CSO conductor emeritus Pierre Boulez dies at 90

Pierre Boulez, the eminent if controversial French composer, conductor, educator and administrator widely held to be the greatest living composer and also the most important and influential figure in musical modernism in the second half of the last century, died Tuesday at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany, at age 90.

His death was confirmed by his family in a statement to the Philharmonie de Paris.

At his death, Boulez retained the title of conductor emeritus of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a position he had held since 2006. He occupied a central role in the life of the orchestra, and in Chicago music, for decades since his CSO conducting debut in 1969, at concerts that also brought the CSO solo debut of future music director Daniel Barenboim.

Boulez began an annual series of CSO residencies in 1991, formalizing that relationship in 1995 when Barenboim named him principal guest conductor. He was only the third conductor to hold that position in the orchestra's history. He assumed the title of emeritus conductor following Bernard Haitink's arrival as principal conductor.

“With the loss of Pierre Boulez, the world of music today is infinitely poorer,” said CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti, in a statement. “I am deeply grateful for his contributions, as composer, conductor and educator, to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with which he had a collaboration of nearly 50 years. His great musical artistry and exceptional intelligence will be missed.”

Boulez's work in Chicago was marked by much the same cool energy, questing intelligence and zeal to liberate the orchestra and its repertory from the rigid confines of hidebound tradition that typified his work elsewhere, including at the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and BBC Symphony Orchestra. He later regretted that his life on the podium kept him away from composition for long periods.

With the CSO, he explored landmark 20th-century scores by Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Bartok, Varese, Messiaen, Debussy, Ravel and others, premiered numerous new works and offered bracing perspectives on established symphonic repertory that interested him, including Berlioz, Mahler, Bruckner, Richard Strauss and Leos Janacek.

Debilitating physical problems in recent years, including severely impaired vision, slowed his already painstaking compositional output and prevented him from traveling to Chicago to fulfill scheduled podium engagements in the 2011 and 2012 seasons. His final appearances in Chicago were in 2010, when he led typically lucid and probing performances of such works as Mahler's Symphony No. 7.

The CSO paid eloquent homage to the pathbreaking composer and revelatory conductor in November 2014 with a special Beyond the Score program, “A Pierre Dream.”

Although mellower in some respects from the Boulez of old, his eagle ear remained as acute as ever at his final CSO concerts. The Chicago musicians respected him enormously and adored working with him, just as his fervent advocacy of his canonic modern repertory went far toward breaking down their own, and the audience's, resistance to new music, here as elsewhere.

“When I am in front of an orchestra, the players know I have quite a lot of experience behind me,” Boulez told the Tribune in 2010. “Therefore there is a kind of — respect is too hard a word — agreement that I know my business. I try to persuade them as to the merits of a given score without forcing them to swallow something they don't want to swallow. I have found that generally when an orchestra is convinced about a work, this conviction carries over to most of the audience.”

Boulez, born in Montbrison, France, in 1925, had a career as a musician that was in some respects a series of contradictions.

In his youth as a Young Turk of the avant-garde who once advocated that concert halls and opera houses should be burned down (at least figuratively) as monuments to an irrelevant past, he wound up as one of the most eloquent and persuasive interpreters of that musical past, or a significant swath of it.

As an early proponent of the 12-tone method of composition devised by Arnold Schoenberg, Boulez once declared that any composer who didn't feel the necessity of Schoenberg's system was “useless.” Yet he later repudiated that system as a mere starting point for a much more fundamental evolution of the musical grammar in classical composition.

An avowed enemy of the musical establishment as it existed in his native France during the decade or so after World War II, he later achieved perhaps his most enduring successes as a widely respected member of that establishment.

His game-changing masterpiece, “Le Marteau sans Maitre” (“The Hammer Without a Master”), was like a stink-bomb that he and his generation of young radicals hurled at the existing artistic order.

A charming, soft-spoken if still-erudite pussycat in his years of senior eminence, Boulez never regretted the bullying pronouncements of his youth, as he explained to Chicago's New City newspaper in 2010. “They were useful for their time, but that time is past,” he said. “Certainly if you take a picture of yourself 30 years ago, that same picture cannot be used as a picture of yourself today.”

The passage of time and greater familiarity with Boulez's sometimes harmonically knotty, intricately crafted music won that relatively small body of works a greater acceptance, if not among the mainstream concert public then a committed segment of modernist sympathizers.

Outspoken about his historical role, he remained an object of fear and loathing to some in the classical field who accused him of practically driving contemporary music to a dead end. Composer John Adams, whose opera “The Death of Klinghoffer” Boulez decried as “bad film music,” called him “a mannerist, a niche composer, a master with a very small hammer.”

Boulez began conducting his own works in the 1950s with concerts by the fiercely modernist Domaine Musicale in Paris. He did so by necessity, he later said, because no one else wanted to, or could have done them justice. He later developed into one of the most compelling and insightful interpreters of his given symphonic repertory. He also made peace with the opera houses with his pioneering accounts of Wagner's “Ring” cycle and “Parsifal” at Germany's Bayreuth Festival, and Berg's “Wozzeck” and “Lulu” at the Paris Opera.

In 1977, he was invited to create IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), a center for advanced musical research in Paris, along with its resident new music group, the Ensemble Intercontemporain. He later was involved in the planning of Paris' Cite de la Musique, an ambitious “city of music” that began in 1981-82 and opened its first stages in 1995.

His work at IRCAM was driven to a great extent by his conviction that, since 1945, music's evolution had been hampered by a lack of research into the possibilities of electronic and computer technology. One of his groundbreaking works to emerge from that research was the 1981 “Repons,” which incorporates digitally transformed sounds.

Boulez's subsequent tinkering with “Repons” became emblematic of his late working method. For the final decades of his life, and as long as his failing eyesight permitted, he devoted his creative energies to rewriting and elaborating his earlier works. He often said a musical work should be a labyrinth, with no fixed route nor even a necessarily fixed ending. Thus he began more pieces than he ever finished, and subjected older scores to endless revision.

A case in point was his series of “Notations,” orchestral versions of piano pieces he had composed in the 1950s. In 1991 Barenboim had the CSO commission him to round off the symphonic cycle with “Notations V-VIII,” but only one or two pieces ever left the fastidious composer's workbench.

Conducting his own music as well as that of the composers of the last century with whom he has particular affinity had two results, Boulez said in a Tribune interview.

“The first result 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.”

Chicago Symphony audiences are testimony to the fact that whatever musical explorations Boulez undertook, he opened new paths of understanding and made converts to the modernist repertory be believed in. It wasn't always so: In 1969, CSO subscribers walked out when he conducted Berg's “Three Pieces for Orchestra.” Decades later, when he led the orchestra and the Swingle Singers in Luciano Berio's dense, allusive “Sinfonia,” the subscribers not only stayed in their seats but cheered.

One explanation for the change lay in Boulez's conducting itself. Once thought to be a chilly, unbending interpreter, he became over the years a more flexible, spontaneous, interesting conductor, without ever losing the laserlike clarity that made his composer's perspective on other composers' music so illuminating.

“I am very much taken by musical continuity now,” he once said. “Having conducted quite a lot has given me more a sense of the sound, to listen to the sound more than before, to be more free with what I am conducting.

“I still think the principles of conducting are very simple, but the reality is very complex. For me, working with an orchestra is always trying to convince them (of the validity of my musical views), but not being authoritarian. When you have principal players of such high caliber, in Chicago or elsewhere, why contradict their ideas? Sometimes you must adjust to them; sometimes they to you. You try to keep the personality of your musicians in front of you because it's a gift.”

Boulez received many honors, including the $500,000 Kyoto Prize for his lifetime achievement in 2009 and the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in 2013. He also won numerous Grammy Awards, many for recordings he made with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

John von Rhein is a Tribune critic.

jvonrhein@tribpub.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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