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Pierre Boulez a work in progress at 85

The conductor and composer remains steps ahead of established music thinking, but some institutions are finally beginning to follow his path.

March 28, 2010|By MARK SWED | Music Critic
  • Boulez is seen in Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, NY, on Jan. 30, 2010.
Boulez is seen in Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, NY, on Jan. 30, 2010. (Jennifer S. Altman / For…)

Reporting from New York — Pierre Boulez, everyone says, has mellowed. A half-century ago, he was famed as a maestro with a frighteningly formidable ear, a French composer of frightfully formidable music and a polarizing polemicist.

In the '50s, heaccused the old tonal composers of being irrelevant. In the '60s, he proposed blowing up old-fashioned German opera houses as an elegant solution to their hostility toward producing modern work.

Pierre Boulez: An article in Arts & Books on March 21 about composer-conductor Pierre Boulez said his April 22 appearance would be at UC San Diego. It will be at the University of San Diego. —

But now Boulez is widely, warmly embraced. Having just turned 85 on Friday, he is no longer feared but feted as one of the great men of music, present and past, in a town that knows what that means. Boulez celebrated his birthday by conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in its ornate, historic home, the Austrian capital's Musikverein. Future musicologists will no doubt mark the splendid occasion.

I met with Boulez in his hotel room in New York on a bright but freezing Sunday morning in late January. He was gracious, agreeable, witty, smart, quick, charming, self-assured, without airs. He was in good spirits and opened the blinds to let the sunshine pour in. But that hardly means he has gone soft. He has not lost his sardonic laugh. His standards are as demanding as ever. His calls for change have not changed. Boulez the progressive is still at it.

In town to conduct two concerts with the Chicago Symphony at Carnegie Hall, Boulez had also given a public talk at the Barnes & Noble store across from Lincoln Center the afternoon before I met with him. He didn't say anything there about blowing up opera houses, although he did suggest burning libraries to the ground. But like his incendiary opera house quote (which is often repeated out of context), he also advocated rebuilding. Plus, he tends to speak in metaphors.

"History should be absorbed and rejected," he told a motley audience, some of whom looked as though they had wandered into the bookstore to get out of the bitter cold. "If you are drowned in a library, you never have your own personality," he continued. "Be yourself first. But that's not easy."

When I asked Boulez about the remark the next morning, he emphasized that going in new directions often requires building from the past. "You know, I say follow your path -- provided it goes up. That's my definition of activity."

Boulez, as always, remains many steps ahead of established music thinking, but some institutions are finally beginning to follow his path, and in no place is that more significant than New York. In 1971, he succeeded Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic, and his six years as music director proved as controversial as they were innovative. He built programs and seasons around themes that connected 18th and 19th century music with the 20th. He expanded his audience by holding avant-garde "rug" concerts in informal settings downtown to attract the young and unstuffy. He did what the New York Philharmonic now, nearly four decades later, is beginning to do again, if with somewhat more caution.

Boulez has had little contact with the New York Philharmonic since he left in 1977. But given the direction its new music director, Alan Gilbert, is taking the orchestra, I wondered whether Boulez might feel in some way vindicated.

"I feel that I was 40 years too early," he answered. Back then, every time he tried to enliven the concert experience, he had a fight on his hands. "I had to confront the main critic of the New York Times, who was systematically against everything that was new," Boulez complains. Still, he didn't let Harold C. Schonberg, or anyone else, stop him.

Plenty of new ideas

He actively engaged the young and the hip. Understanding that Avery Fisher Hall was acoustically alienating, he wanted to bring the stage closer to the audience there to produce greater contact between musicians, which the summertime Mostly Mozart Festival has lately proved works great.

Boulez liked mixing up repertory with works that are greatly contrasted -- say, Mozart and Ligeti. And he looked for stimulating programming links around which he could build a season, pairing, for instance, Liszt and Berg or Haydn and Stravinsky. All of that sounds like it comes straight out of today's orchestra management brainstorming sessions.

Boulez, of course, has moved on, and he has plenty of new ideas about how to make musical life matter much more than it does. He is, for instance, sick and tired of concert halls that keep what he describes as restaurant hours. You arrive in the evening at 8 and leave at 10. He wants the halls open well before concerts and well after.

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