From the New York Times…
In June 1969, the stunning news broke that the New York Philharmonic had appointed Pierre Boulez to succeed Leonard Bernstein as its music director. The decision understandably rattled the classical music establishment: Mr. Boulez was not just an uncompromising Modernist composer, but he had also first come to attention as a polemicist dismissive of those writing music beholden to tonal harmony.
In one fiery 1952 essay, Mr. Boulez, then in his late 20s, declared that any musician who had not felt “the necessity of the dodecaphonic language” – the rigorous 12-tone technique devised by Schoenberg a few decades before – “is of no use.” This was the conductor the Philharmonic had chosen to follow Bernstein? Charismatic Uncle Lenny, Mr. Let’s Find Out?
But Mr. Boulez, who died on Tuesday at 90 in Germany, had mellowed over the years, long before the Philharmonic tapped him. For sure, he arrived in New York determined to bring the orchestra belatedly into the 20th century. But the inventiveness and diversity of his programming proved a surprise. His death comes at a time when the Philharmonic is poised to reveal who will follow Alan Gilbert, like Mr. Boulez an inventive, varied programmer, as music director. Now, when the orchestra seems vague about its post-Gilbert artistic vision, it’s worth remembering the lessons of Mr. Boulez’s tenure.
Yes, the early works, steeped in 12-tone technique, are steely and radical, like the first two piano sonatas. But last March at Zankel Hall, the pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich gave exhilarating accounts of these pieces on a program presenting all of Boulez’s music for piano. The Sonata No. 1 came across as a work of jarring originality, especially in its rhythmic character, as the music unfolds with nonstop intensity through sweeping bursts and organic gestures. And the staggeringly difficult Sonata No. 2 seemed more than ever a young composer’s modernist retort to Beethoven’s mighty “Hammerklavier.”