I met Pierre Boulez for the first time sometime in the early 80's when I conducted my first concert with his Ensemble Intercontemporain, a specialist, elite new music ensemble that was part of his grand vision for the future alongside with IRCAM, the research centre where the latest computer technology would be harnessed for creation of previously unheard sounds. I was unbelievably nervous about meeting this man whom I had been admiring from afar since my early teens. I had heard and read stories of his fierce intellect, totally uncompromising nature and of course that legendary x-ray ear that missed nothing. The smallish, delicately built man with a shy smile who came to greet me after the concert was not the scary, icy intellectual I was expecting. The maître turned out to be unassuming and warm with a great sense of humour. He was very precise in his conversation and certainly not wasting words, but somehow one always understood that he had set his sights on something truly important and visionary, and therefore didn't have time or interest for empty words or self-aggrandising.
It is this sense of responsibility, ethos, that sets him apart from most other artists today. He is equally interested in the infrastructure of art as well as in the substance itself. He feels that his duty is to lead as well as to create. I know that often he has been struggling for a satisfying balance between conducting, teaching, writing, cultural leadership and what constitutes the deep core of Boulez the musician: his composing. Despite the clashes between different roles he has managed to create a magnificent body of music. He has never been one to compromise on quality. Quantity has a much lower position on the ladder of his priorities.
The music of Pierre Boulez is always brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed. It can be complex without ever losing its clarity, it can be aggressive or delicate, hypnotic or kaleidoscopically flickering, ritualistic or virtuosic. But most importantly, it is often hauntingly beautiful. I remember having listened to his masterful Sur Incises for pianos, harps and percussion conducted by him at a concert in the Walt Disney Concert Hall a few years ago and being deeply moved by the mysterious glow of its harmonies, the crystalline, ego-less quality of its expression. Maître Boulez has found the spring from which he serves the purest and clearest water imaginable.
One of my most recent memories of talking to Pierre was backstage in the Royal Festival Hall after he had conducted Pli Selon Pli. There were several people before me greeting him, most of them talking about the historic nature of the event. I thought that must be the last thing he wants to hear, and decided to say something practical and professional about the performance. Pierre seemed quite happy to talk about balances and articulation until I said that the last movement, Tombeau, really seemed to fly by and complimented him for achieving that in this performance. He looked at me with a mischievous expression and said: “Well, I made a cut of more than 150 bars in it. That must have helped in creating that impression.”
Then we both laughed aloud, me slightly embarrassed, he very amused.