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Boulez, the Mellow Years : Pierre Boulez was once a feared composer-conductor, but today he is a gracious, witty conductor who is considerate toward his musicians and still passionate about having contemporary music in people's lives

April 17, 1994|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is a New York-based music writer who contributes regularly to Calendar and who is working on a biography of John Cage

NEW YORK — The scene at the PolyGram post-Grammy party a few weeks ago was unprecedented. An exuberant young staff member of the once-stuffy German classical music label Deutsche Grammophon was literally shouting the news from the rafters and inviting revelers to party.

Pierre Boulez's recording, with the Chicago Symphony, of Bartok's seldom-played early ballet score "The Wooden Prince" and his even less-known choral work "Cantata Profana," had won Grammys for best classical recording, best orchestral recording, best choral recording and best engineered recording. If one were to equate the classical music Grammy Awards to Oscars, this grand slam makes Boulez the equivalent of Steven Spielberg and Jane Campion rolled into one.

But, ironically, the notable achievement for Boulez is that no one in classical music, except perhaps fidgety marketing executives, really takes the Grammys very seriously. They are not sophisticated awards. They generally go to big names, to potboiler releases or to sonic blockbusters. So what all the shouting was about was that Boulez--the rigorous modernist leader of the European total serialism movement in the '50s and composer of probably the most formidable music to actually enter into the fringes of the repertory--was no longer scary and had even developed some mass-market appeal.

Angelenos, of course, knew this long before the rest of the country caught up with the new Boulez, 69, and his appearances at the Music Center this week and next would probably have been eagerly awaited with or without the Grammys.

When he began biannual visits to the Los Angeles Philharmonic a decade ago, his American profile was low and his reputation was that of a new-music ogre. At that time he was still remembered as "The French Correction" of the New York Philharmonic, the audience-unfriendly disciplinarian who followed Leonard Bernstein as its music director. He was feared as the tyrant of French music and something of a mad musical scientist who had become the head of IRCAM, the Space Age computer-music facility in Paris he created after leaving the New York Philharmonic. Furthermore, the complexly organized music he wrote had gone completely out of fashion once Minimalism and New Romanticism had begun to dominate American music.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic found, instead, a musician nearly the opposite of his reputation. He turned out to be a gracious, witty, supporting, elegant conductor with an uncanny knack for making the most difficult music seem, if not exactly easy, at least natural.

Maybe the biggest surprise of all was that Boulez proved to be uncommonly considerate toward the players. He is relaxed when conducting, because, he says, a tense conductor makes the players tense. "If you don't care for them, they won't care for you," he advised a young conductor more wrapped up in his manner than in the players during a conducting workshop at Carnegie Hall last year.

Los Angeles no longer has Boulez exclusively in America. He now spends a month each year with the Chicago Symphony and two or three weeks with the Cleveland Orchestra. For the past three seasons he has also led special workshops in conducting or composing at Carnegie Hall. And everywhere the story is the same, with Boulez seeming to win over everyone with whom he comes into contact.

Earlier this season in Chicago, for instance, scalpers were carrying on a brisk business the day after Thanksgiving for Boulez's performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony. The previous season Boulez appeared with the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall for the kind of 20th-Century program that had so annoyed New Yorkers when he was music director of the New York Philharmonic, and got a hero's welcome.

So dazzled and surprised was that audience that for one of the rare times in recent memory there wasn't that typical New Yorker rush up the aisles at the final downbeat (or earlier) to be the first to get a cab or to avoid the long lines at the parking garage.

And now the Grammys.

Boulez himself takes all of this new-found popularity and adulation in stride. Reached by phone recently at his home in Paris, Boulez laughed at the irony of his winning all those Grammys. "I am not personally proud about this," he said, "but I am happy because it helps this music to be much more known than it is. If many people hear, for the first time, either 'The Wooden Prince' or the 'Cantata Profana,' then that is a good result." He is also predictably pleased that this will perhaps help egg on Deutsche Grammophon, which has undertaken an extensive recording project of 20th-Century works with Boulez conducting several major orchestras, into unchartered repertory.

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