Pierre Boulez (1925-2016): A personal remembrance

Composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, one of the most influential musical figures of the second half of the twentieth century, passed away on Tuesday, January 5. Since then, multiple news organizations have published lengthy assessments of Boulez and the manner in which he shaped and challenged notions of established concert repertoire as a stalwart advocate of new music and new compositional techniques. This post cannot improve upon the far more eloquent and precise appraisals of Boulez written in The New York Times, The Guardian, and the Los Angeles Times. I would like, instead, to offer the less celebrated work of Boulez—his work with young, aspiring musicians.

In the mid- 1990s, I played double bass in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, a training orchestra for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Boulez conducted the Civic Orchestra on multiple occasions during his regular residencies as the Principle Guest Conductor of the CSO.  He had the same exacting standards for the young musicians—many of them music graduate students—as he did for the full-time professionals of the CSO. His clear conducting style combined with his gift for articulating musical ideas rendered every rehearsal an invaluable music lesson for the young performers. He was most assuredly brilliant as a technical musician—correcting the pitch of a second bassoon in a dense chord cluster, or singing rapid lines of atonal music using solfège—but in an unpretentious manner, merely using the skills as the means by which better results were obtained from the performers. He was generous with his time, conversing with students during rehearsal breaks, answering questions, and allowing photos and autographs from the many who were enthralled by him.

When I asked permission to photograph Boulez during our rehearsals, it was because I wanted to document the moments and gestures as he worked with the Civic Orchestra. As I look at the photos some twenty years later, I think about the rehearsal time with the maestro and what it meant to learn from a high caliber musician at that time in my musical development. The nuances and details of tempo, instrumental balance, and phrasing in works of Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky, and Béla Bartók that I had missed were revealed by Boulez. Pieces that I had played and heard dozens of times no longer seemed fixed and definitive. Instead, Boulez, with his precise, skillful musicianship and thoughtful comments, taught me to hear familiar works with new ears and to embrace the discoveries that alternative interpretations can bring to the performer and audience.

Related resources:


Pierre Boulez Conducts Mahler

Boulez Conducts Stravinsky

Boulez Conducts Boulez


Emotion & Analysis Pierre Boulez

This is a 10 disc set that includes video recordings of concert performances plus master classes and rehearsals with Boulez.


Pierre Boulez: A Symposium in the SMU Libraries

Sampling the Work of Pierre Boulez” from The New York Times


Thanks to Pam Pagels, Music Librarian, for this guest blogpost!

All photos by Pamela Pagels.


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