American orchestras dedicate concerts to Boulez

Pierre Boulez conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2010.
Pierre Boulez conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2010.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

French conductor-composer Pierre Boulez, who died at age 90, was considered one of the past century's classical music greats

NEW YORK • Orchestras in the United States on Wednesday dedicated performances to the late conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, with his successor at the New York Philharmonic calling him a "towering" figure in music.

The French composer, an arch- modernist who defied traditional structures and was widely considered one of the past century's greatest figures in classical music, died on Tuesday at age 90 at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany.

While well-known in France, he eventually settled in Germany and had a long history in the US, where he arrived in 1970 at the Cleveland Orchestra and served as music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1971 to 1977.

The Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert said that Boulez was a "towering and influential musical figure whose leadership implicitly laid down a challenge of innovation and invention that continues to inspire us to this day."

The Philharmonic - which just weeks ago mourned Kurt Masur, another of its celebrated conductors - said it would dedicate this week's concerts with works of Sibelius, Wagner and Richard Strauss to Boulez's memory.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Orchestra released a video medley of segments from a 90th birthday concert last year in honour of Boulez, who had led it in more than 220 performances.

He "has created a peerless legacy of great music, new music and unrivalled music-making", it said.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra observed a minute of silence at rehearsal on Wednesday with visiting French conductor Francois-Xavier Roth. "The greatest composer of our time is gone. Thank you, Pierre Boulez," Roth wrote on Twitter.

With his long dominance in classical categories, Boulez won 26 Grammys as well as a lifetime achievement award last year. The Recording Academy called him "a remarkable talent as a classical composer, conductor and deep thinker about music".

"He was active well into his 80s and his inquisitive approach to music influenced many who had followed him," it said.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in a statement: "Audacity, innovation, creativity - that is what Pierre Boulez was for French music, which he helped shine everywhere in the world."

Boulez belonged to an extraordinary generation of European composers who emerged in the postwar years while still in their 20s. They started a revolution in music and he was at the forefront.

A seminal figure in abstract music, he constantly pushed the envelope by challenging the status quo, once suggesting: "We should burn down the opera houses."

He felt that operatic productions had become too amateurish and catered too much to popular demand. "He helped open minds and hearts to new musical forms," said France's former culture minister Jack Lang. "He really invented a unique musical language."

Intrigued by maths, he composed about 30 often demanding works, notably Le Marteau Sans Maitre (The Hammer Without A Master), which drew inspiration from surrealist poetry and remains a landmark of modern music. Several works he labelled "works in progress" were to be modified as the performer desired.

But his influence was equally large on the podium, where his keen ear and rhythmic incisiveness could produce a startling clarity. There are countless stories of him detecting faulty intonation, say, from the third oboe in a complex piece.

He reached his peak as a conductor in the 1960s when he began to appear with orchestras such as the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Berlin Philharmonic.

By the early 1970s, Boulez had succeeded Leonard Bernstein as music director of the New York Philharmonic, an appointment that startled the music world and led to a fitful tenure.

He never used the baton, preferring to manipulate the orchestra with his hands simultaneously - the left indicating phrasing or, in much contemporary music, counter-rhythm.

His characteristic sound - unemotional on the surface, but with undercurrents of intemperateness, at once brilliant in colour and rhythmically disciplined - depended on his famously acute ear and suited his core repertoire that included Stravinsky, Debussy, Webern, Bartok and Messiaen.

After becoming music director of both the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London in 1971, he explored unconventional repertoire, uncon- ventional concert formats and unconventional locations.

It was his reputation as an avant- garde composer and as a champion of new music that prompted his unexpected appointment in New York. After the initial shock at his arrival, there was hope that he might take the orchestra into the 21st century and appeal to younger audiences.

But his programming often met with hostility in New York and he left quietly six years later, going to Paris.

Born near Lyon in Montbrison as the son of an industrialist, Boulez graduated from the Conservatoire in Paris and debuted as a concert conductor in 1956 at a Domaine Musical concert.

The programme included Le Marteau Sans Maitre, which had received its first performance the previous summer in Baden-Baden, Germany. At once delectable and stringent, this work united traditions of Austrian-German discipline and French finesse with the sounds of Africa, East Asia and South America, made available by its variegated ensemble. Besides contralto voice, it included alto flute, viola, guitar and percussion.

Boulez's brusque statements added to his public image. In 1952, he wrote an essay titled (Arnold) Schoenberg Is Dead, vowing to take music to the next frontier a year after the death of his forerunner in atonality - music that abandons classical scales.

In 1960, he signed a declaration in protest against the war in Algeria, then a French colony. He was subsequently banned from returning home from Germany, where he had been living at the time. The ban was lifted later.

Boulez's assistant, Ms Marion Thiem, said he never married. He is survived by a brother and sister.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2016, with the headline 'American orchestras dedicate concerts to Boulez'. Print Edition | Subscribe