By Nancy Malitz
On March 26 there will be 90 candles atop the birthday cake of Pierre Boulez.
We have needed him to live this long. The young composer who emerged as a fire-breathing giant of the Western European postwar avant-garde would become a conductor of rare clarity and insight. Boulez helped to bring 20th-century music into focus for us. While he was at it, this exacting leader developed a virtuoso standard for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and other complex earlier 20th-century works by Schoenberg, Webern, Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen, and Bartók.
Thus it’s particularly welcome for historical perspective that Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich have embarked on an international all-Boulez recital tour that re-visits the purely pianistic compositions that occupied him from the mid-1940s, over a period of about 15 years, when Boulez was in his twenties and early thirties. These works are keys to Boulez’s brazenly combative new ways of thinking at a time when he deemed a complete rupture with European Romanticism to be essential.
Over time his intransigence mellowed. A number of Boulez’s large-scale compositions have slipped into the canon. His surrealistic song cycle Pli selon pli (Fold upon Fold) for soprano and orchestra is a shimmering work with touches of glass and steel in the sound, and to today’s ears it seems to fit logically into the French tradition. The once unusual chamber configuration of Le marteau sans maître (The Hammer Without a Master) — for mezzo-soprano, vibraphone, zylorimba, guitar, percussion, alto flute, and viola — is fundamental, the stuff on which today’s freely configured contemporary ensembles thrive.
“But the piano was his instrument for composing at first, so these are important pieces,” Aimard said by phone of the keyboard repertoire he and Stefanovich will perform, singly and together, in roughly chronological order from 1945 forward. The tour dates include Berkeley on March 12, Chicago on March 15, New York on March 16, and Chapel Hill on March 18, as well as a recital in Amsterdam on March 25.
These are the Boulez works the pianists will perform:
- Twelve Notations
- Piano Sonata No. 1
- Piano Sonata No. 2
- “Constellation-Miroir” and “Trope” from Piano Sonata No. 3
- une page d’éphéméride
- Structures, Book II for Two Pianos
Speaking after the duo’s recent tour opener in Ithaca, N.Y., Aimard sounded tired but elated. “At the start I thought, ‘My God, this is going to be quite a lot of demanding music,’ but I was surprised in the best sense by the audience reaction,” he said.
“They were really captivated. This is music that in most cases you will not understand completely from the first steps. It requires time for adults who have been educated in another way. Still, you can also ask, ‘What about late Beethoven? What about Art of the Fugue by Bach? Or some pieces by Schoenberg?’ These are also pieces of art that are not intended to be solved that easily. So we wanted to bring this music closer to the audience and give a chance to know it better because what it contains is so rich. It is our world.”
Aimard was 19 when Boulez made him a founding member of the Ensemble Intercontemporain at IRCAM (Institute for Music/Acoustic Research and Coordination). The ensemble would eventually become Boulez’s preferred instrument for composition experiments. But the piano works tell an interesting story about Boulez’s fervent early explorations involving thoroughly integrated formulas to govern all sorts of musical decisions in addition to pitch.
“There is a moment when Boulez tried to control every parameter of creation, in Structures I (for two pianos, 1961),” Aimard said. “And then he realized the limits of this hyper-control, which he wrote about in his essay, ‘At the Limit of Fertile Land….’ So you see him always trying to get the right balance between the strength of the organization and the freedom that he needed.
“I think that each of the pieces is completely different. For example, the First Sonata  is very pure and compact. The Second Sonata  is a huge, extremely rich formal project but with an immense burning, exploded texture.”
By the time of the Third Sonata (beginning in 1955), which Aimard heard as “a reflection on composing in a new dimension, the more open form,” Boulez was making room for some elements to be controlled by chance. Aimard found Structures II to be “very theatrical, well on the way to developing this basic question of how to balance organization and freedom more fully.”
Gifted in mathematics and an engineer by inclination, Boulez in his early years was an eager intellectual who drew inspiration from cutting-edge poets, visual artists, and philosophers. His music was a conceptual river of post-Webern atonalism commingled with Klee, Foucault, Genet, Adorno, Char, and Mallarmé.
Some of those extra-musical influences are explored in another Boulez tribute available free online now and scheduled to tour the June festival circuit in a version involving live performers — A Pierre Dream: A Portrait of Pierre Boulez.
The fascinating 75-minute tribute is a multimedia creation of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s decade-long Beyond the Score series, which introduced A Pierre Dream in November 2014. It involves historic film footage, graphic projections, a singer, eighteen musicians, and seven actors who manipulate portable video screens, designed by Frank Gehry, as if they were puppets, so they can zero in on the performers with hand-held cameras.
Boulez himself helped to shape A Pierre Dream with Gerard McBurney, longtime creative director of Beyond the Score, and Martha Gilmer, at that time the Chicago Symphony’s VP of artistic planning and audience development. “He didn’t want it to be a biography,” recalled Gilmer from her new post as CEO of the San Diego Symphony. “He wanted it to stand for something more.” She and McBurney visited him at his home in Baden-Baden twice specifically for the purpose, once to discuss the project in great detail, and once to do the filming.
“I was so moved by how he took us into his own mind,” Gilmer said. “It was fascinating how he guided us. He wanted to talk about certain principles that he established early, that in some cases matured or ripened, but the germ of it having been there at the beginning with him.”
The film’s structural sophistication is apparent. Segments of key works are interspersed with footage of the composer talking about the sometimes lengthy and complex gestation of specific ideas. The cross-cutting of film from various decades is so deftly done that at one point Boulez seems mildly perplexed, even vexed, by an earlier version of himself.
In June, the production will be seen at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam and the Aldeburgh Festival in the U.K., and in California at the Ojai Music Festival and Cal Performances at Berkeley, picking up new performers along the way.
Boulez’s bountiful relationship with the Chicago Symphony extends back to his two-week visit in February 1969, when he conducted Debussy’s Jeux, Webern’s Passacaglia and Six Pieces for Orchestra, Messiaen’s Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, and Bartók’s First Piano Concerto, with soloist Daniel Barenboim.
Boulez then presumably picked the thoroughly taxed musicians up off the floor for a second series of concerts featuring the U.S. premiere of his own Livre pour cordes, and cellist Jacqueline du Pré in the Schumann Concerto. A chronicle of his many other CSO visits includes a tour stop with the Ensemble Intercontemporain in 1986, performances of all his own large-scale works, and world premieres by Bernard Rands, Harrison Birtwistle, Franco Donatoni, Elliott Carter, Matthias Pintscher, Philippe Manoury, and Augusta Read Thomas.
In addition to the streaming version of A Pierre Dream, the Chicago Symphony offers a number of other Beyond the Score programs available for viewing online.
Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.