Last week came yet another reminder that at age 77 Pierre Boulez may be the most commanding presence in classical music. In its decision to award him the $50,000 (Canadian) Glenn Gould Prize, the Toronto jury recognized Boulez as a "composer, conductor, organizer, and thinker who in many different, related ways has affected and inspired musical life the world over."
Nowadays, that seems incontestable. But it wasn’t always so. During his less-than-happy tenure as the New York Philharmonic’s music director in the 1970s, Boulez was regularly blamed for deconstructing New York’s formerly civilized musical life. Although no one ever denied his formidable talent (his ear was so precise that the Philharmonic’s musicians dubbed him "The French Correction"), his relentless championing of modern and contemporary music distressed many who preferred the more conservative tastes of his predecessor, Leonard Bernstein. And even in music in which he excelled — Debussy, Ravel and the Second Vienna School — his interpretations were thought to be clear but hard-edged and devoid of sentiment. His own compositions were deemed both incomprehensible and insignificant.
Twenty years later, Boulez is probably the most highly-sought-after guest conductor in the world. He appears regularly in London and Cleveland and is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal guest conductor. Orchestra musicians — who are rarely pushovers — offer glowing reports of his working methods and his complete mastery of the scores he conducts. His approach to the music of the past has softened somewhat, and his recent recordings of Debussy, Mahler, Stravinsky, and Bartók have yielded fascinating rethinks. Perhaps his most remarkable recent triumph is a stunning live recording of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, a monumental yet sensuous performance.
And in what must be the most satisfying victory, audiences now routinely pack concert halls to hear Boulez direct his own works, which no longer seem so fearsome. His Répons took home the 2000 Grammy Award for best contemporary classical composition; Sur incises copped the $200,000 Gravemeyer Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in music. His recent recording of Pli selon pli, his "portrait of Mallarmé," shows how intelligible his music becomes when his gifts for clarifying and sorting out dense textures are applied to his own works.
Notable among his recent releases is a 1992 video of Debussy’s lone opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, at the Welsh National Opera which Deutsche Grammophon recently reissued on DVD. Boulez’s conducting, at once lush and precise, is a perfect accompaniment for director Peter Stein’s dark, moody setting of Debussy’s strange tragedy. You even get brief glimpses into the conductor’s mind: during the transitions between scenes the camera pans to shots of the score with what appear to be Pierre’s own markings in them. It’s a cinch to call this the best video of the opera available, and as an interpretation it bests Boulez’s earlier recording for Sony.
Obviously the Gould prize is far from the first significant honor to be bestowed on Boulez; still, I’d bet that the Frenchman might especially enjoy the association with the great Canadian pianist. Both were fiercely committed to the music of Schoenberg and his disciples and spent considerable energy trying to get audiences to share their enthusiasm. Both were fascinated by the effect of technology on music — Boulez in his composing, Gould in his recordings. And both are viewed as among the most uncompromising musical artists of their respective eras.
All of which begs an important question: will Boston get to hear him again before his illustrious career comes to a close?
IN WITH THE OLD. You might as well just admit that you want to hear Handel’s Messiah before the year ends. Really, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and you could do worse than to show up at Boston Baroque’s performances under the sensible if not always exuberant conducting of Martin Pearlman. Concerts are next weekend, December 13 and 14, at 8 p.m. at NEC’s Jordan Hall. Call (617) 484-9200. And the Tallis Scholars, perhaps the world’s finest Renaissance vocal ensemble, arrive in Boston on the heels of a new CD dedicated to music of Franco-Flemish composer Nicolas Gombert. They’ll perform at the Church of the Immaculate Conception’s Jesuit Urban Center on December 14 at 8 p.m. as part of the Boston Early Music Festival. Call (617) 661-1812.