Pierre Boulez on his 90th Birthday – A Personal Memoir

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The West

By Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

On Pierre Boulez’s 90th birthday, I’d like to share a few memories of watching this once-controversial, now-revered paragon of 20th century music over the decades.

– Hearing Boulez’s shattering, clear-as-glass rendition of Debussy’s La Mer in 1984 for the first time, played live by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in UCLA’s Royce Hall, which had just re-opened to the public after a thorough renovation. The word “revelation” is overused and undervalued, but this was a REVELATION, exploding all pre-conceptions I had before about the piece and coloring whatever I’ve thought about it since.

Pierre Boulez. (Matt Dine Photography)

Pierre Boulez. (Matt Dine Photography)

– His press conference just before the above concert. Here was the new, genial, conciliatory Boulez, even expressing surprising (for us at the time) admiration for Frank Zappa, whose music he had just recorded. But then, when asked about minimalism, the old, confrontational Boulez suddenly leaped out. He heatedly equated it with neo-classicism, calling the latter “A cancer!”

–  A moment six minutes into the first West Coast performance of Boulez’s electro-acoustic masterwork Répons in a gymnasium on the UCLA campus, Feb. 1986. At that point, Boulez flicked his fingers and dramatically triggered a gorgeous, tingling, shimmering wave of surround-sound electronics that filled the room. It occurred to me right then that all of the conventional thinking about Boulez was wrong, that he was really a colorist first and foremost, not a systems man. I went back for seconds the next evening.

– The 1996 Ojai Festival. It was one of the most sweltering festivals ever, 97 degrees all weekend. Even the formal Boulez shed his usual business suit and tie for shirtsleeves by the last day. But he carried on – among other things, leading his new  … explosante fixe … like a magician and a transformed Mahler Fifth that indicated a new depth in his understanding of a composer to whom he came late. And as Boulez returned to the wings after the final bar of the final concert, exhausted from the heat, I could hear him mutter, “The end.” But it wasn’t.

Pierre Boulez turned 90 on March 26, 2015

Pierre Boulez turned 90 on March 26, 2015

– Back to Ojai, 2003. I managed to sneak into an ongoing Boulez rehearsal of Mahler’s Ninth, as I had in his previous visit for Mahler 5. I quietly took a seat on one of those rustic benches that no longer exist, opened my score to the middle of the first movement – and within five minutes I was in tears. This supremely rational, left-brain man had managed to find the emotional core of Mahler without grandstanding, without deviating from the page. Arnold Schoenberg said it – “Heart and brain in music.”

Happy birthday, Pierre!

Date posted: March 27, 2015

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