Pierre Boulez is dead at age 90. Here in New York City, the Philharmonic made him its music director in the 1970s in a comparatively brief and controversial tenure. When I was Education Director for the orchestra in the year 2000, there were still clear memories of his rug concerts, and the way he constantly reconceived the orchestra’s relationship with audience. The musicians remembered him fondly, and they were in awe of his musical prowess. If you are looking for a better recording of The Rite of Spring than his with the Cleveland Orchestra, you will be hard pressed. His performances of Messiaen and Stockhausen are sterling.
As a composer, in the words of Messiaen, Boulez was “a poet.” Each piece is built on some startlingly original architectural foundation, and filled with color. Some of the pieces are stringent and may come off as cerebral, but they are all suffused with invention. As David Robertson said about Sur Incises, a piece he premiered in its expanded instrumentation, “[Boulez]…thinks about what can be heard in the gaps between held notes, the silences and the small spaces between contrasting lines…”
When I was studying his piece Sur Incises this past Spring, with Margaret Davis, a young harp student at Juilliard, we watched a DVD performance from 2000 (Juxtapositions; Andy Sommer, director) with Boulez conducting. It was an invaluable resource for the paper Margaret was writing, not just because the performance was under the composer’s baton, but also because he teaches the piece. It’s a brilliant teaching tour de force, with each element illuminated by its creator. He takes the piece apart and puts it together again, a teaching artist on the podium. I recommend it.
In the U.S. we think of our music teaching artist model as Leonard Bernstein, at the helm of the Young People’s Concerts on CBS. And rightly so. But what struck me in watching Boulez was how equally good he was at digging into the meaning of music. With the help of subtitles, the barrier of another language was rendered unimportant, and it made me wonder what we might have missed in the early 1970s when the Philharmonic was searching for the American successor to LB. The true talent for teaching artistry was right there on the podium. Those who attended his concerts in London in the 1970s report a similar admiration for his talents at uncovering the riches of musical works for general audiences.
As teaching artists, we tend to think of ourselves more naturally in a public school classroom or a community center, but teaching artists can bring works of art to life for audiences anywhere, even center stage. A salute to the teaching artist on a podium: Pierre Boulez (1925-2016).