Classical Music Icon Pierre Boulez's Legacy In Cleveland And Beyond

Screenshot of Pierre Boulez in a video from the Cleveland Orchestra (YouTube)
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A giant of the classical music world, and one of the Cleveland Orchestra’s most famous past guest conductors has died.  Pierre Boulez died at age 90 in Baden-Baden Germany.  His long career saw him in Cleveland in the 1960s, and then at the helm of the New York Philharmonic, and BBC Symphony Orchestra. Just last year for Boulez’s 90th birthday the Cleveland Orchestra presented a tribute, with music director Franz Welser-Möst speaking in a video at the time:

Welser-Möst: “Pierre Boulez has changed the music world in many ways, and I think will be remembered as one of the most influential musical figures in the 20th century.”

To hear a little more about Boulez and his legacy for Cleveland and the classical music world, ideastream's Tony Ganzer joined Bill O’Connell, program director of WCPN's sister classical music station WCLV:

GANZER: “Can you first talk about his relationship with Cleveland proper?”

O’CONNELL: “Boulez started conducting in Cleveland as a guest conductor in 1965, when George Szell was still alive. Szell saw Boulez’s contribution to the orchestra as A) conducting repertoire that Szell himself didn’t like to conduct, or felt himself not as good a conductor—that would be a frank admission on the part of George Szell—but he knew it was valuable for the Cleveland Orchestra to have Ravel and Debussy and the French tradition and the modern tradition in their instruments, because it made them a better orchestra. So Szell brought Boulez on-board for that sort of thing. When Szell died suddenly in 1970, all of the sudden there wasn’t anybody to make musical decisions at the Cleveland Orchestra, so Boulez was artistic adviser for a couple of years until Lorin Maazel was hired, so that was a critical time to guide the Cleveland Orchestra between those two eras.  And then of course he’s maintained a relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra until his last actual appearance in Severance Hall with the orchestra which was in 2010.  So he is the longest-running conductor with which the orchestra has association that is not music director, and his association has gone back decades.”

GANZER: “As I mentioned last year the orchestra had a tribute for Boulez, and it seems the admiration and this influence has sustained?”

O’CONNELL: “Yes.  He is a famously prickly character, but he admires the orchestra—its responsiveness, and its suppleness, and its preparation. He used to say that the orchestra came prepared to take his direction the very first rehearsal, which is something you strive for with other orchestras, and I think it was a mutual admiration society.”

GANZER: “Welser-Möst has been somewhat innovative in his approach to some performances, coming to my mind he was willing to experiment with projections on screens for the Cunning Little Vixen opera performance in 2014, for example.  Boulez though, has long been seen as one who pushed the envelope.  Is it in the same way?”

O’CONNELL: “Not in the same way.  Boulez as a composer pushed the envelope. He was among the first to introduce electronics into classical music, and other really kind of uncompromising decisions in how music should express itself, both orchestrally and in chamber ensembles.  He was a gigantic figure in modern music in Europe in the 20th century, a real seminal figure. His piece from the mid-1950s ‘Le Marteau Sans Maître,’ ‘The Hammer Without A Master’ is considered one of the watershed pieces of 20th century music.”

GANZER: “What is a particular piece you want to leave listeners with?”

O’CONNELL: “His own music he saw as a continuation of music from Ravel and Debussy, so if you can play us out with some Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, Ravel, that would be great.”

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