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Pierre Boulez: the man and his audience

January 7, 2016

I have been struck when reading and listening to the tributes to Pierre Boulez, who died this week aged 90, by the frequent references to the hostility to his music and his assaults on the stale repertoire of the London and New York orchestras in the 1970s. People may take away from some of the tributes the belief that he ploughed on regardless and cared little about whether people appreciated what he was trying to achieve. That was far from the case.

I was fortunate to spend most summers in the 1970s attending the Proms almost nightly, during the period when Boulez was at the height of his powers and influence in London as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. With his ally William Glock, who was Controller of Music at the BBC and in charge of the Proms, he took the Proms programme by the scruff of its neck and through the force of his personality and passionate, persuasive advocacy built an audience for his music and that of his contemporaries. He also championed many neglected masterpeices and brought a refreshing clarity to established works such as Mahler’s mighty 8th Symphony.

An audience in tune with him

He struck up a warm rapport with those of us who stood behind him at the front of the arena in the Royal Albert Hall – in those days a predominantly youthful group – as he could see we approached his project with an open mind. In those days some of the performers, including star conductors such as Colin Davis and Bernard Haitink, would occasionally join the Promenaders for at drink at the Queen’s Arms. Sometime in the mid-70s I, with a couple of friends, decided it was time to ask Boulez if he would join us. Everyone told us he would never come, that he was intensely private, not a man of the people and so on.

Boulez at the Proms 1974

Boulez at the Proms: the great man in the centre with yours truly (with hair!) on his right

We did ask and he readily accepted, relishing the opportunity to enjoy the enthusiasm we had for what he was doing and his determination to remain true to his principles regardless of what the more snobbish, conservative music critics and audiences thought. The picture taken on one of those occasions captures the very genuine warmth he felt for a supportive audience.

He largely succeeded in his mission.

I remember when he first revived Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, a massive work requiring vast orchestral and choral forces. The audience that night was thinly spread around the vast spaces of the Royal Albert Hall. By the time he repeated it a year or two later, the hall was nearly full as he produced another beautifully crafted performance, controlled as ever without any podium histrionics and without ever using a baton.

He also gradually built an audience for his own music which we came to understand more through him. Works such as Rituel: in memoriam Maderna and Répons were enthusiastically received at the Proms. Also, later, when he brought his avantgarde group Ensemble Intercontemprain to the Proms the audiences were both large and receptive, almost unthinkable a decade or so earlier.

A debt we all owe to him

Concert programmes now are more adventurous than they were before Boulez, with Glock and the BBC, embarked on their bold mission over 40 years ago. We are in their debt.

One of the presenters on Radio 3 this morning said “we will never see his like again”. My initial reaction was to agree with that but then a moment’s thought made me think otherwise. I fervently hope we do see more like him, although they will grace our lives infrequently.

We need people like Boulez, who unflinchingly challenge conventions with an intellectual rigour and passion in music, the arts and the wider world.

From → Music

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