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Composer, frequent CSO conductor Pierre Boulez dies at 90

By David McHugh and Lori Hinnant | Associated Press

FRANKFURT, Germany — Pierre Boulez, conductor emeritus of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the former principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic, has died at age 90.

Mr. Boulez moved between conducting, composition and teaching over a long career that made him one of the leading figures in modern classical music.

Mr. Boulez, who had been unable to conduct recently due to increasing eye problems, died “peacefully” Tuesday at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany, said his assistant Marion Thiem.

“With the loss of Pierre Boulez, the world of music today is infinitely poorer. As both an admirer and friend of the maestro, I am deeply grateful for his contributions, as composer, conductor, and educator, to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with which he had a collaboration of nearly fifty years, and served so brilliantly as its principal guest conductor and conductor emeritus. His great musical artistry and exceptional intelligence will be missed,” said CSO music director and conductor Riccardo Muti in a statement released Wednesday.

“Pierre Boulez made French music shine throughout the world,” French President Francois Hollande said Wednesday in a statement. “As a composer and conductor, he always wanted to reflect on his era.”

Born in Montbrison, France, on March 26, 1925, Mr. Boulez initially studied mathematics as a youth before switching to music. He studied harmony at the Paris Conservatory with composer Olivier Messiaen and had lessons from Rene Leibowitz in the dissonant 20th-century style known as twelve-tone composition. His compositions include the Second Piano Sonata from 1947-48 and “Le Marteau Sans Maitre (The Hammer Without A Master), a setting of surrealist poetry by Rene Char for six instruments and alto voice.

He turned more and more from composition to conducting, leading the New York Philharmonic, where he succeeded Leonard Bernstein, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra during the 1970s.

He made his CSO debut in 1969 and began annual residencies at Orchestra Hall in 1991. He was named the orchestra’s principal guest conductor in 1995 and conductor emeritus in 2006.

In this Dec.20, 2011 file photo, French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez conducts the Paris Orchestra at the Louvre museum in Paris. | AP Photo/Christophe Ena
In this Dec.20, 2011 file photo, French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez conducts the Paris Orchestra at the Louvre museum in Paris. | AP Photo/Christophe Ena

He led Wagner’s “Ring” cycle of operas at the Bayreuth Festival Theater and also worked with the Cleveland Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris and the London Symphony Orchestra.

His albums won 26 Grammys. Among those honored were several made with the CSO, including recordings of Bartók’s Cantata profana and The Wooden Prince, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Four Orchestral Pieces, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Varèse’s Amériques, Arcana, Déserts and Ionisation.

In 1977, he launched IRCAM, a Paris-based institute focused on music, acoustics and electronics.

Boulez was a cool and contained presence on the podium, preferring a dark business suit and tie to tuxedo and tails, his gestures communicating logic and precision. He didn’t use a baton. He had a reputation as an uncompromising modernist who rejected easy ways of pleasing audiences or music he found uninteresting. In a 2010 interview with Philip Clark for the classical music publication Gramophone, Boulez described the more conventional music of American composer Aaron Copland as “folklore and dance” and dismissed German composer Paul Hindemith by saying his music “is very well put together, yes” but “says nothing to me.”

Yet as a conductor Boulez ranged well beyond the confines of modernism, often favoring Romantic audience favorites such as Bruckner, Mahler and Wagner. For some of his last recordings he chose the lush, moody works of early 20th century Polish composer Karol Szymanovski.

“I may be wrong, but I equate music with culture,” he was quoted as saying in the Gramophone interview. “I don’t think music is an entertainment product. It’s a product of culture — not for marketing, but to enrich lives.”

“All these years, I’ve been trying to convince people that music is not there to please them; it’s there to disturb them.”

Thiem said Boulez never married. He is survived by a brother, Roger, and a sister, Jeanne Chevalier, along with several nieces and nephews. Funeral plans were incomplete.

Associated Press

Pierre Boulez conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, December 10, 2006. | Photo by Todd Rosenberg.
Pierre Boulez conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, December 10, 2006. | Photo by Todd Rosenberg.