At 80, Boulez Makes a Grand Tour

This year marks the 80th birthday of the renowned French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, who became notorious for vigorously rejecting the music of the past and stridently championing new music. Now Boulez is welcomed in concert halls around the world — and this year, he's touring them, celebrating his birthday and spreading his vision. One of his first stops was the city where he made his name in America. Vivian Goodman, of member station WKSU, reports.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This year marks the 80th birthday of the renowned French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez. He became notorious after World War II for vigorously rejecting the music of the past. He was a strident champion of new music. Today Boulez is welcomed in concert halls around the world, and this year he's touring them, celebrating his birthday and spreading his vision. One of his first stops was Cleveland, the city where he made his name in America. That's where Vivian Goodman of member station WKSU caught up with him and had a chat.

VIVIAN GOODMAN reporting:

Pierre Boulez is a radical, a revolutionary and a provocateur. In 1967, he issued a battle cry to `blow up the opera houses' because he said they were `full of dust and excrement.'

Mr. PIERRE BOULEZ (Composer, Conductor): Unfortunately, I have not changed at all.

GOODMAN: Perhaps more unfortunately than he thought. After the September 11th attacks on the US, police raided his hotel room in Basel, Switzerland, confiscated his passport and interrogated him for three hours. It seems that 1967 comment had landed him on a terrorist watch list. Today Boulez says he was only joking about blowing up opera houses, but he remains deadly serious about dynamiting the traditional repertoire favored by most orchestras.

Mr. BOULEZ: They should be more courageous than they are and less comfortable with what they are doing. I think comfort is, really, the worst enemy of art.

(Soundbite of orchestral music)

GOODMAN: Boulez is one of the most influential composers and conductors of his time, and he gives credit for his interest in modern music to Stravinsky, who, during the war years, opened his ears to new possibilities.

Mr. BOULEZ: On the radio I heard for the first time "Nightingale," and Osumay(ph) was conducting, and therefore I listened to that, and I was totally--myself, my horizon, the most advanced horizon was the (unintelligible) at this time. And then when I heard that, it was--it must have been in '43 or something like that, and I remember very well still the place which struck me as, I mean, like lightning. I mean--and when I perform this work, I still remember my first impression; that it was a different world.

(Soundbite of orchestral music)

GOODMAN: Boulez made a name for himself in 1950s Paris by starting the Domaine Musical, one of the first concert series dedicated to modern music. To realize his own compositions, as he intended them, he began conducting. And in the early 1960s, George Szell hired him to guest conduct the Cleveland Orchestra and encouraged Boulez to program new music.

Mr. BOULEZ: He was thinking that maybe it was not, let's say--as one says, his cup of tea and--but he thought that it was necessary for the orchestra to perform this repertoire. And, therefore, as he was confident in me, he told me, `Well, if you want to do this repertoire, please do it because I am confident in your way of conducting.'

(Soundbite of orchestral music)

GOODMAN: Boulez made five Grammy Award-winning recordings with the Cleveland Orchestra. He went on to become principal conductor of both the BBC and the New York Philharmonic, where he refused to perform either Mozart or Tchaikovsky.

Mr. BOULEZ: Certainly I have not changed my ideas about the repertoire. I think that if you want to do something, you have to do it, really, with conviction because if you are not convinced, if you are just half your heart or the quarter of your heart in the programming, then so you are not ready to convince any kind of audience.

GOODMAN: In the 1970s, Boulez took a sabbatical from conducting to concentrate on composing and to explore electronic music.

(Soundbite of electronic music)

GOODMAN: Boulez knows his music and that of the other composers he champions may not be for everyone, but he remains committed to the idea of looking forward in music rather than backward.

Mr. BOULEZ: We are in the age of infinite memory. We can retain everything which is done. You have a library, a big library; you must burn the library every morning of your life. You should not rely purely on tradition. You should not rely on knowledge. You should rely on new questioning of the traditions and questioning the memory. Is this memory necessary, or is it superfluous? And, you know, if you accept only passively what the heritage is, then you are done, absolutely. You have no initiative. You cannot--because the burden of the adventure is too big. The memory should excite you to find something new and not be a burden on your thinking.

GOODMAN: He credits his own success in advancing the future of music to his stubborn persistence.

Mr. BOULEZ: If they see that you insist, they say, `Maybe he's right,' or something. And that's a kind of dialogue with an audience, and I hope that the dialogue will be fruitful always because you don't like to play in front of empty halls. And, certainly at 80, they think you are not completely crazy, that you have some experience and they trust you more than before.

GOODMAN: And at 80, he is no longer classical music's enfant terrible.

Mr. BOULEZ: Well, I am not an enfant anymore. I may be a terrible, but (French spoken) is not terribly important to anybody.

GOODMAN: But he is important, not only as one of the leading composers and interpreters of modern music but also as one of the most influential thinkers about the music of the 20th century and now the 21st.

For NPR News, I'm Vivian Goodman in Cleveland.

(Soundbite of piano music)

LUDDEN: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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