Pierre Boulez is on the line from Paris, affable but also to the point. He is an interviewer’s dream, listening to a question, then diving in and answering the actual question asked, in neat paragraphs, no evading. When finished, there is a full stop and a pause as he waits for the next question. He seems perfectly willing to go on like this for as long as it takes.
The effect is at once friendly and businesslike. It’s the kind of balancing act one might expect from Pierre Boulez. The 78-year-old French musician, one of the most influential composers of the post-World War II era and among the most richly gifted conductors ever to stand on a podium, makes a practice of such balancing acts. Much of his art, in fact, depends on them.
“There is a piece by (Denis) Diderot which is called ‘The Paradox of the Comedian,’ ” says Boulez, mentioning the 18th-century French philosophe by way of shedding light on his own performing aesthetic. “And he says that a good comedian is one who imposes a certain distance between emotion and what he can do. He transmits this emotion in a much stronger way when he has this kind of distance.
“That’s very interesting as a book and that’s about acting. But acting and performing music is exactly the same. Therefore, an actor, for instance, who is very impressive, he’s not simply imitating or trying to imitate, but he must dominate this kind of feeling, and then he transmits it in a much stronger way.”
So, too, with Boulez. His podium manner has often been compared to that of a traffic cop. Calm and collected even in the stormiest music, he can come across as unfazed and unmoved. But when he conducts the Romantic excesses of pieces such as Mahler’s and Bruckner’s ninth symphonies, as he does with the Los An geles Philharmonic in the final weeks of the season, an emotional balancing act is in progress.
“Well, you are involved also with a distance, because you are not living in the same period as them. So therefore that’s less natural than it was when they were composing these pieces. Therefore you have to be more or less schizophrenic. Because that’s not our time. And at the same time, you are involved because you can imagine the involvement of the composer, and that’s a kind of double game.”
Boulez is back in town to conduct the last two weekends of the Philharmonic’s concerts in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion before the ensemble moves into the Walt Disney Concert Hall, opening in October.
The weekend after (May 31-June1), he’ll conduct at the Ojai Music Festival for the seventh time since 1967, leading three concerts in Libbey Bowl, including a program of his own music.
Through his close ties with former general director Ernest Fleischmann, Boulez has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the Philharmonic, one of only three orchestras he conducts with any regularity in this country (the others are Cleveland and Chicago).
“Well, I like to work with this orchestra, because they work very intensely and it gives very good results,” Boulez says of the L.A. Phil. “I remember we played already the Ninth Symphony of Mahler, it was in ’86 I guess, and really, I keep these results in my mind still. Because, you know, you don’t remember every performance you have done, but this one I remember very, very vividly.
“I think that they have a very lively sound,” he adds. “They are very vivacious. I like this quality. They are sunny, let us say.”
The Boulez sound, coincidentally, is known for the light it brings into a score. In rehearsal, he is a famous stickler for details and his famously acute ear is what exacts them. (Boulez used to be known among musicians as “The French Correction,” though he has mellowed considerably with the years.) “If you have chords, for instance, if the chords are unbalanced and you cannot hear them properly, then it disturbs me very much. And something disturbs me even more, because to cure it is easier. That is wrong rhythms, or rhythms which are not really what is written. Because I find the perception of time is so important in music. If you don’t give this perception of time, you don’t give the music, particularly.”
For Boulez, a rehearsal is initially about achieving precision: “First, the precision of rhythms, especially precision of intonation, and then also the clarity of the texture — what is important, what is less important — and to establish balance according to the trajectory of the work.”
Then, only after this arduous process is complete does the conductor move onto less technical matters — “The final touch,” he calls it, “which is less to be explained but, on the contrary, which is irrational, more impulsive, more instinctive. But I mean the instinct has to be based on a solid preparation of precision and clarity, for me.”
Boulez’s conducting has changed over the years. Though he was always admired for a formidable technique, critics found many of his readings rigid and cold. A notoriously arcane recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, made in the early ’70s, its rhythms minutely rationalized, showed just how far the younger conductor would go.
These days, a new warmth and grace are coupled with the precision. Boulez says he’s just getting better.
“I hope so at least. Well, I think so. I am so much easier than 40 years ago for instance, for sure. Easier because I can communicate much better with the musicians than I did before, simply that.”
That ease is reflected, too, in the conductor’s expanding repertoire, which in recent years has gone off in some surprising directions. Once the doctrinaire serial composer-conductor who performed only the music of approved avant-gardists, Modernists, and certain pre-Modernists such as Wagner and Mahler, Boulez has recently branched out into Richard Strauss and Anton Bruckner, composers the young Boulez would have never touched. The latter-day Boulez accepts them, but, typically, retains some distance.
“I always admired very much the virtuosity in Strauss,” he says, “because, really, he’s a master of using the orchestra. And I like virtuosity, I must say, even if the taste of the music is not always mine.”
His conducting Bruckner came through the intervention of musician friends.
“Some members of the Vienna Philharmonic convinced me to try Bruckner, which I have never done before. And that was interesting to me to have this experience with this orchestra, which knows the repertoire very well, and to be confronted with this knowledge, and to learn from them. At the same time, certainly I don’t accept all what is going on.”
That lack of total acceptance can actually be useful to him as a conductor, Boulez says. “It is useful because you have your judgment, but at the same time you are taken by some very precise aspects of the music.”
Fair is fair. Boulez admits not completely liking some of his own early works, either. He’ll leave them out of the Saturday-night concert of his music at Ojai, which otherwise features pieces from the ’40s (“Notations,” performed by Mitsuko Uchida, and the Sonatine for flute and piano) as well as newer works such as “Dialogue de l’Ombre Double” (for clarinet and electronics) and the 4-year-old “Sur Incises.”
The darkened Libbey Bowl, with the stars above, may be the perfect venue to hear Boulez’s dense and cerebral creations. A listener can wrap himself in a blanket and in the aural barrage. Boulez agrees. A performance of his “… explosante-fixe …” there in 1996, with sounds bouncing around speakers strewn around the park’s perimeter, holds particularly fond memories for him.
With friend Fleischmann stepping down as artistic director at Ojai after this year’s festival, Boulez can’t say whether he’ll be back. He’d like to be, though, and does have a personal relationship with Tom Morris, the incoming artistic director.
“Certainly, if he asks me I will come back. But I am not the youngest of the competitors,” he says laughing.
On the final Philharmonic concerts in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion next weekend, Boulez will conduct Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, a work in which the musicians leave the stage one by one as their parts peter out. Though he has never performed the piece before, Boulez was the one to suggest it.
But don’t get the wrong idea. The eminence gris is not getting sentimental on us. That’s just not his style.
“I am not really in great love with this hall, I must say. I hope that the Disney Hall will really be more adequate. I am not nostalgic about things. When you have a kind of improvement, I am not nostalgic about the past.”