My Encounters with Pierre Boulez

2009 was my first year with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. That year we played Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique and Maestro Barenboim was working with several orchestra members intensively on Derive 2 – a piece for 11 instruments by Pierre Boulez. I sat through almost all of the Derive rehearsals that summer.

Listening to these long intense rehearsals was the first time I came really close to the music of one of the most influential composers in the 21 century and the music fascinated me. I think the first thing which caught my ears was the beauty of the sound coming from such a unique ensemble – strings at the front, behind them winds and surrounding all – marimba, vibraphone, harp and piano.

The piece is a gigantic score of about 45 minutes in length and very complex: many different lines play at the same time in great polyphony; complicated rhythmical patterns; long structures of dynamic development. At the beginning I could hardly follow the score correctly. Barenboim kept on working on this piece and performing it with Divan members ever since then, almost year after year, and I kept coming to rehearsals and concerts. The last performance I’ve attended was on tour with the orchestra, when we played at the new Philharmonie de Paris – I believe our concert was the second act at this brand new and fantastic concert hall. By then I’ve listened to Derive 2 in so many rehearsals and in several concerts that I knew the piece rather well – I could follow fragments of rhythmical or melodic homophony, alternating constantly between different instruments and creating tension and expectation within long polyphonic structures. I could anticipate my favourite moments. Boulez finished composing it in 2006, not before two decades of revising and expanding the piece – typical to someone who constantly revisited his works, editing them time and again.

These are my friends performing Derive 2 at the Proms Festival in 2012:

Still with the Divan, a couple of years ago Barenboim worked with our cello group on Messagesquiesse, a work for solo cello and 6 cellos. Composed between 1976-77, the piece was a birthday present to Paul Sacher, a conductor and renown patron of contemporary music. With his great wealth he commissioned works from composers such as Stravinsky, Bartok and Lutoslawsky, and under his baton the orchestra he founded -the Basler Kammerorchester, gave premieres to many important works. To celebrate Sacher’s 70th birthday, Russian cellist Rostropovich asked 12 composers – friends of Sacher, to compose pieces for cello solo using the letters of Sacher’s name as musical notes: eS, A, C, H, E, Re. The result was a project named “eSacher” – a collection of works based on these 6 notes, namely the “Sacher hexachord”.

Compared to Derive 2 following the score of Messagesquiesse is as simple as it gets. I love how it starts: each cellist takes a turn in playing one harmonic, starting with an accent and then holding it long. Step by step the Sacher hexachord is formed – creating a cloud of sound floating above the ensemble. The most mysterious, yet tempting atmosphere becomes the setting for the soloist who begins with a recitative speech, later to become a virtuosic perpetuum mobile:

The one and only time I’ve actually met Boulez was in the summer of 2013, at the Lucerne Festival Orchestra Academy. Since 2004, the year in which Boulez founded the academy, he had been conducting there young musicians, coaching them with repertoire of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Unfortunately that summer in 2013 Boulez did not conduct the orchestra anymore. Though he was there – one could see him sitting or walking around the KKL, attending concerts and rehearsals.

Many of his works were performed that year in the festival, one of which was Le Soleil des Eaux (the sun of the waters), a rather short piece for a large orchestra, mixed choir and soprano soloist. Like so many of his works, Boulez revised the piece several times until completing its final version in 1965. The piece is a part of the Char Trilogy, a series of works written for poems by René Char. This incidental music has a rather surreal, almost naive charm to it. Char’s poems where originally part of a political play, centring on the character of a fisherman who fights against the commercial development of a river. Though Boulez himself was highly political and in general shared Char’s political views, the music of Le Soleil des Eaux takes much of its political context away, allowing the beauty and simplicity of the poems to be expressed. I had great joy leading the cello group in this piece: we each had our own part and there were plenty of fragments and short, strange but charming tunes to listen to:

Boulez sat in the audience and listened to us perform his music. When we finished there was the longest standing ovation I’ve ever experienced – the public and us on stage had probably all felt this might be one of the last times we’ll applaud Pierre Boulez in his presence.