Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016)

The death of French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez was announced earlier today by the Philharmonie de Paris. Boulez was 90 when he died and had been ill for some time.

Here’s a round-up of some of the reports, blogs and reflections I’ve appreciated reading today. It’s by no means exhaustive and I will be adding to it over the next few days.

For the uninitiated, Classic FM has a Boulez primer which makes for an entertaining read. Amongst the pictures is a personal favourite: Boulez making a salad.

Tom Service writing for the Guardian has picked out 10 works by Boulez.

On Vulture, Justin Davidson wrote:

For my generation, and for several earlier and a couple of later ones, he [Boulez] was a prophetic figure — revered, resented, admired, and feared. In person, he always seemed mellower, and funnier, than his reputation suggested. Even when he was flicking away neoclassicism, neoromanticism — neo-anything, really — as lazy nostalgia, he did so with a distinctively wry tone. “This younger generation, they think the answer is to go back in history, but they don’t understand where it went wrong,” he told me. “You can protest against pollution, but the solution does not come from using horses.” (He evidently hadn’t spent time in Brooklyn.)

[ … ]

When I listen to Boulez, I hear not the workings of a logical mind but miniature solar storms and novas and wispy songs tossed into a gale.

Zachary Lewis writing on Cleveland.com recalled memories of conductor partnership with the Cleveland Orchestra:

For this listener, the defining Boulez moment was a 1999 performance of Bartok’s opera “Bluebeard’s Castle.” The eerie sound the conductor created with the Cleveland Orchestra suggesting ghastly things in Bluebeard’s home was simply unforgettable. The ghostly wind he blew through Severance Hall remains palpable 17 years later.

Jessica Duchen, journalist and writer (who also blogs), said simply:

Pierre Boulez has died at the age of 90. A visionary who owned a muse of fire. Farewell, Maestro, and thank you for waking us up and changing our lives.

The Vienna Philharmonic’s New Years Day Concert

Last of the holiday season traditions clinging on for dear life is the annual New Year’s Day Concert from the Musikverein in Vienna. The live broadcast seen on TVs across the globe (thanks to the EBU’s marvellous Eurovision network) is one of three concerts given over the New Year. Tickets are pricey and the dress code, make-up and hair comes at a cost.

The event’s dark origins are behind it now – the first event was mounted by the Nazis in 1939. The concert still features Austria’s biggest export (Conchita is nipping at their heels), the Vienna Philharmonic. The band’s annual jamboree is seen by an estimated 50 million people worldwide.

Radio 3’s Petroc Trelawny writes evocatively in his BBC News/From Our Own Correspondent piece published in early 2014, something which leads me to question my own response to the event which has personally become something of a New Year tradition for me.

I hold my hands up and hang my head in shame when I say that when I see the concert on TV each year, my heart beats faster and a smile stretches across my face when I catch sight of the flowers, and the hair and the polite applause.

The concert has never moved me musically (Strauss waltzes and marches rarely do). But, because I only ever the Blue Danube on 1 January, Strauss’ ubiquitous work is inextricably linked with New Year. The shimmering strings, the good wishes for the new year shouted on cue by the players, and the sometimes agonising wait for the opening horn calls signal a new start I find irresistible. Not to mention the many firm-thighed dancers frolicking around front of house whilst the rest of the audience sit primly in the auditorium, their eyes glued to the stage.

Should we still let the event’s origins colour our view of it now? Is there a moral stance to be taken with the band’s still surprising lack of representation? Is it wrong that tickets are so expensive? Is it an outdated vehicle? Or is it just a piece of entertainment in the form of a window on a bygone age?

If I look at the broadcast at any other time than live on New Year’s Day morning, it fails to move me. January 1 is the only time I listen to Strauss and even then its only because its tradition. Playing Strauss’ music is whole other circle of hell. Twee, repetitive and distinctively unsatisfying.

But, there is a simplicity to it which is rather appealing on the stark first morning of the new year. The event suceeds in softening the hangover at the same time as keeping the fast-approaching end of the holidays at arms length.