This is an interview from Tom Service of The Guardian, Thursday 28 August 2008
He is one of the world's greatest musicians. But has Pierre Boulez mellowed with age? Not at all, finds Tom Service, as he watches the maestro push young conductors to the limit
The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Wednesday September 3 2008
In the article below we said Pierre Boulez was the first to conduct Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring from memory. However, Pierre Monteux, Igor Markevitch, and possibly others, conducted the work without the score.
The most arduous single step you can take in the world, apart possibly from the Hillary Step on the south-east ridge of Everest, is to ascend a conductor's podium in front of a 100-strong orchestra. For four student conductors at the Lucerne festival, that adrenaline-filled step is made yet more daunting by the fact that not only do they have to conduct Stravinsky's fearsome Rite of Spring - still one of the summits of orchestral repertoire, even though it's nearly 100 years old - but they have to do so in front of Pierre Boulez. This is the man who was the first to conduct the Rite without a score, shocking orchestras around the world by this feat of musical memory, and who, as composer and conductor, has done more than any other person alive to define the idea of what modern music is, and how it should sound.
Boulez is now 83, and this is the sixth year he has been running conducting masterclasses at his Lucerne Festival Academy. For three weeks, young players, conductors and composers have the chance to learn the traditions of modern music from the master. Recent reports of Boulez suggest that he has been transformed from youthful firebrand into cuddly old man, but the way he works with the four conductors in the masterclasses shows that he does not tolerate fools gladly.
He slaps the arm of one of the participants, Pablo, telling him he's going too fast in the lugubrious music of Spring Rounds, near the end of the first part of The Rite. "Your muscles are moving faster than mine," he says; and, "We spoke about this already, and so I mean, it ought to be right!" He then makes Pablo tune a dissonant horn passage. "Are you happy with that chord? I am not," Boulez says. "So tell them how to make it better."
Pablo identifies a problem with the G flat in the chord for the four horns, but can't improve it without Boulez's intervention. "The most difficult problem in conducting," says Boulez, "is intonation" - ie making sure all the musicians are playing the right note. "You must know what is wrong and how to correct it." Later, he tells me that he "cannot stand wrong intonation. I know I put the conductors in an embarrassing situation, but they have to be able to do it."
It must be torture up there on the podium for Pablo - but, to his credit, he is unfazed. In fact he comes off better than one of the other participants, who lasts only a few minutes in front of the orchestra, and is told by Boulez: "You don't hear what they are doing, you are in your own world, and you are going too quickly."
It is a baptism of fire for all four of them, which is exactly what Boulez wants it to be. He has spoken of the ideal relationship between a teacher and pupil as being "short and maybe violent", and whatever the physical and mental tortures he metes out to his young conducting charges, there are lessons they will take away from these sessions for the rest of their lives.
Frankly, it is good to see Boulez at his uncompromising best, but he has genuine sympathy for the four conductors. The students must feel as if they have been through the wringer, both emotionally and musically, but when I talk to him after the masterclass, the octogenarian Boulez is relaxed and full of energy. "Conducting is more difficult than playing a single instrument," he says in his lightly accented but otherwise perfect English. "You have to know the culture, to know the score, and to project what you want to hear. Some conductors are well prepared but cannot transmit their ideas to an orchestra, and others are good communicators but have nothing to transmit, because they are not absorbed enough in the score."
Boulez's own conducting style has often been characterised as cool and analytical, with his small, semaphore-like gestures. But when you see him in the masterclasses, it's clear there is much more to it than that.
"What I do is not spectacular," he says, "but I am doing a lot of things. They may be small movements, but they are directed exactly to the musician who needs them. And in performance, the force is always more because of the excitement of the concert." Boulez feels and communicates the music he conducts just as much as any more flamboyant maestro. "You have to impose your will - not with a hammer, but you have to be able to convince people of your point of view."
That is something Boulez has been doing throughout his career: whether organising concerts in postwar Paris with the Domaine Musical (he is proud of the fact that he did so without any state support), or teaching at the summer school in Darmstadt in what was then West Germany in the 1950s and 60s, where he, Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti, Luigi Nono and others shaped the future of music. In the 1970s, he surprised his colleagues by taking his mission to the masses, working in London and New York as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, revolutionising both ensembles along the way: he found new listeners for new music, especially in his groundbreaking gigs at the Roundhouse in Camden. And then, in 1976, Boulez set up his most ambitious project of all, Ircam, the centre for electronic and acoustic musical research situated beside the Pompidou Centre in Paris, with its bespoke group of musicians, the Ensemble Intercontemporain.
Conducting, for Boulez, means communicating the gospel of the new. He has played early 20th-century music - Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartók, Stravinsky, Mahler - around the world over the past few decades, an education of orchestras and audiences he describes as a "neverending" task. Yet instead of blaming audiences for their lack of adventure and desire to hear new music, Boulez's wrath is saved for the ensembles and musicians themselves. "Audiences follow the orchestra. The problem is that performers say, 'Oh my God, if I programme Schoenberg, nobody will come' - and that's not true. Last year with the Berlin Philharmonic, I played music by Bartók, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, the literature of before the first world war. And I was told by some people that this was a difficult programme. I say, all these works are composed before 1914. That's not new. Do you think in 1940 people were saying, 'My God, Tristan und Isolde is so difficult to listen to,' 80 years after it was written? The 20th century is famous for being the century of speed, but the speed is not there when it comes to culture, I find."
All this advocacy on the part of other composers means that Boulez has to fight to find enough time to compose his own music. It is a battle he wages with himself. He says that he is not addicted to the adrenaline of giving concerts - "I can live for months without performance and I am not deprived at all" - but that his friends around the world keep twisting his arm to conduct another Mahler symphony here, another Stravinsky ballet there. "I try not to make too many concerts. That's my problem, because I have no agent, and people say, 'Oh, you cannot let us down like that, you cannot do that to us,' and I have to say, 'Yes, I must.'"
He must, because he has to find more time for two big projects he is working on: the orchestration of his Notations, 12 tiny pieces for piano he originally composed in 1945, and which he has been recomposing on a much larger scale for orchestra since 1978. (He is on number eight now, and says, "I hope I can finish them.") Then there is the third of his Anthèmes, for violin and orchestra. This will be a big piece, he says. "I am looking more and more to write works on a long trajectory."
In his mid-80s, Boulez is still looking forward: as well as discovering new structures for his own music, he is commissioning and performing music by young composers at Lucerne and the Ensemble Intercontemporain. "I am encouraged by the example of Elliott Carter," he laughs - Carter will celebrate his 100th birthday in December - but adds, "My years are really now not without number."
Boulez is among the last of his generation alive. "All the people with whom I was very close at one point in my life - Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti, Nono, Bernd Alois Zimmermann - they are all gone." He and Carter are two of the very few who remain. Boulez is saddened by these deaths, but not daunted. "With Berio, with whom I kept a good relationship, we only met once a year or so, and with Stockhausen, we had almost no contact in the last decades, because he made himself alone.
"I also live rather alone. In business, in the music world, people know that I can be very friendly and warm, but that after a certain moment, the business is closed. I like to be alone: in order to concentrate on my work, the social life does not exist. It has never existed for me really. I have chosen instead the working life, because I prefer that. I like to work, otherwise I do not know what I would do."
His eyes light up not so much at the prospect of conducting Mahler symphonies in Vienna and New York this autumn, but at the thought of being home in Germany. "After the Mahler, I will go to Baden-Baden, where I have a house far away from this madding world."