Pierre Boulez, 1925-2016

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Pierre Boulez—whom I wrote about on this blog just a few short weeks ago— died Tuesday at the age of 90. I never met Maestro Boulez, but today, listening to his music and his Bruckner 8 recording with the Vienna Philharmonic (a favorite), I was reminded of two stories I thought I’d share here.

One is an anecdote my teacher told me. She’s a violinist in the CSO, meaning she’s worked closely with Pierre Boulez over the years. (Boulez was named principal guest conductor of the orchestra in 1995 and held the title of conductor emeritus upon his death.)

Her most vivid memory of the maestro is rather at odds with Boulez’s granitic public persona. Roughly paraphrased, she told me the following:

“Have you noticed that music, more than anything else, has a way of ‘getting’ you when you least expect it? Once, Pierre Boulez was conducting us [the CSO] in a performance of Mahler 2. And wouldn’t you believe it—I looked up during the performance and noticed that tears were running down his cheeks. To this day, I don’t know what it was that made him cry, but something about it must’ve caught him off-guard.”

Then, a miraculous dream I had in November: I was embedded in the ranks of an orchestra, standing and facing the conductor. None other than Boulez was on the podium. Whatever he was conducting evoked the orchestral version of Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean, but was more immersive, more organic. Whatever it was, I felt utterly engulfed by the music; in that moment, nothing else mattered but the sounds of the orchestra. I woke up unable to remember what the piece sounded like, but Boulez’s image—stoically set jaw, minimalistic gestures and all—was embedded in my mind.

That morning, I listened to John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean for the first time. My dream had been a near-premonition: in the piece, I heard everything I’d felt the night before and more. Later that month, when I got the opportunity to speak to Adams for the Miami Herald, I impulsively told him about my dream.

“Oh, Hannah, that’s wonderful; I love that,” he cried. “And Boulez would be a great interpreter of Ocean, too.”

Unfortunately, that hypothesis remained untested, as did the Waiting for Godot hypothesis, and the countless unfulfilled revisions of Boulez’s own pieces that were surely in the works.

What a shame that is. But—what a life.

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