Music critic and journalist
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Cheryl North Writes about Pierre Boulez

ANG Newspapers, May 19, 2000

One of the most difficult, even disturbing, pieces of music I've ever encountered was a duo piano work written by the great French composer Pierre Boulez. Yet, one of the nicest, most thoroughly civilized gentlemen I've ever met, was its composer, Pierre Boulez.

Now, at the age of 75, Boulez is still one of the 20th century's most controversial musicians. Igor Stravinsky, before his death in 1971, called Boulez "the greatest composer of his generation," and just a couple of months ago, the respected British music critic High Canning, wrote that Boulez is both "icon and guru to the cutting-edge contemporary music set...begetter of all that is strident, difficult and inaccessible to the vast majority of classical music lovers."

Although he is the acknowledged alpha composer of the avant garde, as a conductor, Maestro Boulez is arguably the most revered interpreter of the more traditional, aesthetically beautiful, works of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Mahler. His 1998 Deutsche Grammophon recording leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through Mahler's Symphony No. 9 even won a Grammy!

So, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players are right on the mark to finish off their 1999/2000 Concert Series with a musical tribute to the great Boulez to celebrate his 75th birthday. Scheduled for 8 p.m. Monday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard St., in San Francisco, the concert will feature Boulez' adventurous Sur Incises, scored for three harps, three pianos, and three percussion instruments.

The Players will acknowledge yet another prominent contemporary composer -- Luciano Berio, who also celebrates his 75th birthday this year. Berio will be honored with a performance of his dream-like Linea, written for two pianos and two percussion instruments.

My first painful encounter with Boulez' infamous duo piano piece happened back in the early 1980s, when I was taking a contemporary music class, benevolently taught by prominent East Bay composer/scholar/professor, Glenn Glasow. "Why," I thought, "would ANYone compose something like this?"

The piece was almost mechanically rigid. Maestro Boulez had not only dictated the specific series of angularly dissonant 12 notes to be used over and over again in the composition, he also indicated exactly how he wanted the performers to attack and release those specific notes. The nightmarish score looked and sounded like nothing I'd ever before encountered.

However, the rather short, but sturdily built, Boulez himself was the epitome of Gallic graciousness when I met him at a benefit for the Gustav Mahler Library in Paris last Fall. He smilingly, tirelessly, greeted all those who came up to him, and quite modestly responded to the extravagant praises being heaped upon him for his brilliant interpretation of Stravinsky's Petroushka earlier that evening. It seems that the versatile Boulez has a foot in both the more traditional musical world of order and tonality, and the ultra-modern, anything-goes, contemporary music scene.

Born on March 26, 1925 in Montbrison, (near Lyon) France, he studied with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire and founded the Ensemble InterContemporain at his Paris base of the Institut de Recherche et Co-ordination Acoustique/Musique. As both composer/innovator and traditional conductor, he has been credited with having more influence on the international music scene than any other post-war figure.

According to interviews in the spate of international magazines, newspapers, and books published about him so far this year, Boulez considers himself a "simple man" who hates the idea of getting up at precisely 7:30 a.m. and having lunch at 12:30 p.m. He doesn't usually eat breakfast and avoids taxis and traffic and prefers to stay in simple hotels within walking distance of the concert halls where he performs. He also admits to loving poetry and sometimes stays up until 2 or 3 a.m.

His main residence is in the center of Paris, but he also has a home in Baden Baden to which he loves to drive his Mercedes in order to spend three or four weeks alone, thinking and composing, each year. He still plays the classics on his Steinway piano, but according to him, "not very well."

Although he has enjoyed unabashed glory on the podium as a conductor and even spent his recent 75th birthday conducting the Ensemble InterContemporain in a performance of his largest orchestral work, Pli selon pli, in London's Southbank Centre, he intends to retire from conducting and concentrate on composition. "There isn't enough time for everything," he says. "Composing is a constant urge -- it never stops."

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