Could we have been wrong about Pierre Boulez all these years? Ever since the late 1940s when he burst onto the scene as a composer and conductor of contemporary music, Boulez had a reputation for being something of a musical anarchist determined to gun down Mozart and Beethoven with an unrelenting barrage of dissonant electronic music. Keep your distance, audiences were warned, or you'll be caught in the atonal crossfire. Everything he did seemed to reinforce his uncompromising tough guy image. He once famously suggested that all opera houses should be torn down. When he was put in charge of the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s, he placed the orchestra on the floor of the hall and encouraged concertgoers to sit around it on rugs and cushions.
And then there was the matter of the music he composed and championed. Filled with dissonances, backward-running electronic tapes, odd percussive sounds and eccentric rhythm, the music seemed, in those days, to be so unapproachable, so incomprehensible, so--well--unmusical.
But the French enfant terrible doesn't seem so terrible these days. Last week Boulez showed up at New York's Carnegie Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra in tow on an ambitious 11-city tour to mark his 75th birthday. The welcome he received was warm, enthusiastic and oddly sentimental. It was strange and ironic to see the man who had been sent packing after six years at the helm of the New York Philharmonic because he played too much difficult music, taking bow after bow following a performance of Gyorgy Ligeti's violin concerto, just the sort of work the New York establishment hated back then. In London, Paris and Cologne the Boulez-LSO road show also had glowing receptions. There was even cheering for Boulez in musically conservative Vienna.
Has time dulled Boulez's revolutionary edge? Not really."You have to understand that I was never really a rebel," he says. "Others were anti-establishment, but I believed in renovating musical institutions from the inside." Some institutions, like the Philharmonic of the 1970s, were not ready for renovation. "You have to accept that you can't always have results of 100%," says Boulez. But despite setbacks Boulez pressed on with his crusade of "breaking down the walls between traditional classical music and new music."
The success of the Boulez 2000 concert tour indicates that he has managed to breach those walls. "I'm always amazed to discover that I have not wasted my time all these early years," says Boulez, showing a touch of modesty rare in great conductors. Musical tastes have matured. Audiences--and musicians--are comfortable with musical idioms that seemed jarring only a decade or two ago. "The Violin Concerto by Berg, for example, is now totally accepted. It's like a kind of post-romantic work. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is like the Symphony No.5 of Beethoven."
Boulez and the LSO did not load the programs with the safe new warhorses of 20th century music. True, Mahler's Symphony No.6 ensured a packed house for the Sunday matinee at Carnegie and will undoubtedly prove a powerful draw when Boulez 2000 moves on this summer to six more cities including Salzburg and Edinburgh. And the presence of a mega-star like Daniel Barenboim playing Arnold Schoenberg's Piano Concerto is also a sure money spinner.
But, says LSO managing director Clive Gillinson, "The idea was to do something special which challenges the audience." Boulez surely wouldn't have it any other way. "People are coming to these concerts expecting that what they will be listening to will surprise them," says Boulez. And certainly the two sirens (one high range, the other low) in Olga Neuwirth's Clinamen/Nodus, one of four new compositions commissioned for the series, gave audiences a bit of a surprise.
Neuwirth, like the other three composers of the new works, has a weakness for percussion instruments. To play Clinamen/Nodus properly, the LSO was forced to secure a long list of strange instruments including not only the two kinds of sirens, but small- and medium- size anvils, two sets of cowbell, a large Chinese cymbal, tom-toms, a lion's roar and two varieties of slide whistles. The result is an entertaining, unpredictable and rather disjointed piece of music.
But is it--or any of the new works the LSO has served up--the sort of music that will survive and become standard concert fare for this century? Boulez, for one, isn't venturing an opinion on the subject. "You have nothing without risk," he says. "I don't want to spend my time in a music library dealing with the past. My mission, if I have one, is to make a junction between the audience and the music of their own time." In the end, that's what Boulez has been doing throughout his long career--only we didn't understand it. We thought he was about tearing down what we revered as "classical." Not at all. He was merely adding to the sum total of what we might find interesting musically. And there's nothing particularly revolutionary about that.