Pierre Boulez visited Manhattan School of Music on two occasions. The first, in 2003, was for an open rehearsal in which he conducted a school orchestra in theee of his Notations. The orchestra, which had been hand picked, had already been rehearsing these fifteen minutes of music for a month, so when Boulez took the podium, the preparation level was already high. Borden Auditorium was packed and there was a palpable sense of occasion. He gave the downbeat for the first piece which begins with three harps playing one note, the same note, one after another to form a composite triplet.
What emerged was, note, silence, note. Boulez stopped and started again, which produced the same result. Boulez stopped again and said, "Second harp, I can't hear you". He gave the downbeat and for the third time, the middle note was missing. It was quite clear the second harp was paralyzed with some kind of stage fright. I was sitting with a number of colleagues who were looking skeptically at each other as though to say, 'all right, she's not playing the note, move on'. Boulez's insistence on hearing three equal notes was being seen as a kind of indulgence not part of the profession's nor the work situation's ethos. The fourth time, some sound occurred, but not equal to the first and third. He did not budge. Unfailingly polite, without any rancour, he rehearsed these three notes while 80 players sat silent, until he was satisfied. By this point there was a general nervousness in the hall, as though the event was in danger of imploding. Boulez began again and this time, after the three harps played he continued. What followed was the three harp gesture now transformed into triplets in the strings and then into the woodwinds and then the brass. Now one understood his insistence on the three harps being clear-he was revealing the form of the entire piece. The skeptics were quieted.
The second time Boulez came to MSM for five days, April 18-22, 2005. Not only would he once again conduct a student ensemble, this time in a performance of three sections of "....explosante fixe..." but he would also meet with students. As Chair of the Composition Department, it was my job on occasion to accompany Boulez from one event to another.It was the morning of the second day when I first met him. He had just concluded a rehearsal in Pforzheimer with the violinist of his work for violin and electronics, Anthéme 2 , and his next assignment was the second rehearsal of the large ensemble piece, forty-five minutes later, in Borden Auditorium. I asked him if he wished to have anything to eat, to which replied, "No, I'm like a camel", I only need a little water". I therefore showed him to the conductor's room behind the stage and since he gave no indication of wanting to be alone or to rest, I asked him if he would mind having a conversation to which he graciously assented. I had hoped that such an occasion might present itself and I had prepared a question in advance should such an opportunity arise. This is the question I asked him:
NV: What do you think of late Stravinsky?
PB: I admire him for trying.
I was so stunned by this remark, given immediately, without hesitation, that I can't recall any details of his elaboration of it other than his concluding well documented expression of disdain for Stravinsky's Neo-classical period.
NV:Is there any Neo-classical piece of Stravinsky which you like?
PB: One-"Symphony of Psalms"...and only the last movement.
NV: But didn't Debussy take something like the same path in the late sonatas?
PB: No. Those pieces are not Neo-classical. They are not reflections of an historical model.
He then commented how formally none of the pieces corresponded to classical sonata forms and that even though the pieces were certainly different from the earlier works, "He did them his own way". After a short pause he said "You know, if Debussy had lived a normal length life, I would have been his student".
This was the only remark he made all week which I would construe as personal. While he was invariably polite and engaging in all his exchanges with students, there was a complete absence of the American kind of "getting to know you" conversation. I continued.
NV: What are the differences in preparing the students to play your work than with a group of professionals?
PB: The brass play too loud and it takes them longer to play the rhythms correctly.
NV: What do you think of Ives?
PB: He knew nothing of the way an orchestra works. Those string parts cannot be played by sections and the balance of instruments is faulty. Perhaps the piano or violin pieces have value, but not the orchestral works.
NV: What do you think of Messiaen's music?
PB: He wrote his best pieces for me.
NV: Is there any piece you have not yet conducted which you would like to?
PB: Yes. Janacek, Katya Kabanova.
He then went on to praise Janacek's music for its original conception of rhythm and sequence. He also cited that composers' totality of achievement, the same thing he admired in Mahler. I found it intriguing that he wanted to talk about this generation of composers rather than those contemporaries of his he is most commonly associated with. Could it be that this unity of achievement is the quality he wishes his own work most to be remembered by? And is it one of the reasons that his pieces are always being revised?
Our time up, he excused himself to find his score, walked to the stage and without a word of introduction, gave the attack for the opening of the piece.
One concluding story: On the last day, one very persistent student, who had tried to ask Boulez a question all week, finally was granted his wish. In Boulez's discussion in the public forums with students after the performance of their pieces, Boulez always began by asking the students who were their "family tree", those composers who were important to them. This was the question the student asked Boulez., who answered, "Those composers without whom the history of music would be different." Quick on his feet, the student then asked if there was any composer on this list whom Boulez did not like. A short pause- "Brahms" , replied le maître.