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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,

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