Bay Area Reporter
, November 2010
It’s hard to think of a living musician—certainly a great living musician—whose reputation has more need of updating than Pierre Boulez. As several of the brilliant young musicians who are also the subject of Pierre Boulez and the Lucerne Festival Academy: Inheriting the Future of Music, an exemplary documentary by Gunter Atteln and Angelika Stiehler (EuroArts DVD), point out, the notions of his being a “tyrant” and demagogue, striking fear into the hearts of musicians and dread into those of concert ticket-holders, persist contrary to abundant evidence to the contrary.
Exacting as ever, sure, they say—and it’s evident in every clip of his work with them at the prestigious, three-week summer intensive at the Lucerne Festival over which he still presides today. But his select charges see him, as do we in this masterly bit of filmmaking, as a teacher who works at their sides, not over their heads, whom they find inviting, affable and humble.
There’s no mistaking that every one of the 130 musicians selected to work with him each summer is on hyper-alert, rightly seeing this chance of a lifetime as the pivot point in his or her future in music, and also knows that the man with legendarily the greatest ear on the planet and unflagging attention knows precisely what each of them is doing at any particular moment. But it’s not fear you read on their faces, but rather artistic life lived at the very edge—an experience that may never be bettered unless they better it themselves.
Most of the footage in this riveting film is from the summers of 2007–09, mostly in Lucerne but with some sidelines to Paris and Baden-Baden, so you watch one particular group develop, as players, conductors and, most fascinatingly, composers. For these are the things that their gay guru teaches separately but, more importantly, in tandem, as he experiences the enterprise.
The viewer’s awe matches the kids’ in the few bits of historical footage of the young Boulez, notably in his encounter with Stravinsky, during which Boulez pointed out to the last century’s greatest composer an error in the score to The Rite of Spring. What you see passing between the two sage composers is glee and a profound level of mutual admiration. Thrilling as it is to watch Boulez’s charges make their dazzling way through fabled band-eaters like Stravinsky’s Rite, Debussy’s Jeux, and Stockhausen’s Gruppen (all of which are in a sense old, or at least standard, music to these kids), the real uplift comes from hearing them play each others’ music. The film traces the development of Ondrej Adamek’s Endless Steps from its early versions, about which the young Czech composer is understandably tentative, over its year-long maturation, until his colleagues play the spots off it for the sophisticated Lucerne Festival audience with Boulez himself wielding the baton.
Anyone unaccountably still entrenched in the idea that Boulez’s own music is dry, academic, intellectual or otherwise unapproachable could not possibly sustain that idea after hearing these musicians, besotted with their master’s work, play Notations and, especially, Repons—to me, Boulez’s most beautiful and moving score. They perform it for Boulez as through it were scriptural and, even more, the very stuff of life.
There’s sometimes been a cynical, “they all say that” response to Boulez’s claims that if he were told there were enough conductors without him, he wouldn’t mind—but that he could not stop being a composer. When he makes it again at the end of this remarkable film, there’s no doubt he means it, and why.
Meanwhile, the recordings keep coming—three new ones (all DG) in the last month. The two with the virtuoso Cleveland Orchestra are well worth investigating. Boulez concludes his Mahler cycle with a wonderful Des Knaben Wunderhorn with Magdalena Kozena and Christian Gerharer (and an Adagio to the 10th that’s a few degrees cooler than I had hoped.) My only complaint about his Ravel concertos with Pierre-Laurent Aimard is that his earlier one, with Krystian Zimerman, was even better.
The one to seize is his first-ever Karol Szymanowski recording, of the First Violin Concerto, with Krystian Tetzlaff, and the Third Symphony, Song of the Night, with tenor Steve Davislim, both with the Vienna Philharmonic. In an accompanying interview (in three languages), Boulez explains that even though these are his first ventures with the gay Pole’s music, his interest in Szymanowski is at least a half-century old. Predictably, Boulez is exactly the right hand to make maximal sense of the composer’s dense, exotic chromaticism. Equally predictably, there’s nothing gauzy about the music-making, which elicits some sizzling fiddling from Tetzlaff and a deep performance of the much darker Song of the Night, based on the poem of that title by Rumi. It’s echt Szymanowski and elevated Boulez.