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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Obituary: Pierre Boulez (1925-2015)

The French conductor, composer, creative force was 90.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pierre Boulez on the podium. He never used a baton.
Photo © Universal Music Group.
Pierre Boulez died yesterday. He passed at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany, according to a report published on the  The French composer and conductor was a key figure in shaping the music and performance style of the latter half of the 20th century. He was 90 years old.

A towering figure, Mr. Boulez was responsible for changing the way the world listened to music. From his early days as a music director of a small French opera company to an international career as conductor and composer that started in the 1950s, he was known for acerbic wit, sharp opinions (he once memorably suggested blowing up the world's opera houses)  and idiosyncratic interpretations of major works that often left audiences and music critics struggling to keep up.

His chief legacy remains his music. His catalogue is short but dense, featuring works like Le marteau sans maître for contralto and orchestra, orchestral pieces like ...explosante-fixé... and Repons. A skilled pianist, his Sonata No. 2 which was deemed "unplayable" by all but the most dexterous artists. A pioneer in the then-new field of electronic music, he helped found and lead the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris, a think tank for avant-garde composers and its orchestra, the Ensemble Intercontemperain.

The composer's podium career spanned seven decades, including a memorable seven-year run (1971-78) as music director of the New York Philharmonic. There, he introduced innovations such as "rug concerts" where the audience would sit on rugs and foam cushions with the orchestra playing in the middle of the concert hall. He also was fearless in the programming of modern music, exposing listeners to composers like Olivier Messiaen, Edgar Varése and New York's own Elliott Carter.

Mr. Boulez also had  an extensive recording career, first with Sony and then with Deutsche Grammophon. Key achievements include a memorable Pelléas et Melisande on the former label and an idiosyncratic cycle of Mahler symphonies on the latter, recorded in Vienna, Cleveland, Chicago and Berlin. He won the Grammy award for his 1996 recording of Debussy's La Mer and then repeated the feat for his 2002 disc of Varése.

He proved to be a memorable podium interpreter of Debussy, Ravel and Wagner. In 1976, he was selected by the Bayreuth Festival to conduct the centennial production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen in a controversial production by Patrice Chéreau. Mr. Boulez also conducted Parsifal at Bayreuth, showing that Wagner's slowest opera could be performed in a light and fast-moving way that revealed unusual impressionistic colors in the movement. (His uncut 1971 live recording of the opera clocks in at 3:38:38, nearly an hour shorter than James Levine's.)

Many of Mr. Boulez' '90s recordings came out when I was in graduate school. Indeed, his Mahler Sixth with the Vienna Philharmonic opened my ears to that composer's music and remains a staple of my listening library, along with his profoundly weird and wonderful Mahler Seventh with the Cleveland Orchestra. He also ventured into Romantic repertory with the Vienna Philharmonic, leading a profound interpretation of Bruckner's Eighth again with the Vienna players.

I only saw Mr. Boulez conduct once, in 1999  at Carnegie Hall with the Cleveland forces.  The program featured Ravel's Pavane pour une infante defúnte, Debussy's Danse Sacre et Danse Profane for harp and orhestra, and concluded with a memorable  performance of the opera L'enfant et les sortileges. Even genius had its playful side.

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