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In Berlin, A Musical Tribute To Composer Pierre Boulez
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In Berlin, A Musical Tribute To Composer Pierre Boulez

Music Reviews

TERRY GROSS, host:

Listeners to FRESH AIR may have noticed that our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, is even ardent admirer of the French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez. Lloyd's reviews have focused mainly on Boulez's work as a conductor. This fall, Lloyd was in Berlin where he heard part of a two-week festival devoted to Boulez's own music.

(Soundbite of music)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: I was lucky to be visiting Berlin just in time to catch the last five concerts in a two-week music festival celebrating the music of Pierre Boulez, in honor of the 85th birthday of the great composer, conductor and cultural icon. Such an in-depth exploration of the work of a living composer is, to put it mildly, extremely rare here. The concerts were in Berlin's controversial modern concert hall, the Philharmonie, and its next-door chamber-music hall, which has equally wonderful acoustics.

The night I arrived in Berlin, Boulez was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, which many people consider the world's greatest orchestra. It was the only program he himself conducted, and it was an astounding event. He opened with his own extraordinary "Explosante-fixe," a title he explained before the concert as a mixture of the completely spontaneous and wild, like an explosion, and something stable, static and fixed.

This piece, from the early 1970s, is a memorial to Stravinsky and in turn quotes from Stravinsky's haunting "Symphonies for Winds," which was his memorial for Debussy. With its electronic component and its major role for solo flute, dazzlingly played in this concert by the Berlin Philharmonic's famous flutist, Emmanuel Pahud, it's a mysterious and moving work and thrilling to hear Boulez himself bringing it to life in a rare live performance.

(Soundbite of song, "Explosante-fixe")

SCHWARTZ: That Berlin Philharmonic concert ended with Boulez conducting Stravinsky's magical early opera, "Le Rossignol" - the nightingale - based on a Hans Christian Andersen story. Boulez said that he had heard this as a child, and it was the piece that made him want to be a musician.

Boulez's own compositions are famously difficult, serial music that avoids the traditional thematic repetitions most concertgoers depend on to follow a score. Yet piece after piece mesmerized me.

Boulez the composer, is notorious for constantly revising and expanding his previous work and this festival certainly emphasized that aspect. At one concert, the gifted Finnish conductor Susanna Malkki, leading the Ensemble InterContemporain, the chamber group Boulez himself founded, followed an early solo piano piece, "Incise," with its latest incarnation, the exquisite "Sur Incises," which extends and redevelops the original with three pianos, three harps and three percussion instruments.

(Soundbite of song, "Sur Incises")

SCHWARTZ: Boulez's friend, the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, ended the festival by playing five of Boulez's very early and delicate piano miniatures, called "Notations," and after each one leapt from piano to podium to conduct the Staatskapelle Berlin, the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera, in Boulez's stunning later expansions for full orchestra. He brought down the house. I'm sorry no recording of this concert is available.

Of the concerts I heard, only the Berlin Philharmonic was completely sold out, but the other ones had remarkably full houses. Boulez himself was always around and was easy to approach by members of the audience. He remarked how old some of these pieces seemed to him, and how old he himself seemed to be. Yet his conducting had all his familiar energy, precision and passion. And after the last concert, when Barenboim insisted that he come on stage to take a bow, he reluctantly accepted the ovation everyone was dying to give him.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix, and teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the 2010 Musikfest Berlin's 85th birthday tribute to composer-conductor Pierre Boulez.

We're grateful to German radio Kultur for allowing us to use their live recordings.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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