Pierre Boulez, composer and conductor, passed away on January 5 at the age of 90. It is said that conductors live long lives due to their intense mental and physical activity during performances. His compositions are still considered by many to be avant-garde due to their complexity. Composer Edgard Varèse has attributed this attitude to the fact that composers aren’t necessarily ahead of the times but rather audiences are behind the times.
I was incredibly fortunate to have played under Boulez’s leadership twice. Both times were when I was 20 years old and a student at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Boulez conducted the student orchestra in a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The timpani part in the Rite is one of the most difficult and rewarding in the repertoire and I was honored to be able to play that role, so to speak. Boulez knew the score like no one else. He conducted not only the performance by memory, he conducted the rehearsals by memory as well. He knew all of the rehearsal letters and the intricacies of interaction amongst all the players. I remember him sorting out the piccolo and contra bassoon that were part of a very thick orchestral texture in one section. He had them play alone to correct a slight intonation concern that most people would have never even heard.
The Rite of Spring is a seminal 20th century work that literally caused a riot during its premiere early in the century. It is now standard repertoire for orchestras throughout the world. The other performance I participated in was with the Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall. I was one of a few extra percussionists in addition to the percussionists of the orchestra to play an early Varèse work entitled Ionisation. This is another amazing work that greatly influenced the percussion writing of composers who followed.
Several years after these experiences, the Blackearth Percussion Group, which I helped co-found, performed several times in Paris, including a performance at the beautiful contemporary cultural center, IRCAM, which Boulez helped create, as well as at the American Cultural Center. To this day, I still prefer the Cleveland Orchestra’s recording of the Rite of Spring conducted by Boulez. Check it out. While it is available on compact disc, a vinyl recording sounds amazing if you can find one and have a turntable (they have resurfaced!). Call me old-fashioned but ironically I still like the avant-garde.