Twenty-five years ago, when I first sat down with Pierre Boulez to discuss the future of the C-major scale and similar weighty matters, he had already emerged as a pulverizing presence on the musical landscape. He had called, in one famous interview, for a destruction of all the world’s opera houses and a reduction of the operatic repertory to just one work — Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Mahagonny.” He had terrorized avant-garde circles with an article called “Schoenberg is Dead.” 
The Boulez who comes to UCLA this weekend — where he begins a series of weekend concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic,  — has mitigated his outlook somewhat. Kinder? Gentler? That may be going a little far, but at least today’s Boulez has broadened his world view considerably. The opera he will conduct on this weekend’s concert is not Weill’s agitprop masterpiece but rather Bela Bartok’s mystical, psychological “Bluebeard’s Castle.” And he is actually delving into musical history — as far back, at least, as the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, a work now in its venerable ninth decade.
Much, I need not remind you, has befallen Pierre Boulez since his hellraising days a quarter-century ago. As conductor of the New York Philharmonic following Leonard Bernstein, he had seven years to play footsies — not very happily, if truth be told — with the conservative dodos on that orchestra’s board. To amend  his nihilistic views on opera, he has recorded (marvelously) a repertory extending from Wagner’s “Ring” to Berg’s “Lulu.”  At New York’s Juilliard School he breathed fire at student workshops for hopeful composers and conductors; in his Los Angeles visits, on the contrary, he has played benevolent older brother to invited auditors at his rehearsals, and intends to do so again this time.
But while Boulez has brought about a more genial accomodation with the outside world, his own deeds and creations have thrown up a continual challenge to comfortable and easy definitions of the nature of music. Combat Central is, of course, his IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Music and Acoustics), a vast and surprisingly joyous workshop that serves as a kind of marriage counselor for music and electronic technology.
Interestingly enough, says Boulez, the IRCAM experience has forced him to expend more awareness on the music of the past. “It’s good to maintain contact,” he noted at an informal get-together a few days ago. “I don’t conduct music of the past just out of nostalgia, however; I don’t see any good in cooking something again that was already cooked 100 years ago. But I like to remind myself of the impact this music — the Mahler, for example — had on me when I was younger. I look upon my time with an orchestra as a hygienic exercise.”
This year the statewide University of California is helping to spread the hygiene, bringing to Los Angeles a group of 25 handpicked music students who will attend the  rehearsals at UCLA and, Boulez promises, have plenty of opportunity to examine the scores, ask questions and learn a lot of challenging music from close up.
“It will be an experience in musical realities,” he says. “At the Paris Conservatoire, musical education is completely out of touch with reality. It isn’t enough, just going to concerts; the only real learning comes when you are close to the music-making. Music can be listening, thinking, dreaming… but it also has its practical side: what can you expect of an oboe player? how much does a horn weigh?”
Lucky students; they couldn’t ask for a better guide into the dry facts of music. There is a mystique that surrounds the Boulez brand of music-making, but it has its roots in the man’s genuine gifts as a conductor. Time and again he has come to an orchestra as guest conductor — notably the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1984, when it last gave a Boulez series at Royce — and transformed an indifferent, tired ensemble into another orchestra entirely, elegant and exquisite balanced.orchestra that even the archetypal Frenchman only dreams about. Even his New York detractors, put off mostly by Boulez’s penchant for adventurous — shall we say — programming have to admit that the orchestra never sounded so good as during his time there — not before under Bernstein, and certainly not since under Mehta.
That, at least. you can expect once again, in the excellent acoustics at Royce, or when Boulez and the orchestra move up to the  sylvan setting at Ojai for several miraculously challenging programs June 2-4. It’s ironic, in a way, that this supremely gifted orchestral craftsman has devoted so much of his life to playing with non-orchestral sounds, through the monkeying around with synthesizers and computers at IRCAM. Boulez sees the notion of electronic involvement as just a logical step in the evolution of the sound.
“It’s traditional,” he says, “that composers want to go beyond the resources that are available to them at any given time. And so the musical industry must always keep up with composer’s hopes for the future, as well as his needs in the present. The growth in the iron industry in the 1840s, for example, made it possible to build pianos with stronger frames and with much more tension in the strings. This, in turn, led the great virtuosic piano music of the 1850s and beyond.
“Today, a composer may want a certain sound on the harp, a microtone between two regular notes. But you cannot build a harp that will hold its tune so exactly that you can get such a note. Similarly, you cannot easily get microtones high up on the violin, because our fingers are too fat to find the right position exactly. And so, to satisfy the composer’s desire for these notes, we develop electronic means.”
The danger, as Boulez sees it, is in mistaking the electronic gadgetry in a new work for the excellence of the work itself. “The composer mustn’t be the prisoner of technology,” he says. “He must give something back; the composition must be his, not the machine’s.
“I’ll never stop conducting the orchestra. No matter how excellent our machines become, my greatest pleasure is my conducting.” [END

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