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Pierre Boulez: A revolutionary by nature

Not until encountering Pierre Boulez in a live performance could you know what was meant by a fire-drill concert.

Not until encountering Pierre Boulez in a live performance could you know what was meant by a fire-drill concert.

The occasion was the conductor/composer's 1986 return to the New York Philharmonic, which he directed from 1971 to '77 with repertoire that modernists loved and the traditional subscription audience did not. Almost on cue with Boulez's own Pli Selon Pli, the audience began departing in droves. And more droves.

I've never seen anything like it before or since (and shudder to think what his 1973 Philadelphia Orchestra guest date must have been like). Afterward, soprano soloist Phyllis Bryn-Julson commented, "When we do this in Europe, they're hanging from the rafters."

But if that concert happened today? When Orchestra 2001 performed the Boulez masterwork Le Marteau sans Maître in 2008, it may not have been a crowd-pleaser, but it was one of the season's events. What previously seemed unintelligible now seems sensual. If Picasso changed the way artists perceive color and form, Boulez changed the way composers hear it.

Boulez, who died Tuesday at 90 at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany, was the kind of revolutionary who didn't have to work at it. He simply was that way. "I write what I think is for me necessary to write," he told The Inquirer in 2008. He made his name on works for unconventional ensembles with flute and guitar, making typically unimposing instruments speak volumes in a span of seconds, and, in later years, he was in the vanguard of electronic music with works such as Répons.

Emerging from the European ruins of World War II, Boulez seemed constitutionally incapable of looking back to tradition. One of his early recordings, Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, sounds like the work of an intelligent, resourceful Martian. The notes are there, the history is not. His younger self had a volatile temper. He admitted he could be a bit of a Robespierre with composers who seemed to be living in the past. The older Boulez could be devastating while defending himself against his critics. Even the infirm, semiretired Boulez, on hearing another composer's music for multiple string quartets a few summers ago, commented, "It is nothing. It is less than nothing."

Yet the calm, genial, patient Boulez was an extremely likable individual. As much as audiences sometimes couldn't take him, his backstage colleagues were delighted with him - and impressed that he had the keenest ears in the business. When eye ailments began forcing him to cancel engagements in 2012, he was able to walk Philadelphia Orchestra conductor-in-residence Cristian Macelaru (who replaced him at the last minute in Chicago) through intricate modern works without being able to see the score.

Boulez's memory was beyond phenomenal. When told of a bootleg recording of a Mahler Symphony No. 5 he had conducted in London, Boulez immediately recalled, "The horn player had too much to drink." Returning to the recording, you could hear it.

His performances took on a greater emotional presence as time went on, though Boulez denied he was mellowing. He claimed he was just getting to know the music better. That's classic Boulez. As a composer, he frequently withdrew his works for revision, saying the new version was what he wanted all along. He was in a constant state of "becoming." Or, to quote the titles of one of his pieces, Boulez was an explosante fine - a fixed explosion.