For Pierre Boulez, who has just turned 75, the hard battles have been won. Or so it seemed as the composer-conductor presided over a series of challenging concerts at Carnegie Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra earlier this month. The hall was filled to hear four programs of Boulez specialties, tough twentieth-century scores that never coddle lazy ears. The reception was enthusiastic, and needless to say, the performances were spectacular. When it was all over, the orchestra played “Happy Birthday to Pierre,” Isaac Stern came onstage to present the conductor with a floral tribute, and Boulez got a standing ovation that must have made him feel as celebrated and beloved as a fourth tenor.
Each program followed a similar plan: a commissioned piece by an established younger composer who works in a rigorous idiom that has Boulez’s blessing; a score by Boulez himself or one of his contemporaries, today’s grand old men and scarred veterans of the mid-twentieth-century music wars; and a work from the early 1900s, revolutionary and forward-looking in its day but now an accepted repertory classic. The message of this musical history lesson was clear. Serious composition during the past century, Boulez tells us, has been a process of organic, unified stylistic evolution as each new generation builds on the work of the previous one. What was once thought difficult and unpalatable will sooner or later be absorbed into the mainstream. And as long as Boulez is arguing this point of view, whether through his immaculately prepared and stunningly played performances or with his equally dazzling verbal rhetoric, one can almost believe he’s right.
New-millennium reality, however, suggests otherwise, and the ideology of style that Boulez has always advocated has by now all but collapsed in postmodern ruins. Perhaps the unforgivingly earnest composers Boulez promotes will indeed prosper and eventually emerge as the major creative geniuses of our time. For now, though, diversity rules the larger global scene, and composers of all stylistic persuasions are reveling in their freedom. As with the music of any age, most of what they produce is instantly disposable, but at least today’s practitioners have an openness and vitality that their predecessors never had back in the fifties when young Boulez and his colleagues were preaching their rigid dogma. In any case, the only new score played at the Carnegie Hall concerts to capture my imagination was Olga Neuwirth’s Clinamen/Nodus, a compelling musical journey from chaos to clarity in which technical wizardry and mad abandon gleefully collaborate.
It’s ironic. While Boulez has always occupied the aesthetic high ground, the great father figures of the past century, the composers whose music he conducts so incomparably, might well have had more sympathy for today’s freewheeling compositional trends. After all, none of them hesitated to be inconsistent if that served an expressive purpose. During his long life, Stravinsky wore many masks, Mahler was reviled for his stylistic impurities, and even Schoenberg broke his own rules by introducing tonal elements into his late scores.
Perhaps Boulez has by now forgiven them their sins, to judge from the superb performances he gives of their greatest works. Few other conductors find more magisterial tragedy in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, crushing dramatic power in Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, or prancing wit and pungent sonority in Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka. It’s lucky for us that Boulez the fiery young polemicist has grown up to be Boulez the mature master musician.