To the average music fan who considers classical music an amusing high-brow dabble, like going to a museum, Pierre Boulez ( March 26, 1925,-January 5, 2016), was just a teddy bear. He won dozens of Grammy awards for his interpretations of the standards as he led the London, Cleveland, New York and Chicago symphony orchestras.
But Pierre was also Wooly Boulez, and he championed Arnold Schoenberg and Frank Zappa ("The Girl in the Magnesium Dress"). He composed difficult weird stuff, like the eerie atonal and dissonant "Hangmen of Solitude" (based on a Rene Char poem). He made his money via standards in staid concert halls, but he often wished he could invade the Fillmore or Palladium with his radical music: "The most expensive solution would be to blow the opera houses up. But don't you think that would also be the most elegant?"
Boulez began his career as an "infant terrible" composer, amusing the avant-garde world and pushing boundaries, tonalities and theories. Back then, audiences were having enough trouble just appreciating Stravinsky. Just as art lovers go to the museum to see Renoir and Matisse and only glance at Rothko or Pollock classical fans want Mozart and Debussy, barely tolerate Stravinsky, and time their bathroom break for when the program includes a "modern" classical piece.
And so it was that Boulez made his living as one of the steady conservative conductors in the post-"Living Stereo" 50's era. Back in the late 50's and early 60's "Living Stereo"-styled records made stars of Reiner, Stokowski, Bernstein, Walter, Von Karajan, Munch, Steinberg and many more maestros. They laid down definitive versions of the classics and stereophiles tossed their Toscanini monos.
All that Boulez, Haitink, Abbado and the others from the 70's onward could do was keep the podium warm, and put out "souvenir" recordings for people who attended the shows, or who thought digital CD sound was better. Boulez suffered comparisons to Leonard Bernstein, whom he replaced as leader of the New York Philharmonic. About the only thing they had in common was that they were gay, but Boulez chose to be secretive about it while Bernstein, especially toward the end, was outrageously flamboyant. I saw Bernstein take the stage once trailing a 20 foot long feather boa, his nose in the air, being as campy as a drag queen.
I never saw Boulez conduct in person (not that he was an exciting guy to watch…he didn't care for the traditional tuxedo, or even a baton) but I did buy some of his records way back when. Below are a few downloads from my vinyl of "Boulez Conducts Ravel." And no, I didn't buy his own wacko compositions. Boulez cautioned, "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."
Had I the chance, I would've asked French Pete, "Isn't it more difficult to please people than to just disturb them? You can bash around on the piano without even knowing how to play, and you'll happily enrage the crowd. But it takes years of practice to soothe the savage breast by being able to play even a simple Kabalevsky ballad. Yeah?" Meaning, while I appreciate Pollock's paintings, and understand modern classical and modern jazz...I can only stand it in small doses.
Below are two examples of more traditional classical music by Ravel, taken from my own well-used vinyl. The more challenging of the two is the "Danse generale" from Daphnis and Chloe Suite No 2. Don't worry, this excerpt is the length of any rock song: 3:30. It's a pretty fucking remarkable piece of work, with soaring voices adding to the excitement.
The previous post mentioned the garbage-like nature of movie soundtracks. Here's a study in the difference between real classical music and limp fakery. Even the best movie soundtrack guys couldn't come up with something like this.
Since the guy's dead, it was logical to include the contemplative "Pavane for a Dead Princess," sometimes translated as "Pavane for a Dead Infant." French composers seem to enjoy oddball titles for their works. Satie was a master at this, with his "Flabby Preludes for a Dog." Ravel himself cautioned that a pavane is a just a dance. Go ahead, think about a deceased princess or any loved one, and appreciate that you can dance, and be thankful to be alive. It's no different than Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" with new lyrics about Princess Diane. Sad songs say so much…mostly, "she's dead, I'm not, and I'm glad to be able to enjoy this sweet music." Or dance a pavane that is slow enough that you won't get a heart attack.
Living to the ripe age of 90, it's doubtful the average Boulez fan shed a tear over his passing, but if they dusted off the old vinyl as I did, and played "Pavane for a Dead Princess" and a few others, that's tribute enough.
DANSE GENERALE Boulez conducts a little stunner. No, really.