March 2015 - Posts
Today is the 90 th birthday of one of the most important and influential classical musicians of our time , Pierre Boulez . It would be difficult to
overstate his enormous impact on classical music in the 20 th and early 21st centuries , both as a composer and conductor , as well as a teacher ,
writer and theorist . He is now retired from conducting and composing due to failing eyesight and physical frailty , but the entire vast
world of classical music is celebrating his birthday today .
Born in Montbrison , France in 1925 , Boulez studied composition in Paris with the great French composer Olivier Messiaen at the
Paris conservatoire , and became known as a composer of rigorous , highly complex serial music which never pandered to
audiences and even alienated many listeners , as well as a champion of the 12 tone music of the so-called "Second Viennese school " of
Arnold Schoenberg , Anton Webern and other modern composers .
Boulez became known as an Enfant Terrible of contemporary music , contemptuously dismissing 20 th century composers who did not meet
his rigorous standards of modernity , Shostakovich , for example and once arrogantly declared that any living composer who did
not conform to rigorous atonal serialism was "irrelelvant" and "useless " , showing total disregard for what concertgoers expected ,
as well as alienating many other prominent composers . but he continued to produce works which gained performances and
earned the admiration of such musical giants as Igor Stravinsky . Most have been works for smallish ensembles of diverse instruments ,
including electronic instruments , marimbas and other exotic devices , some with solo voices . Three extremely difficult piano sonatas ,
and works with such strange titles as " The hammer without a master ", "Pli Selon Pli " (fold on fold ) etc .
He used the texts of once avant-garde French poets for his vocal works and these were reocrded a mumber of times , sometimes under
his direction . Boulez did not originally intend to become a conductor , but felt the need to in order to have his intentions best realized .
Boulez began to appear with such great orchestras as the Cleveland orchestra , the London symphony and others , and in the 1970s
became principal conductor of Lndon's BBC symphony orchestra , which was sponsored by the BBC and allowed him ample rehearsal
time to achieve performances of the greatest polish and precision . He also began to conduct opera , appeared regularly at the
world famous Wagner festival at Bayreuth , leading the controversial 1976 centennial production of Wagner's Ring , which brike with
traditional sets and costumes , and acclaimned productions of Berg's Wozzeck and Lulu at the Paris opera , and Debussy's Pelleas &
Melisande at London's Royal opera .
When Leonard Bernstein stepped down as music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1969 , Boulez took the orchestra over in
1971 . He was exact opposite of the the flamboyant , exuberant and highly emotional podium figure which Berbnstein was ;
he was sober , restrained and undemonstrative on the pppodium , and many critics and listeners accused him of being a coldly
analytic musician who favored a totally cerebral approach to music making . But all acknowledged his enormous technical expertise
and fastidious attention to detail .
The musicians of the New York Philharmonic were sometimes exasperated by his rigirous attention to detail in rehearsals and insistence
on achieving perfectly in tune playing , clarity of texture , that is making sure that everything in a score can be clearly heard , which is far
easy . Particularly with contemprary works with their enormous complexity .
Boulez avoided the audience -pleasing works of Tchaikovsky , Rachmaninov and other Romantic era composers , with which he had no
affinity and even disdain for , concentrating on music by Debussy , Ravel, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern , Bartok, Stravinsky , Messiaen and
20th century composers. However , he did not bar guest conductors from doing the audience favorites .
When he stepped down from the Philharmonic in 1977 , he moved to Paris , where with the generous funding of the French government ,
he became director of a center for avant garde music called IRCAM , the International center for experimentation in modern music , leading
musicians who specialized in new music as well as experimenting with combining electronic and acoustical instruments . .
Boulez maintained his relationships as guest conductor with the Cleveland orchestra , the Chicago symphony , the Vienna Philharmonic
the Berlin Philharmonic and other great orchestras , but his activities as a conductor limited his time to compose .
AS a composer , Boulez began using Schoenberg's 12 tone techniques , but was determined to go beyond them and achieve
even greater complexity and compositional rigor . Shortly after Schoenberg's death in 1951 , he wrote a notorious article
called "Schoenberg is dead ", dismissing the great Austrian's music as no longer sufficiently avant garde . Music which was once
considered outrageous in the early 20 th century was now old hat to him !
If you are looking for tunefulness in music , you will never be able to grasp the music of Boulez . But it rewards repeated listenings .
He has also made numerous recordings as a conductor for Sony Classical (formerly CBS and Columbia records ) Deutsche Grammophon
and other labels of music by Debussy, Ravel, Wagner, Mahler , Schienberg , Webern , Bartok , Stravinsky ,Messiaen and other composers ,
including operas by Wagner , Debuusy , Schienberg , Berg and Bartok , many of which have won awards , such as the Grammies .
Boulez has served as a mentor to many younger composers and conductors who went on to achieve world fame ; Daniel Barenboim ,
for example . He is a giant of modern music , as uncompromising and forbidding as he may seem .
According to conventional wisdom , the world of classical music is staid and set in its ways , and slow to change . There is some truth to this
accusation , but things are still vastly different from its past . No longer is classical music dominated by white, preferably European males .
There are still plenty of them in the field, which is not necessarily a bad thing . After all , dead white European males are pretty much
what brought classical music into existence many centuries ago , and they have dominated the field as composers , conductors ,
members of orchestras , instrumental soloists etc .
But in recent years , women and non-whites have been achieving unprecendented prominence in all the fields just mentioned .
something which would have been unimaginable in the past . Of course, there have been countless famous and beloved female opera singers ,
as well as a fair number of female violinists , pianists , cellists etc . However, there have been far more women composers than most people
realize , but because of sexism , they never achieved the public recognition might have gotten had they been male . The sisters of
both Mozart and Mendelssohn were composers of considerable talent , as well as performers, but as women things were
against them . Robert Schumann's wife Clara was a renowned pianist who also composed , and some of her music has been recorded .
There are so many from the past who are now forgotten , but a surprising amount of their music has been recorded in recent years .
But today , there are more women composer before the public than ever before, and some of them have been widely performed .
Among them are Sofia Gubaidullina of Russia , Kaaia Saariaho of Finland, Judith Weir of England, and Jennifer Higdon of America , to name
only a few . Now, it's not even news when an orchestra performs a work by a woman composer .
Until recently, the field of conducting was dominated bywhite males . But more and more are starting to appear with the world's leading
opera companies . Marin Alsop , a New York native and protege of Leonard Bernstein , is the first woman to be appointed as music director o
the Baltimore symphony , and has made recordings with them and achieved considerable acclaim . Australian Simone Young served until
recently as music director of the Hamburg State opera , one of the most prestigious in Germany . Susanna Malkki of Finland is rapidly
achieving international recognition , and she has even been touted as a long shot to become next music director of the New York Philharmonic
when Alan Gilbert steps down .
There are many others , too many to mention here . 50 years ago , there were very few women in mosy of the world's top orchestras ,
but now there are plenty of them . This began when orchestras adapted blind auditions , with candidates playing behind a screen , which they
still use .
Asian countries such as Japan , China and South Korea have been major players in classical music for many years . Japanese conductor
Seiji Ozawa turns 80 this year , Chinese superstar Lang Lang sells out audiences everywhere . and there are so many others .
Japanese , South Korean and Chinese musicians are now common in leading orchestras everywhere , as well as Asian Americans /
Young and enormously gifted Asian aspiring classical musicians are now filling leading music schools all over America , such as
Juilliard , the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia , and others . They are actually a majority at Juilliard .
The renowned Vienna Philharmonic , which in order to preserve its traditional sound , has always favored native born
Austrian male musicians , has been subject ot considerable criticism for failing to give women and Non-Austrians a chance , has
gradually begun to accept some of these lately .
Unfortunately , African Americans still make up only about one percent of American orchestras . but this is not due to discrimination , but
the fact that very few African Americans have ever aimed at careers in orchestras . But no one is standing in they way , and
blind auditions guarantee that they will not face discrimination . There are no doubt some talented aspiring young black
instrumentalists now , and there is no reason for young blacks with talent not to aim for a career in them .
Opera is the field within classical which has produced the most African Americans , and these include such legendary
opera stars as Leontyne Price , Marian Anderson , Grace Bumbry , Shirley Verret and others .to name only a few .
Marian Anderson was the first balck singer to star at the Metropolitan opera , as far back as the 1950s .
The late Henry Lewis was the first black conductor to appear at the Metropolitan opera, and first to be music of a major
US orchestra , the New Jersy symphony orchestra . Marian Anderson's nephew James De Priest , who passed away last year ,
was an internationally acclaimed conductor who appeared with leading orchestras around the world for decades .
Maybe the world of classical music is not quite as staid as we've been led to believe by critics and commentators !
The old Chinese saying "May you live in interesting times " can be interpreted as a curse or something not so negative . These are certainly
interesting times for classical music . The Chinese pictogram for the word crisis consists of the words danger and opportunity .
A crisis could bring good news as well as disaster . So here are some of the most important recent stories from the anything but staid and boring
world of classical music .
The billionaire media moghul David Geffen , who is said to be a lover of classical music , has just donated millions of dollars to
Avery Fisher hall, home of the New York Philharmonic in Lincoln center , to subsidize renovation of the acoutically troubled concert
hall in the hopes of improving its acoustics . This is scheduled to begin in 2019 , and will force America'soldest symphony
orchestra to seek temporary change of venue for its concerts . No one is certain about this, but the neighboring David H. Koch
theater , former home of the defunct NewYork City opera has been proposed .
This is always a dicey move . When what used to be called hilharmonic hall , now Avery Fisher hall, opened in 1972 when the late,
great Leonard Bernstein was music director , it was considered by all to b e an acoustical disaster . The late billionaire businessman
Avery Fisher donated money for a renovation in the mid 1970s , and while there was definite improvement, the hall is still
considered to be far from the equal of those in Boston , Vienna and Amsterdam , which are renowned for the way they make
orchestras sound magnificent .
A new concert in Paris has just opened a few months ago , and according to reports , the acoustics are excellent . Building new
concert halls is always a crap shoot ; there is no way to predict how good the acoustics will be . For every acoustical success in
recent years , many duds have opened .
London has no fewer than five full time orchestras , unlike New York which has only its Pilharmonic and various part time ones .
But there have been many complaints that London , one of the world's greatest centers of classical music , does not have a single
concert hall with superlative acoustics , and there are plans to build a new one which will aim to remedy this situation .
The acoustics of Carnegie hall , which had been the home of the New York Philharmonics until the opening of Lincold center
in the early 1960s are considered world class .
The renowned English conductor Sir Simon Rattle has been appointed to become the next chief conductor of the London symphony
orchestra in 2017 when Valery Gergiev steps down and takes over the Munich Philharmonic . Rattle has been chief conductor of the Berlin
Philharmonic since 2002 and no definite successor in Berlin has been decided on yet . He has expressed hopes for a first rate
new hall for London , and his considerable influence seems to have worked .