Happy Birthday, Pierre Boulez

by Sedgwick Clark


All scribes like to receive mail, even negative, because it shows that someone is reading us. A welcome note about last week’s blog, which concerned my love of youth orchestras, arrived from my good friend John Canarina, conductor, educator, critic, and author most recently of The New York Philharmonic: From Bernstein to Maazel (Amadeus Press):

“You wrote last week in your blog about hearing Boulez conduct the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in 1977. Though we didn’t know each other at the time, I was there, too! I agree with you 100 percent in your assessment and remembrance of that concert. It was stupendous, probably the finest Boulez concert I’ve ever heard.”

In its totality, I agree. But there were several unforgettable concerts during his Philharmonic years that deserve mention, beginning with those four electrifying programs in February and March 1969 that earmarked him as Leonard Bernstein’s successor as music director. Pardon me, as I quote from one of my early blogs (2-15-10), reviewing a pair of Chicago Symphony concerts. “Very simply, [Boulez] changed the way I hear music. From those first four Philharmonic concerts, I cannot forget the harmonic clarity and singing of the cellos halfway through the first movement of La Mer; the unexpected orchestral outburst and dramatic surge of waves at the climax of “Asie,” the first song in Ravel’s Shéhérazade, which nearly propelled me from my seat; the whisper-quiet dynamics in Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta; and of course that savage Sacre! His Philharmonic years are still the most exciting of my concert-going life.”

During those initial Philharmonic appearances, Boulez led a spine-tingling chamber-music concert of works by Schoenberg and Debussy at Hunter College that I recounted in my reminiscences of the late Charles Rosen only two months ago (1-4-13). What I did not mention was that Boulez accompanied soprano Bethany Beardslee in Debussy’s Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, and for the first time I sensed I was hearing a “piano without hammers,” as the composer prescribed.

Several performances at Philharmonic Rug Concerts stand out in my memory – perhaps foremost being the first and second Improvisations sur Mallarmé of Boulez’s Pli selon pli, with soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, on June 14, 1974, in which one could hear the proverbial pin drop in the jam-packed Philharmonic Hall. Afterwards in the green room, Boulez rhapsodized about the effect of such an attentive audience on a performer – that he could set broader tempos, be more expressive, take longer ritards.

Earlier that year, on February 14, he had conducted a single non-subscription performance of Mahler’s Eighth with equal success. He was always at his best on such occasions, when he knew the audience had come specifically to hear his interpretation rather than another subscription concert. There are moments such as the clarity at the end of Part I of ascending eighth notes in the strings, balanced perfectly with the offstage brass, that I despair ever again hearing with such precision and impact. At the dress rehearsal in the morning, I noticed Erich Leinsdorf across the hall with his head buried in the score, no doubt with admiration.

I could mention any number of subsequent concerts with the orchestras of Chicago and Cleveland, his favorite ensembles in America, but it seems to me that his years in New York are in greater need of reminiscence. As it happens, MusicalAmerica.com reported on 2/28 that Boulez had cancelled this month’s Chicago and Cleveland engagements for the second year in a row for health reasons; earlier in the year he had cancelled engagements in France. Problem is, his eyesight has been failing, and he only conducts with a score. As he nears his 88th birthday on the 26th of this month, our best wishes go out to him for a complete and immediate recovery.

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