Remembering Pierre Boulez

Posted on: January 11, 2016

League President and CEO Jesse Rosen reflects on the immense influence of composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, 1925-2016

I remember sitting anxiously with a date at Carnegie Hall before a concert of the Ensemble Intercontemporain with Pierre Boulez conducting. My date didn’t really like classical music and definitely had no interest in new music. What in the world was I thinking? Much to my surprise, she was blown away by the performance. I remember her saying she had never heard music of any kind played with such intensity, precision, focus, and conviction. Such was the power of Boulez’s remarkable artistry. You didn’t have to be an aficionado to be touched by the enormity of his talent.

While working with him during my time as orchestra manager at the New York Philharmonic, we took a trip downtown one day to the Palladium, the hottest dance club in New York at the time. Pierre wanted to see it since we thought it might be a good venue for a concert. Imagine my surprise when we walked in and were greeted by the tech crew as they practically tripped over each other to shake his hand and pay their respects. I overhead an outlier in the group ask one of the techies: who was this guy they were making such a fuss over? The answer came right back: “Don’t you know, that’s Pierre Boulez, the father of modern music!”

When I think about Boulez and his passing, I think of his programming, conducting, and compositions that set a new standard of excellence, one that affirms the power and durability of our art form to move all kinds of people. But, as an artist whose eyes were firmly fixed on the future, he also understood that many conventions would have to give way and new points of access created to ensure continued and growing engagement from new and different audiences. A look at his 1970s interactive Prospective Encounters concerts in small venues around New York City, and his Rug Concerts from 1969 that completely upended concert conventions, were a good 40 years ahead of their time. And who but Pierre Boulez could succeed in a project as grand as the construction of Cité de la Musique—and also get it built in La Villette, a working-class suburb of Paris.

I don’t know if Pierre Boulez was the father of modern music or not. But as I look at orchestras in America today I’d like to think that they must be among his many children: pursuing the ideals of discovery, adventure, and exploration; committed to the highest standards of excellence, and searching for new ways to join a remarkable art form with an ever-changing public.

Posted January 8, 2016