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PRINT May 2016

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Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez and Susanna Mälkki after the composer’s acceptance of the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 56th International Festival of Contemporary Music, Venice, October 6, 2012. Photo: Jean Radel.

IN 2004, I was invited to conduct the Ensemble Intercontemporain at the Lucerne Festival, in Switzerland, and I was told that its formidable founder, Pierre Boulez, would be attending the concert. I had met him very briefly a few years earlier, but this was different, and it felt rather like an exam—all the more because everyone knew that the ensemble was then looking for a new music director. After the concert, which had ended with a performance of Harrison Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre (1984), Boulez finally appeared backstage, smiling. He congratulated me warmly and immediately started singing a particularly tricky passage from that piece, in which the conductor momentarily has to beat faster than old mechanical metronomes could tick, and he was making frantic gestures and laughing. So this was the feared Boulez?

As it turns out, I was appointed to the position and would, during the seven years I spent there, see many different sides of Boulez. I loved to hear him speak about his own music. In addition to discussing very dry but crucial technical details, he would conjure images of the music that were surprisingly simple and natural. For example, he often described a goldfish in water: At first it stays absolutely still, and then suddenly—unpredictably—moves very fast, finally returning to stillness. He would give very precise instructions about tempi, and yet those who had played with him over the years would tell me secretly that he actually did things differently each time. As a conductor, Boulez was fascinating to watch, since he would be seemingly stoic, static, and expressionless, while his hand gestures were incredibly beautiful. In slow music, they would expressively shape nuances and seem themselves to be enjoying the sound. In fast and powerful music, the sheer force and willpower in those same hands were astonishing, even after the conductor was well into his eighties.

Boulez’s smile was radiant and his conversation delightfully witty. In formal meetings, he would always be the one to break the ice and turn the discussion back to the level of pragmatic solutions, cutting short long speeches or political games. His ideas were clear and the words with which he expressed them eloquent. But I also witnessed how frustrated, even annoyed, he could get when the same battles had to be waged again and again (for him, I suppose, decade after decade!): Why do schools still propagate the same clichés about music? Why is general music education a hundred years behind the times? Why do concert organizers insist on basking in the past, thus leaving the audiences stuck there, too?

Boulez was famously unafraid of saying what he thought, and, at times, he had even been quite poisonously biting, especially when he was young; but in later years he became much more tactful in commenting on other composers’ music. Once, I remember sneaking out right at the end of a concert at IRCAM, in order to avoid having to express my opinion of the piece that had just been performed—and whom did I meet on the stairs, escaping as well? Pierre, of course! Yet another wonderful moment of laughter.

As for Boulez’s legacy, in addition to his music and the extraordinary institutions he created, I believe it’s the spirit of willingness to work with the most demanding music—for the sake of the intellectual challenge, in service to the freedom of artistic imagination, and as an investment in the future of the art form—that those of us who had the honor of working with him will retain. With love for the great man we had the privilege of knowing.

Susanna Mälkki, Music Director of the ensemble Intercontemporain from 2006 until 2013 and the first woman to conduct an opera at La Scala in Milan (in 2011), was recently appointed Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.