscribers of an orchestra such as New York’s finest, or the players weren’t responding to their new director—or both.

I went off to college, lost track of Boulez until he made some fabulous recordings with the Cleveland Orchestra a few years later, learned enough about his own music to be sure I really didn’t care for it, and read that his conducting of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle in 1976—the centennial season of Wagner’s temple, Bayreuth—was as unforgettable as Patrice Chereau’s staging was controversial.

A lot had changed by 1992. I had been living in Los Angeles for eleven years, my career as a freelance critic had been launched by the Los Angeles Times in 1988 (and already moved on to two other publications!), and Boulez was well established as a unique figure who equally commanded respect (if not universal love) for his music, and great admiration for his conducting of a stylistically vast repertoire. As the Los Angeles Philharmonic closed their season, Boulez came to conduct the final three weeks of concerts, to be followed by his directing that year’s Ojai Festival, which would also close with a concert by the LA Phil.

I was to write a feature for a weekly paper known as the Village View (later the “LA Village View” and finally just “LA View”). My career as a writer had (and still is) strictly freelance, and between my work schedule and Boulez’ the only time he could find for a sit-down interview was following the final Sunday matinee of the LA Philharmonic season. Now mind you, this was one of those programs that had been performed Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, then Sunday afternoon—and it concluded with Mahler’s mighty (and 70-minute) Symphony No. 5. So Boulez asked if I could wait about a half hour after the concert before we began our chat. Of course I agreed. At the appointed time I was ushered into the room, Mr. Boulez entered and, with all the Gallic graciousness one can imagine, actually thanked me for accommodating him.

And as it turned out, that just set the tone for our 45 minutes together. Mostly we spoke about conducting and repertoire, particularly the just-concluded LA stint and upcoming Ojai Festival, which opened with a Peter Sellars’ staging of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, and closed with what would prove to be an unforgettable La Mer. Regardless of what I asked (and I can’t specifically recall, but also can’t shake the feeling that I was at least a little pedestrian), Boulez treated me as if this was the most important interview he had ever done.

A few months ago EuroArts released a 10-DVD set titled Pierre Boulez: Emotions and Analysis. I dove right in, but by the time I had soaked up the first three discs, the usual pattern of pressing deadlines and everyday busyness kept the rest on the shelf. One of the highlights was a 2003 Lisbon concert with the Berlin Philharmonic: A sublime Le Tombeau de Couperin of Ravel, a spellbinding Piano Concerto No. 20 of Mozart with the stunning artistry of Maria Joao Pires, and a riveting Concerto for Orchestra by Bartok. I wasted no time in resuming my sampling of the set a day or so after Boulez left us, and the first thing I absorbed was a film that showed clips of Boulez in rehearsal of that Bartok performance, and for a few minutes of each movement, watching the playback of the rehearsal or actual performance. In one stretch Boulez was led to share a great insight about what lay at the core of who he was as an artist. There is no real comparison between conducting and composing, as far as difficulty is concerned, he said. A conductor “merely” interprets, and a composer creates—and creating is much the more difficult task. And, he said, “If for some reason they said, ‘you cannot conduct anymore,’ then I would not conduct anymore. I can go six months without conducting, but I can never stop composing.”


The EuroArts DVD set, distributed by Naxos

Ok, I admit I have some more homework to do, and will take another, and more probing look at some of his music (there are after all some of his works in the EuroArts set, some with Boulez conducting and some not). But I know that whenever I think of Pierre Boulez, I will recall a great artist who treated every question—and questioner—with dignity and genuine respect. Once again, “Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Boulez.”

2 thoughts on “Merci, Monsieur Boulez…

  1. That was a terrific piece. Reminds me of the few times I’ve had with some of music’s greats. Like following a recital by Itzak Perlman in Tokyo, my son about 10 years old at the time, chatted briefly in the hallway as Perlman was leaving. He asked Ken what he was working on & when Ken replied the Vieuxtemp Concerto, Perlman said, “Well! I’ll be hearing about you!” What kindness and grace.

    Years earlier as a music librarian @ the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan in 1963, Henry Charles Smith, principal trombone of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was visiting the IAA to conduct a concert of the World Youth Symphony Orchestra. After a rehearsal, he asked if he could accompany me to a practice of the NW Michigan Symphony in which I played trombone. Henry only had his mouthpiece with him so I loaned him a trombone. As it turned out, we arrived a bit late & the amateur group was already in the midst of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. Henry & I took our seats without actually being noticed [the conductor was the husband of some wealthy woman who financially supported the group] and almost immediately, the sound of the group incredibly improved. Within in a very short time, the conductor stopped the rehearsal and said something like. “That’s the best we’ve sounded . . . ever! What’s going on?” I introduced Henry to the conductor & group and we sounded extremely good . . . for the rest of that rehearsal. As one might expect, we didn’t sound that good during the concert.


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