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Boulez Visits Juilliard on a Mission for New Music

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By their eighth decade, most professionals are thinking about winding down their careers. Pierre Boulez, however, seems always to be the first in line to balk convention. At age 82, this composer, conductor, and champion of the avant-garde remains a tireless ambassador and pedagogue of contemporary music. January marks the beginning of a collaboration between the Lucerne Festival Academy—a workshop for the intensive study of new music launched by Boulez in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 2004—and The Juilliard School, a project which Boulez hopes will strip away the problems associated with performing new music and inspire a young generation of musicians to approach this important repertoire with experience and enthusiasm.

Pierre Boulez conducting the Juilliard Orchestra in a reading of Bartok's Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin in December 2006.

(Photo by Charlie Samuels)

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Boulez, a student of Messiaen, is one of the leading figures of 20th- and 21st-century music. From his development of the principles of total serialism, to experiments with “controlled chance,” to his systematic advanced research of electronic music, there is hardly a contemporary compositional idiom he has not explored. In addition, he is well known as a conductor of 19th- and 20th-century repertoire, and counts among his many honors more than 20 Grammy Awards.

As Maestro Boulez explained in a recent telephone interview, the purpose of this collaborative project is “[to teach] young people to perform as well as possible and with a perfect understanding of the music.” The works selected for study and performance represent a variety of composers, nationalities, and generations. “The pieces are selected generally because they present some difficulties … and because they can interest people and show them a way of looking at scores and trying to solve the problems [posed] by a score.”

Boulez’s music certainly presents some problems to performers. In his words, “Some of [my] works were terribly difficult, so you had to spend so much energy to solve the rhythmical problems that you did not really devote all your energy to the expression of the music.” He hopes that by teaching his students the skills to tackle the technical aspects of this repertoire, they will be able to focus their talents to create a performance “which goes to the fundamental [of art]—expressing something.”

During his two-week residency in New York, Boulez will conduct the opening concert of Juilliard’s Focus! festival, as well as a concert of his own works at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall performed by members of the Lucerne Festival Academy. The Zankel Hall program, presented by Carnegie Hall in partnership with Juilliard, features two of his most important compositions: Le Marteau sans Maître (for alto flute, viola, guitar, percussion, and alto voice), a work that drew praise from Igor Stravinsky; and Sur Incises (for three harps, three pianos, and three percussionists), which won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Composition in 2001.

“I chose these two works,” he explains, “because one was written in the ’50s and the second one was written six years ago. There is a very different approach to music and to the spirit of the music. Marteau was for a very small group and a very exotic group, so to speak. On the contrary, Sur Incises is done with very regular instruments, but in a combination that is very unusual. Therefore, the two works are very different [in terms of] sonority and show that I give a lot of importance to the sound of a work. I think that a work for me has to have a kind of specific sound, and even with combinations of instruments which are really very usual, you can find combinations which are quite unusual.”

The fact that both works are for fairly small ensembles is no mistake. Today, says Boulez, composers “are all writing for smaller groups. The way of rehearsing and performing is more flexible. If you have six or eight people … the flexibility and approach of the rehearsal and the time you can devote to performance is much richer. [This] allows you to reach a very high level of performance which sometimes in the very limited [rehearsal] time of a big orchestra you cannot reach.”

About a week later, Boulez will be conducting the opening concert of Juilliard’s Focus! festival, “All About Elliott,” in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, with combined musicians from Juilliard and the Lucerne Festival Academy. He is pleased to be presiding over this tribute to Elliott Carter, with whom he has been friends for more than 40 years. Of Carter, he says, “I feel that he is a very important composer, and … somebody who dominates his generation. His [work] interests me certainly as music, and also as territory which is very unfamiliar to many young people.”

He observes that, like his own works, Carter’s music creates many practical challenges for performers. “For a long time, performances [of Carter’s works] were extremely rare. … It was [therefore] very difficult to have knowledge about … them and how an ideal performance should be.” Although Boulez does not see any direct relationships between his music and Carter’s, he identifies certain common elements, relating primarily to their harmonic vocabulary, but also to a reflective quality that complements the intellectual rigor of their works’ construction.

Boulez selected the three Carter works on the Focus! program because they are all very different. “The most difficult to understand and to perform is Penthode,” he says. “The easiest—and more brilliant and directly accessible—is certainly the Clarinet Concerto.” He says he is particularly proud to present the latter “because my ensemble in Paris, Ensemble Intercontemporain, commissioned this work. [It] was immediately very successful because it is extremely lively and attractive.”

To Boulez, the exchange of musical ideas across international boundaries is extremely important. “In my generation, there were more internationalists. It came from the war, because during the war, we were all separated really very drastically and the reaction of people educated during this time was to open all the windows possible. But now, due to what we call globalization, people are sometimes afraid of losing their genetic origin.

… I regret it sometimes, because I think … knowing other strong personalities from other [countries] can be enriching, and that’s not really something you have to fear.”

He also laments the lack of international contact between composers. “It is strange that in a world where communication is at its easiest … [one’s musical experience] is still terribly concentrated in the country where you are living. You have, for example, a kind of German milieu of composers and they have practically [no] experience with the French milieu of composers. I find that [communication] is more difficult now than it was 50 years ago.”

Of course, Boulez is not interested in sparking another series of nationalist movements, but rather engaging in a free exchange of ideas. “What I like is individuals. I don’t really rely on trends or on countries’ characteristics. But I find that some people are more gifted than other ones, which is just a very banal truth. I am interested to see if people can express themselves, and if they have found a way to express themselves very strongly. I can find that in every country.”

”I find also that performers have a lack of curiosity,” Boulez continues. “They are happy in their own surroundings and don’t pay attention enough to what is going on elsewhere.” Solving this problem, and promoting artistic curiosity, is another important goal of the Lucerne Festival Academy/Juilliard collaboration.

According to Boulez, educating musicians is only half of what is involved in the presentation of this music. He also believes that it is the duty of the composer to convince an audience of the importance of his or her art. This has long been a problem, especially in a world where the artist and the audience seem to have become increasingly estranged. He is not daunted. “To say that the public does not want to listen to anything—that’s an excuse. If you use your own authority to perform these pieces, then they will follow. Then they can have negative reactions or positive reactions, but they will not say ‘No!’ before listening. They can say ‘No!’ after listening, and that’s already progress.”

Perhaps Boulez’s secret to success is also the key to his longevity: “Be always not satisfied with what you have done, even if what you have done is satisfying. But just to go further—for me, that’s absolutely essential.” Coming from one who has gone so far so frequently, this is quite a challenge.

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