Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Celebrating Boulez at 85.

Though yesterday's post was focused on Philadelphia, I'm currently in Chicago for a weeklong visit before the start of the spring semester at Saint Joseph's. Besides visiting friends and places I don't get to see often, my itinerary includes a concert with one of my favorite conductors (Pierre Boulez) leading one of my favorite ensembles (the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) in what promises to be a stimulating program. Regarded by many as the monstre sacre of modern music, Boulez shows no signs of slowing down as he prepares to celebrate his 85th birthday in March. In today's Chicago Tribune, music critic John von Rhein has more on Boulez:
Pierre Boulez has traveled vast distances since those early years when the incendiary young modernist clawed and shouted his way to the top of the Parisian musical avant-garde. Having made the long journey from enfant terrible to grand old man, he no longer has to shout to be heard. And when he makes pronouncements, he no longer does so with lofty derision but with smiling authority.

On March 26, the French composer and conductor, one of the most distinguished figures in contemporary music, will turn 85. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with which Boulez has enjoyed an exceptionally cordial relationship that goes back four decades, is celebrating that milestone with a series of concerts and discussions throughout the month that will bring audiences closer to Boulez's music, as well as give them the chance to hear him conduct new pieces along with classics of the 20th century with which he has long been identified.

Speaking by phone from his home in Paris, Boulez talked enthusiastically about his return to the CSO, which promoted its former principal guest conductor to conductor emeritus in 2006 and which he will take to Ann Arbor and New York's Carnegie Hall later this month. He spoke less enthusiastically about reaching 85.

"I accept my age when we speak about it, but when I see it in print, that's not very encouraging!" he said with a wry chuckle. That he is about to turn 85 "feels even more unreal now" than when he reached his 70th, 75th, and 80th years, he added.
In the paragraphs that follow, Boulez thoughtfully discusses coming CSO programs and expresses the hope that an upcoming sabbatical from conducting will give him time to complete some long-delayed compositions. Boulez also speaks about how conducting works written by others helps him as a composer, and he further explains how music fits into his "religion of art":
"The first result [of conducting others' works] is that I am more realistic than before. Experience, if it's any help, gives you a sense of the possible - what you can achieve in practical terms with an orchestra. I know that maybe I can achieve more now than before. The second result is that by conducting the music of these composers I learn how they exploit their musical ideas. This I find very interesting in terms of my own composing."

. . .

Much as observers like to label him as little more than a musical theoretician, the fact remains that the more one listens to his music, the more its sensuous, even seductive qualities are apt to emerge.

Does Boulez regard himself as a spiritualist?

"No, religion is not my cup of tea," he replies. "But I have the religion of art. You can express your human feelings through music - that is essential to me. If music is only a construction of logical thinking, that's not terribly interesting. I like composers who have the right balance between feeling and a musical organization that reinforces those feelings. For me, the late Beethoven quartets are a model of how to achieve that. I feel very close to that music."
To read the rest, click here. Though Boulez was a student of the devoutly Catholic French composer Olivier Messiaen, his teacher's integration of art and faith seems not to have made a lasting impression on him. Still, I do sense an integrity in Boulez's "religion of art" as well as an openness to transcendence in his music that I do not find in the glib pronouncements of 'spiritual-not-religious' types. Regardless of whether or not Pierre Boulez ever finds God, I will remain grateful to God for the gift of Boulez's life and art. AMDG.


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