Thursday, 7 January 2016

Pierre Boulez - a personal tribute

Tributes pour in all round for Pierre Boulez, who died on Tuesday after a long illness. So many wonderful tributes - Paul Griffiths (thank goodness) in the New York Times,  Le Monde,  Roger Nichols in the Guardian, the Telegraph, the LSO,  France Musique and many others - more to come, no doubt. These are the best informed.  

There's also an all day broadcast from France Musiquevideo of Répons with Ensemble Intercontemporain on,  and a selection of videos on 

So what I'll add is something you won't get anywhere else - personal, first-hand memories.

I was at the last concert in the Pli selon pli tour with Ensemble Intercontemporain in 2011 at the Royal Festival Hall. Boulez looked fragile, ashen: I thought he was exhausted after doing 20 concerts in the space of a month. He kept changing his glasses, and finally gave up, conducting by instinct.  He knew each of those musicians well enough that he could hear them, and they knew him well enough that they could figure out what he wanted. If, at times, the performance seemed tentative, it was extremely moving because we could feel the rapport betwenn conductor and orchestra . That night I stood outside in the rain, waiting as the players went back to their hotels, or for dinner. Boulez didn't show but I was glad because I thought he needed a rest. As it turned out, that was the last concert he ever conducted.  I much preferred the original recording with Christine Schafer, whose voice  was more ethereal and magical, but I'm so glad I was there.  Read more here

In Berlin in 2007, Boulez conducted Mahler Symphony no 8 at the Philharmonie (my review here),  a powerful performance that really brought out the meaning of the many references to light and enlightenment. Accende lumen sensibus! The difference between a good conductor and a very, very good conductor is that he can access meaning.. Here's what i wrote in 2009. It was such a performance that its memory will live with me forever.

At Aldeburgh, Boulez was giving a masterclass on Incises for Piano, Sonatina for Flute and Piano when a busload of daytrippers popped in. They'd come for the Bach Masss later that evening but for some reason had arrived hours too early, so they sat in on Boulez.  To welcome them, he chatted about the early post war years and how hard it was to get hold of musical scores. They could relate to that, since they were mostly his own age. That explained why he was so into the 12 tone system in those years. ,It wasn't "ideology" just something that stimulated him. They'd been so deprived during the war that they were catching up on years of drought.  In his youth, Boulez conducted Rameau. He knew his Bach. So the Bach Mass crowd were won over. They stayed for the class and for the performance. They liked the man and were prepared to hear what he had to say. None of that bigoted prejudice we get too much of now.

The most touching moment wasn't public at all. We were at a private party in Paris, where a young clarinettist played a difficult new work that involved a lot of circular breathing and flawless technique. The player was young. It was the biggest gig of his lifetime. Only 100 people in the audience but Boulez was Guest of Honour, seated right in front.  Afterwards, I chatted with the young player. We weren't in the main room, but in a kind of alcove off the side. Who should join us? Boulez, who had made time to seek out the young man. "You're good" he told him, and gave him words of encouragement. No-one was present, it was entirely personal and sincere. The player was speechless. I almost had to pick him off the floor. 

Boulez was a man of integrity and taste, for whom art was  paramount, not self.  Of course he was cerebral but what's wrong with that?  He was deep. He didn't do "emotional diarrhoea" . So what if others didn't get him, and projected their hang-ups on him ?   He was his own person.

1 comment:

Roger Thomas said...

And in Amsterdam, after the sparkling 2007 performance of Janáček's opera From the House of the Dead, director Patrice Chéreau and Boulez led a discussion with audience members about the production. As usual at such sessions, someone had a "better" idea for the production than the director had had. Wouldn't it have been good, she asked, if the prison camp had been Guantanamo Bay? A great cue for Boulez's astute, quick-fire wit. No, said Chéreau, we wanted it to be universal; orange jump-suits wouldn't have achieved that. Boulez interjected: In any case we are in the Netherlands, and orange is the Dutch national colour.