CSO to mark Boulez’s 85th birthday in style

Thu Jan 07, 2010 at 12:28 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Pierre Boulez. Photo: Harald Haffman

Sometimes the stars actually do align, and the right people are in the right place at the right time.

Such was the situation of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in early 2004 when Daniel Barenboim unexpectedly announced that he would not renew his contract as CSO music director when it expired in June 2006. Music director since 1991 when he succeeded the charismatic Sir Georg Solti, Barenboim disagreed with the CSO administration about the artistic direction the orchestra should take in future seasons. The CSO suddenly found itself searching for a new maestro at a time when numerous other orchestras in the U. S. and Europe were also stalking a dismayingly small number of viable candidates. The prospects of finding a suitable match quickly were slim to none.

That was when Pierre Boulez, one of the 20th century’s most eminent composers and conductors, stepped up to the plate. He had first conducted the CSO in 1969 in a program that featured a young Barenboim as piano soloist. One of Barenboim’s closest friends and colleagues, the French conductor had become a regular visitor to the CSO once Barenboim became music director. In 1995 he was named principal guest conductor, only the third person to hold that position since the CSO’s founding in 1891.

Boulez could have severed his CSO connections when Barenboim did. But he decided to stay on and—along with principal conductor Bernard Haitink—helped guide the orchestra through what turned out to be a four-year interregnum. (In June 2008, the CSO announced that Riccardo Muti would become its 10th music director. He takes the job on a full-time basis in September.)

“I like Daniel very much,’’ Boulez said after Barenboim’s announcement. “and I’m terribly sorry that he will finish here so abruptly. But I told him that I don’t want also to say, ‘If Daniel goes, then the orchestra doesn’t matter to me.’ That would not be fair; the orchestra has been very cooperative to me. We have a good relationship and I don’t want to break that.’’

That good relationship has endured. Boulez’s 85th birthday is March 26, and the CSO is celebrating this month with an ambitious schedule of concerts and other events. Now bearing the title of CSO conductor emeritus, Boulez will conduct two sets of CSO concerts beginning tonight through Jan.12 and Jan. 21-23. He will lead a concert in the CSO’s contemporary chamber series, MusicNOW, Jan. 24 and share his views about contemporary music at 6 p.m. Jan. 26 at the Art Institute’s Fullerton Hall. He also conducts the CSO on tour in concerts in Ann Arbor, Mich., Jan. 27 and Carnegie Hall Jan. 30-31.

“He showed his loyalty to the institution, to the players and to the city,’’ said Michael Henoch, assistant principal oboe and a CSO member for 37 years about Boulez’s decision to maintain ties with the orchestra.

“I don’t think anyone would have blamed him if he had just packed up and left when Barenboim was finished. I was on the search committee after Barenboim’s resignation. And we spent a good deal of our time in the first months worrying about the interim. We knew we weren’t going to get a new music director right away. We were so grateful when [Boulez] stepped forward and said that he would continue his relationship and help out.”

That help went beyond conducting the CSO. Music directors have sizable off-stage roles, some of which demand continuing attention. They help plan upcoming seasons. They participate in auditions and help make decisions about tenure for new orchestra members. ”There aren’t a lot of conductors who would spend that kind of time,” said Henoch. “I think it spoke volumes about his integrity. He doesn’t just say things; he does them.’’

After a recent rehearsal for this week’s performances, which include Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle with vocal soloists Michelle DeYoung and Falk Struckmann, Boulez looked fit and rested. While in Japan to accept the prestigious Kyoto Prize in November, he fell, suffering an eye injury that necessitated surgery. He is recovering well, but the eye is still a pesky annoyance.

“To be conducting with only one eye, that’s not ideal, I must say,” he said with a wry laugh during an interview in the conductor’s dressing room backstage at Symphony Center. “I don’t want to be a Cyclops.’’

Boulez has combined composing and conducting since the late 1950s when he started conducting simply to insure decent performances for his own, often fearsomely complex works. He held chief conductor posts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s and has maintained close relationships with the Vienna Philharmonic and, in the U. S., with the Cleveland Orchestra as well as the CSO. George Szell, Cleveland’s legendary maestro, helped launch Boulez’s U. S. career in the late 1960s when he invited Boulez to appear as a regular guest conductor.

Famed for performances that emphasize clarity and transparent textures, Boulez relishes the close connections he has forged with orchestras like the CSO.

“We know each other very well now,’’ he said. “I don’t need to express myself with words even. You don’t need to make long speeches. I never do that when I’m rehearsing. I say ‘I want precisely this.’ I say very particularly what I want. That’s the difficulty, to translate what you want into very simple words.’’

Boulez will spend his 85th birthday in Vienna conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a program that includes works by Stravinsky, Debussy and five pieces from his Notations series. He will take a sabbatical from conducting in 2010-11, and he plans to work on his own music, including orchestrating the remaining pieces in Notations, a long-overdue commission from the CSO.  He originally composed the set of short piano pieces early in his career and began to orchestrate them more than a decade ago.

“I’m conducting too much, especially in a year that is an anniversary’’ Boulez said, shaking his head. “During my sabbatical year, I will finish my Notations.

“It’s horrible,’’ he said with a rueful laugh. “Somebody asks, ‘What are you doing?’ and I say Notations, and they say, ‘Oh yes, we know the title.’ I will do other pieces in between, but that one I want to get rid of.’’

Considering the amount of time, onstage and off, Boulez has given the CSO in the past four years, orchestra staffers and musicians are willing to overlook a late-arriving Notations commission.  Henoch prizes Boulez’s efficiency in rehearsals and the low-key way he draws the best possible music-making from every member of the orchestra.

“I don’t think Pierre Boulez does anything [to impress] the audience,’’ said Henoch. “He does everything for the music, and that’s about as great a compliment as I can give him. He’s not there to make himself look great. He’s there to produce music at the highest level. Whatever that takes, he gets it done.’’

For Deborah F. Rutter, CSO president who has known Boulez since the 1980s, he has inspired her to think about music in new ways.

“I’ll never forget a meeting he was invited to eight years ago,’’ she said. “Some of us were getting together to talk about orchestras, and he spoke to us. [He described] a concert hall as a house for music—a place where you can come and be comfortable, where you can relax, explore, discover, live and just be. Your concert hall has to be a welcoming place for all kinds of exploration.”

Boulez has been exploring 20th century music with the CSO virtually every year for almost two decades. He has a cordial relationship with Riccardo Muti, so, with luck, after his sabbatical year, he will return to Symphony Center once again on a regular basis.

“I suppose so,’’ he said with a laugh. “So long as I can stand up.”

Pierre Boulez conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, Dalbavie’s Flute Concerto with Mathieu Dufour, and Bartok’s opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, with Michelle DeYoung and Falk Struckmann. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday, 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. 312-294-3000; www.cso.org

Posted in Articles

Leave a Comment