Boulez made his American orchestra debut in Cleveland at the invitation of George Szell in March of 1965.
Four years later, Szell made him the orchestra’s first principal guest conductor, and after Szell’s death in 1970 Boulez served for two seasons in Severance Hall as musical advisor.
Last season, in celebration of Boulez’s 90th birthday, the Cleveland Orchestra presented a video about him, and Music Director Franz Welser Most paid tribute.
“Pierre Boulez is one of the most influential musical figures in the 20th century, definitely.”
In one of three programs honoring Boulez last season, the orchestra performed Arnold Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande. It was a tribute to Boulez’s life-long support of works that challenged the old norms of classical music.
Champion of the avant garde
Boulez was a great champion of Schoenberg as well as other avant garde composers.
He told me during an interview at Severance Hall in 1985 that he didn’t care if audiences felt disturbed by new music.
“I would say to them, ‘Please like to be disturbed from time to time.’
Often described as the bad boy of classical music, Boulez was an unabashed radical. He made headlines several years ago when he was put on a terrorist watch list after suggesting that all the opera houses should be burned down.
It didn’t phase him, and he stuck to his principles, despite occasional rude treatment.
Cleveland-based classical music critic Charles Michener was in the audience for a 2001 concert in New York when Boulez led the London Symphony Orchestra in one of his own compositions.
“As he started it, half the audience got up and walked out , and it was shocking. It was literally, literally shocking.”
New York Times critic Harold Schonberg once wrote that Boulez “lacked heart.” That his approach was too scientific.
Bringing science to art
Boulez did promote scientific innovation including electronic music as director of a research institute in Paris. President Georges Pompidou founded it for him.In our 1985 interview Boulez said the music world needed innovation.
“You know in the science for instance everybody is looking to new things, and why for the arts should not be the same?”
At one point Boulez even worked with Frank Zappa, conducting his “Perfect Stanger”
Most of his more than 200 performances with the Cleveland Orchestra included challenging music, but in Cleveland his approach was well received, and the admiration was mutual.
Boulez was grateful to George Szell for inviting him to Cleveland. “I must confess he made my career in the states.”
At home in Severance Hall
Boulez talked about the orchestra’s sound through the years during our interview at Severance Hall.
“The sounds change progressively of course according to the change of repertoire to the change of music director, but there is some kind of solidarity of then orchestra which is transmitted through the years. When I come back here I come in a landscape where I feel at home.”
Cleveland Orchestra percussionist Don Miller, now in his 44th season with the Cleveland Orchestra was a personal friend of Boulez. He believes Boulez left the orchestra a great legacy.
“He raised our level of performance. He raised our level of a feeling of camaraderie and cohesion, to serve the conductor, to serve the composer, to serve the audience. He was just extraordinary.”
Miller also credits Boulez with improving audiences by opening their minds.
“His music and his choice of repertoire very important that those things were presented , and it made the audience just grow in their awareness of what music can be.”
Pianist Pierre Laurent Aimard, another frequent guest of the Cleveland Orchestra, often collaborated with Boulez. The pianist was 19 when they first met. Aimard told me a few years ago that Boulez would be remembered by musicians not only as a genius.
“He’s also an exceptional man. He’s a man with a lot of courage, ready to fight, even if alone if necessary, for the best reasons.”
During the 2013-2014 season the Cleveland orchestra awarded Pierre Boulez its distinguished service award, recognizing his extraordinary service to the Cleveland Orchestra.