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February 11, 2008 at 12:48 pm #89767Stacie JohnstonParticipant
Pierre Boulez bursting with enthusiasm for two-week stint with Cleveland Orchestra
by Donald Rosenberg / Plain Dealer Music Critic
French conductor Pierre Boulez, right, discusses a passage with Cleveland Orchestra English hornist Robert Walters. Boulez begins a two-week engagement with the orchestra Thursday at Severance Hall.
The man who once proclaimed that opera houses should be burned to the ground no longer appears to be a renegade. French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, enfant terrible-turned-eminence grise, expounds on artistic subjects in a suave Gallic accent with the ease of an artist who has done it all.
But don’t assume Boulez is retreating on the verge of his 83rd birthday next month. He continues to compose colorful and complex works. He is devoted to the Lucerne Festival Academy, where he tutors young musicians in the ways of contemporary music. And he is a welcome podium presence who leads a select number of prime orchestras.
Among them is the Cleveland Orchestra, with which he made his U.S. orchestral conducting debut in 1965 at the invitation of George Szell. Boulez is back at Severance Hall starting Thursday for two weeks of concerts featuring music by composers with which he has fond associations: Bach/Webern, Berg, Schoenberg, Janacek and Bartok.
Mostly, he’s delighted to be back with the orchestra that has given him vast artistic pleasure.
“I’m on familiar territory,” a beaming Boulez said after a full day of rehearsals Tuesday. “I like the sound. I like the individuals. Many faces have changed. But that’s like when you are looking at your face shaving in the morning. You don’t notice the change. You only notice the change when you look at old photos.
“I have no feeling of being a stranger here, and that’s very pleasant. I like the discipline of the orchestra and the understanding of what they’re doing and what they’re here for. That’s very rewarding.”
Boulez, who last was in Cleveland three years ago, doesn’t complain about a shortage of rewarding experiences. Last year, he split a Mahler-symphony cycle in Berlin with Daniel Barenboim, finished his own recorded Mahler cycle for Deutsche Grammophon and led Janacek’s Dostoevsky-inspired opera, “From the House of the Dead,” in Austria, Holland and France.
The Janacek opera reunited Boulez with stage director Patrice Chereau, with whom he collaborated in the 1970s on landmark productions of Wagner’s “Ring” at the Bayreuth Festival and Berg’s “Lulu” (premiere of the three-act version) in Paris.
“It was like we worked together the day before,” Boulez said of his reunion with Chereau. “There was absolutely no gap whatsoever. He listened to the music very carefully. I helped him, for sure, but he has a good ear for music and looked at the text very closely. It was not just a musical production, but a theatrical production.”
It was also Boulez’s last operatic production.
“I’m finished,” he said. “It takes too much time.”
Time, most importantly, from composing, such as work on the “Notations” Boulez has been adapting for orchestra from piano pieces he penned in 1945. He led the Cleveland Orchestra in five of the six pieces when he was last here in April 2005. He isn’t sure when he’ll lead the full score, but he isn’t worried.
“When I’m done, I’ll call an orchestra,” said Boulez. “That’s not difficult for me.”
What is difficult for this charming polymath isn’t clear. As conductor emeritus of the Chicago Symphony, for example, Boulez is leading unusual repertoire that complements the more traditional fare chosen by principal conductor Bernard Haitink.
The two musical menus Boulez is bringing to Cleveland this week and next exemplify his novel approach to programming. This week’s fare focuses on three champions of the Second Viennese School, but with works that have roots in the past: Webern’s orchestration of Bach’s Ricercare, Berg’s post-Romantic Violin Concerto and Schoenberg’s tone poem, “Pelleas et Melisande,” with nods to Wagner.
“One always thinks of the revolutions in Vienna, but they were always tied to tradition,” Boulez said.
Next week’s programs comprise Janacek’s Sinfonietta and Bartok’s one-act opera, “Bluebeard’s Castle.” These pieces from regions surrounding Vienna have bonds to Czech and Hungarian nationalism.
As a composer who became a conductor, Boulez sees scores from a distinctive vantage point.
“I look at what they represent stylistically and how the craft is materialized,” he said. “Otherwise, I’d be a blind man in a landscape he doesn’t know. I look at the organization of phrases. If I don’t understand this, people who listen to me won’t understand, either.”
The exuberant octogenarian ascribes his continued good health to work and a careful lifestyle. He concentrates on artistic activities and attends the theater.
“I don’t go out very late at night,” he said. “I’m not a nightclub man.”
Good thing. Boulez plans on returning to Cleveland during the orchestra’s 2009-10 season.
“I cross my fingers,” he said, with a sly smile.
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