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The Tao of Mahler: My Encounters with Pierre Boulez

color photograph of Pierre Boulez on the cover of one fo his LP recordings
Piano Piano!
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Creative Commons/Flickr
Composer and conductor Pierre Boulez died Tuesday, age 90.

It isn’t every day that one has a chance to work with a giant. Learning of the death Tuesday of Pierre Boulez brought back memories of the living legend with whom I once rubbed shoulders.

Pierre Boulez was a towering figure of musical modernism. In the decades right after World War II, Boulez counted among an elite rank of composers who constituted the European avant-garde, abandoning the Romantic tonality of a bygone world and forging a calculating intellectualism in sound. His career as a conductor took him to the podiums of the most prestigious orchestras and brought countless works of new music, as well as a vast repertoire of older classics, before audiences around the world. Read more about Boulez’s career in his obituary in the New York Times.

I had the opportunity to work with Pierre Boulez repeatedly while a professional flutist in Chicago. I was quite young at the time, and before my first encounter with Boulez, I expected to be fairly awestruck in the presence of such a towering figure. Beyond that, I suppose I also expected to see an extremely complex mind at work in an intense and exacting way. After all, this was “The Iceman,” the composer and conductor whose own music and interpretations of other works had been criticized as emotionally cold and distant.

But my first encounter with Pierre Boulez was anything but frosty. When Boulez stepped up on the podium at what would be my first rehearsal with him and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, there was no iceman before us, but instead an unassuming person possessing total assuredness without even a hint of pomposity.

When he began to conduct us through Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, Boulez disappeared and Mahler stepped before us. Some conductors seem to identify too strongly with the pathos in Mahler’s angsty music and contort their gestures in an effort to wrangle their own subjective music out of it. Not Boulez. Seemingly effortlessly, and with gestures from which there was no fat to trim, he let Mahler Seven be Mahler Seven. What some critics had heard as emotional detachment in Boulez’s conducting, I, sitting in the orchestra under Boulez’s direction, experienced as near Zen-like calm. The clarity of his gestures and the honesty of his interpretation were freeing and inspiring. Boulez had achieved the Tao of Mahler.

Watching Boulez conduct from my vantage point in the orchestra, I remember being especially taken with his right hand. Nothing was flowery about it, but at the same time the fingers showed a certain suppleness. The fingers and wrist were so free and loose that when Boulez tossed his hand to the side during lively passages, it had the shape and lightness of a handkerchief being picked up at the middle. When the music was slow and sustained, both of Boulez’s hands floated through the air in graceful curves, sculpting musical phrases in time the way rolling hills sculpt a landscape in three-dimensional space. Watch his hands in this video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PQT5IK8mwA

Of course, in my youthful eagerness I couldn’t let an opportunity to speak one-on-one with Boulez slip by. During a rehearsal of Stravinsky’s The Song of the Nightingale, a question about my part dawned upon me. At break, I summoned up some courage, approached Maestro Boulez and began to speak. My mouth felt a little pasty, words failed me a bit. I squeaked out what I thought I wanted to ask, realizing midway through the question that the question itself was actually moot and, therefore, kind of silly. Probably recognizing my youth and relative inexperience, Boulez responded eagerly with the respectful generosity of a seasoned pro. I thanked him and sat down, making a mental note never again to ask silly questions of world-class conductors, no matter how gracious those conductors may be.

The world will remember Pierre Boulez as an innovator and creative genius, as a giant who helped usher in a new era in art and bring the future into the present. I will remember these things, too. But I will also remember the grace and soul of Pierre Boulez. They inspire me still.

Read more:

  • Pierre Boulez, Composer and Conductor Who Pushed Modernism’s Boundaries, Dies at 90 (NYT)
  • French Composer Pierre Boulez Dies at 90 (NPR)

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.