Suh, Pintscher / Alumni of the Lucerne Festival Academy
Boulez, Berg, Stravinsky

KKL Lucerne, 2016-03-20

3-star rating

2016-04-01 — Original posting
2016-10-10 — Brushed up for better readability

Pierre Boulez (source:
Pierre Boulez (source:

A Memorial Concert for Pierre Boulez

With Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016), the world of music lost a central figure of the past 65 years: not just Boulez, the composer, but at the same time an important conductor (orchestra and opera), teacher, founder and leader of formations such as the Ensemble InterContemporain, institutions such as the IRCAM in Paris, or more recently the Lucerne Festival Academy (founded 2003, under Pierre Boulez’ direction up till 2015). Over more than the past decade, Boulez was of course also one of the key musicians at the Lucerne Festival. With all this, it was no less than natural that the Lucerne Festival was offering a concert in memory of Pierre Boulez.

For this event, the organizers pulled together an orchestra formed by the Alumni of the Lucerne Festival Academy — former students of this institution that traveled to Lucerne from all over the world.

The Conductor

The conductor in this concert was Matthias Pintscher, Boulez’ successor as Principal Conductor of the Orchestra of the Lucerne Festival Academy (starting 2016). Pintscher, born 1971 in Marl (NRW / Germany), is both a conductor and (primarily) a composer. In his studies (1988 – 1992), he made key encounters with teachers sich as Giselher Klebe and Hans Werner Henze. Subsequently, he held a Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellowship with the Cleveland Orchestra. He became Artist-in-Association with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

With the season 2013/14 he entered a position as Music Director with the Ensemble InterContemporain, while at the same time holding positions such as Artist-in-Residence with the Danish Radio and with the Cologne Philharmony, and he is teaching composition at the Juilliard School. Since 2008, Matthias Pintscher lives in New York (see his Wikipedia entry for more details).

The Program

One option for this memorial concert might have been to present a broad variety of works from Boulez’ compositorial output. The organizers rather decided to honor the musician by presenting a small selection of his oeuvre in the context of music that helped forming Boulez as a composer:

  • The Three Pieces for Orchestra, op.6, a key work by Alban Berg, one of the founding members of the Second Vienna School (together with Berg’s teacher  Arnold Schönberg [1874 – 1951] and Anton Webern [1883 – 1945]). That’s the School which invented and promoted atonality, twelve-tone technique and serialism (the latter was instrumental in Boulez’ oeuvre);
  • Le Sacre du Printemps“, a key work by Igor Stravinsky. It is one of the most famous compositions of the 20th century. And it created a scandal when premiering in 1913, in Paris.

In my opinion, the idea of surrounding these two major cornerstones with two smaller excerpts from Pierre Boulez’ oeuvre proved only partially successful:

Boulez: “Pli selon pli”

The Composition

The concert opened with an excerpt from “Pli selon pli”, Pierre Boulez’ largest composition, and one of his most important works. The composition has the subtitle “Portrait de Mallarmé”. It is written for soprano and orchestra and consists of five movements, based on five poems by Stéphane Mallarmé (actually Étienne Mallarmé, 1842 – 1898), a French poet and critic. In “Pli selon pli“, the poems appear in chronological order:

  1. Don – based on Don du poème (Gift of the poem), ca. 15′
  2. “Improvisation I on Mallarmé” – based on “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui” (The virgin, the vivid, and the beautiful today), ca. 5′
  3. “Improvisation II on Mallarmé” – based on “Une dentelle s’abolit” (A lace is abolished), ca. 12′
  4. “Improvisation III on Mallarmé” – based on “A la nue accablante tu” (At the overwhelming naked you), ca. 21′
  5. Tombeau” – based on the poem of the same name, “Tombeau” (Tomb), ca. 16′

The overall title of the composition, “Pli selon pli”, is derived from yet another one of Mallarmé’s poems, “Remémoration d’amis belges” (Remembering Belgian friends), from the verses

Comme furtive d’elle et visible je sens
Que se dévêt pli selon pli la pierre veuve

(“As if by stealth and visible I sense / That fold by fold the widowed stone unrobes itself”).

Don“, a part of “Pli selon pli

In this concert, only the first segment, “Don”, was played. This only uses the first verse from the poem “Don du poème“:

Je t’apporte l’enfant d’une nuit d’Idumée

(I bring you the child of a night of [the country of] Edom). This verse is placed at the very beginning of “Don“. There is more text in the middle of the movement, but that just consists of fragments of text from the poems to be used in the subsequent movements. In this concert, the text was sung by the soprano Yeree Suh, who has received her education at the Seoul National University (with Hyunjoo Yun), at the Universität der Künste in Berlin (opera, with Harald Stamm), in Leipzig (Regina Werner-Dietrich), and at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (baroque, with Gerd Türk). Yeree Suh made her professional debut in 2003 and is since pursuing an international career as singer with a broad repertoire, ranging from baroque to modern music.

The Performance

The selection of “Pli selon pli” as representative piece for Boulez’ oeuvre is certainly more than just fine or adequate, even excellent as such. However, the concert still left some doubts with me, whether this music (or at least this movement) can be performed adequately in the White Hall of the KKL. In my view, this music is better suited for somewhat smaller venues. Here’s why:

The opening fff beat and subsequent instances within the movement lose parts of their power, of their effect on the listener in a big venue. Even more so, the ppp segments may be audible in the remotest corner of this excellent venue. However, for listeners in the distance, these lose warmth, intimacy, and emotional proximity. Especially in the first half of the piece, listeners may have felt somewhat left alone, unless they were intimately familiar with the composition. My spontaneous association was “illustrated silence”.

The other point is that in the center of the movement, the soprano is required to whisper some passages. Even if these parts were performed as soft Sprechgesang (spoken singing), they very likely lost some or most of their effect in the distant parts of the venue. The first solo for the soprano, immediately after the opening beat, is very demanding (mentally, primarily). I felt that between this opening passage and the solos in the central part, Yeree Suh remarkably gained volume and convincing power. The orchestra (around 50 musicians, mostly very young) played with competence, concentration and focus. They were led by the very clear and precise direction of its conductor, Matthias Pintscher, who obviously was intimately familiar with the score.


There were moments in the first half when Stravinsky’s famous dictum came to my mind “I wonder whether I’m the only one who finds this both pretty monotonous and monotonously pretty?”. However, in this case I attribute this thought to the distance (floor seat, close to the back-end) and to the size of the venue, see above. But at the same time I can also imagine why the Russian composer got to this idea / comment. On the other hand, one could argue / postulate that this emotional distance was adequate / appropriate (if it wasn’t even intentional), in that it confronted us with the absence, the loss  of the great composer.

Commemorative Speech by Wolfgang Rihm

After this opening piece, the musicians in the orchestra left the stage (the next composition mandated major rearrangements on the podium), and the German composer (and Boulez’ friend) Wolfgang Rihm (*1952) took the microphone for an impressive 15-minute commemorative speech, which I’m presenting here in full transcript (for my English translation see below). The subtitles were inserted for clarification. They were not part of the speech.

Manchmal tritt man, verehrte Damen und Herren, in einen Kreis und spürt dass die Zentralgestalt des Kreises nicht anwesend ist, oder auf andere Art anwesend ist, als eine stark umrissene Kraft, als eine spürbare Gravitation. Und es ist natürlich nach diesem Werk (oder diesem Werkteil) ein ganz besonderer Moment, hier—jetzt, für mich—in diesen Resonanzraum zu treten. Und Sie werden gespürt haben: das ist eine Musik, die gänzlich aus ihrer eigenen Resonanz, ihren Echos, Vor-Echos und Beantwortungen ihrer eigenen, im Moment gestellten Fragen besteht.

Es ist etwas ganz Eigenes, was nur bei Pierre Boulez verwirklicht ist, meiner Meinung nach. Eine Musik, die einerseits von hoher Intellektualität ist, aber gleichzeitig von einer fast schon übersinnlichen Sensualität. Das ist etwas, was wir sehr genießen können, dem wir aber auch, wenn wir ihm in die Tiefenstrukturen folgen, mit großem Gewinn Problematiken ablauschen können.

Pli selon pli

Zum Beispiel der Umgang mit dem Gedicht, das im Zentrum des ersten Teils von “Pli selon pli“, “Don“, den wir eben gehört haben, steht. Es ist ja nur die erste Zeile vertont. Das, was dann in der Mitte geschieht, sind Vor-Echos aus später folgenden Teilen des Werkes. Das ist kein Bestandteil des Gedichtes “Don” selbst, sondern “wird kommen”, ist ein Blick (das hat die Sängerin wunderbar dargestellt), als wär es noch nicht da, als würde etwas erahnbar werden, als würde etwas noch kommen.

Und diese erste Zeile, die, so wie die Komposition beginnt, gestellt wird, dieses Kind, was aus einer idumeischen Nacht, aus einer Nacht aus Edom dargereicht wird, stellt natürlich die Frage: Was ist das? Was ist mit diesem Edom gemeint? Das ist ein höchst […] problembeladener Ort. Eigentlich (in der Bibel kommt er schon vor) ist es ein verachteter Ort. Mallarmé setzt diesen Ort als den Ort der überwundenen Produktionsschwäche. Es ist der Ort an dem sich dem Mythos zufolge die Menschen ungeschlechtlich vermehren. Es ist der Ort in dem eine Fortpflanzung geschieht, die nicht “das Richtige” ist, die nicht in der Natur vorkommt.

Don” — eine Gabe

Diesen Satz an den Anfang zu stellen, und sozusagen das Werk als Gabe, als “Don” zu deklarieren, das aus dieser doch wohl überwundenen Problemsphäre stammt, das ist ein gewaltiger Schritt. Und dieser gewaltige Schritt steht ganz am Anfang. Das ist der Schlag, der Schlag des Orchesters, in dem alles beinhaltet ist, was im späteren Werk erklingen wird, auch in den anderen Teilen. Und (Sie kennen das Werk sicher alle) auch mit diesem Schlag wird das Werk enden. Am Schluss (“Tombeau“) ist der (zumindest in seiner Substanz) gleiche Akkord, auf das Wort folgend: “La mort“, sodass Geburt und Tod in eine Gestalt gezwungen sind.


Dieser kleine Blick jetzt auf ein Werk bringt natürlich auch den Blick auf seinen Schöpfer, denn das erste Wort ist “Ich”. Und es spricht natürlich der Autor, es spricht natürlich Pierre Boulez, wenn er sagt “Ich bringe das Werk”. Er zieht sich nicht zurück, er zeigt sich, er entfaltet sich in diesem Werk, Schritt für Schritt, in einer großen Generosität. Und die kennzeichnete sein Wesen in jeden Situationen, in denen wir, in denen ich, in denen Sie ihn treffen durften: von großer Generosität, Zugewandtheit, und […] Einfachheit.

Je komplexer die Gestalten seines Wirkens und seiner künstlerischen Produktion waren, umso einfacher zeigt er sich selbst, war er zugänglich für all die kleinen Probleme der Logistik, des Entstehens von Kunst, besonders bei Musik eine hochkontaminierte Gegend. Denn Musik entsteht nicht von selbst, Musik muss (das wissen Sie alle) eine Institution haben, in der sie sich zeigen kann.

Der Realisierer

Das Wort “Institution” ist für den Realisierer Pierre Boulez etwas ganz Wichtiges. Pierre Boulez hat die Gabe besessen, Institutionen als schöpferische Zentren, als schöpferischen Akt zu generieren. Institutionen eben nicht als ein Zentrum für erneute Bürokratie, für zusätzliche Schwierigkeiten, sondern für Ermöglichung. Überall wo er nur spürte, dass die Möglichkeit bestand, hat er mit den richtigen Leuten im richtigen Moment die richtigen Worte gefunden, um zu motivieren, etwas auf den Weg zu bringen. Und das Faszinierende daran ist: nie stand er selbst im Mittelpunkt. Nie war das eine Institution die zu höherem Ruhme ihres Anregers, wie man es ja oft hat, in die Welt gesetzt wurde, sondern es war immer eine Institution, die etwas ermöglichte, etwas […] schuf, für kommende Generationen, für junge Leute.

Schönberg est mort

Boulez hat in seinem Schaffen begonnen, wie jeder Vernünftige: als Vatermörder. Natürlich: “Schönberg est mort“. Wer schreibt sowas als 26-jähriger? Man liest es und denkt sich: damals, die Leute (Sie müssen sich das vorstellen, die Leute wussten ja nicht einmal dass Schönberg gelebt hat!) lesen, er sei tot, von einem jungen Mann für tot erklärt. Man muss sich das einmal vorstellen: heute ist das ein Bonmot unter uns allen—er hat es damals geschrieben.

Aber es bedeutet ja auch etwas. Das heißt erstens: “Ich weiß wer ich bin”, und zweitens “ich kann den Vater deswegen töten, weil ich weiß was er mir gegeben hat”. Dieses Zerschneiden des Tischtuchs, dieses Trennen lässt ja immer einen Teil des Tischtuchs bei dem der es zerschneidet zurück. Und das kann man natürlich bei Pierre Boulez wunderbar verfolgen. Er ist der Erbe exakt der Tradition, deren Tod er befähigt ist, zu verkünden. Und es geht ja nicht darum, Schönberg für tot zu erklären, sondern die Institutionalisierung eines Schönberg’schen Denkens, das sich seiner lebendigen Wurzel entfernt hat.

Schönberg als Lebenskern

Und das hat er damals gespürt: es beginnt, schwierig zu werden, sich auf Schönberg zu berufen, weil die Codifizierung, die Inthronisation von Macht letztlich Schönberg um das beraubt, was er ist, nämlich ein generativer Pol, ein Lebenskern. So jemand wie Pierre Boulez ruft natürlich enorm viel Gegnerschaft und Neid hervor. Exakt das hat man ihm ja immer dann wieder vorgeworfen: er habe mit der Macht paktiert.

Aber man hat nicht erkannt, dass für ihn Macht immer etwas war, was etwas auf den Weg bringt, was etwas ermöglicht, was erst mal befruchtet werden muss, um Frucht zu tragen. Macht selbst trägt noch keine Frucht. Das wissen die Mächtigen, die sich durch Kunst, durch die Nähe zu Kunst, durch die Ermöglichung von Kunst überhaupt ein Überleben sichern. Wir kennen manche Politiker nur noch deswegen, weil sie Zentren für Kunst ins Leben gerufen haben, weil sie etwas ermöglicht haben.

Die Festival Academy als Erbe

Und das hat Pierre Boulez immer wieder gesehen: “Ich muss dem die Möglichkeit geben, etwas zu ermöglichen”. Und das hat er in wunderbarer Weise getan: Sie sehen [heute Mittag] hier das Ergebnis, ein Orchester [jetzt ist es grad weg, aber wenn die dann wieder da sind, ein Orchester] von jungen Menschen. Das gibt es nur weil er das damals auf den Weg gebracht hat. Weil er diese Akademie zusammen mit Michael Haefliger gegründet hat. Weil er diese Idee als eine Idee in die Zukunft projiziert hat. Was ist diese Idee? Das ist die Idee, dass man junge Menschen zusammenbringt, um ihnen ein Repertoire nahezubringen, das sie in den täglichen Gebrauchsstadien des Kunstvollzugs noch wenig zu Gehör, zu Gesicht, zu Gebrauch bekommen.

Genauso wie die Sinfonien Haydns die Grundlage sind für das klassisch-romantische Musizieren im Orchesterbereich, so sind Orchesterwerke von Debussy, Strawinsky, Schönberg, Berg, Webern [sind] die Grundlage. Und das zu vermitteln, das einer Jugend, einer Weltjugend mitzugeben, das war die Idee dieser Akademie, dieser Luzerner Festival-Akademie. Da geht es nicht darum, erneut Akademisten zu züchten, dass alle am Schluss gleichgeschaltet die gleiche Interpretationsweise artikulieren, sondern, dass Begegnungsformen mit immer wieder neuen jungen Menschen möglich sind.

Die Alumni der Festival Academy

Und wenn wir jetzt hier die Alumni vereint haben, denken Sie an den Begriff Alumnus, Alumna, das kommt von […] von ernähren, “alere“, ernähren. Das sind welche, die wurden schon lange ernährt, und zwar von Pierre Boulez und der Situation hier in Luzern. Das sind alles Spieler, die von der ganzen Welt hierher gekommen sind, um ihm ein Gedenken zu weihen. Und dieses Gedenken, die Auswahl der Stücke, das haben wir alles gemeinsam gemacht. Das Gedenken geschieht natürlich in aktiver Art, das heißt, in zwei Tagen wurde ein Programm, das Sie jetzt dann hören, (ein Programm) einstudiert, was im Konzertalltag […] gar nicht möglich [wäre]. Das können selbst […] berühmte Orchester in der Weise nicht so schnell auf die Beine stellen, weil sie ganz andere Verpflichtungen auch noch zu leisten haben.

Und das zum Beispiel ist nur eine der vielen Institutionsgründungen von Pierre Boulez.

Komponist vs. Dirigent

Das hat natürlich alles seine Wurzeln in seinem Komponieren, denn er ist ja nicht […] nur ein Dirigent der auch komponiert, wie in manchen Nachrufen ärgerlicherweise zu lesen war. Ich hatte immer den Eindruck: “worüber reden die? worüber schreiben die?”. Das ist ein großer, großer Komponist, der ein wunderbarer Dirigent war! Man las: ein Dirigent, der auch Werke geschrieben hat. Nein, es ist ein Schaffen, das da im Zentrum steht, ein zentrales Schaffen der heutigen Zeit. Es ist—wenn Sie so wollen—bei ihm genau das der Fall, was zum Beispiel in der historischen Situation bei Arnold Schönberg, dem tot erklärten, der Fall war: Schönberg hat die Brahms’sche und die Wagner’sche […] Linie zusammengeführt. Und Pierre Boulez hat die Debussy’sche und die Schönberg’sche Linie zusammengeführt.

Es ist eine große integrative Kraft in seinem Komponieren, das Zusammenbringen von Kulturen. Seine moderne Vorstellung und seine moderne Kultur gründete sich auch immer auf die Figuren Debussy, Cézanne, Mallarmé. […] Das ist eine ganz, ganz spezifisch auch kulturell ausgeprägte Gestalt, demgegenüber natürlich die Welt Schönberg, Webern, Berg, Paul Klee und James Joyce ergänzend und […] steigernd wahrzunehmen ist. Und so hat er in seinem Werk integrierend, in seinem Realisieren als Dirigent entfaltend—”pli selon pli“, Falte um Falte—das Werk gezeigt, und eben das Werk anderer, und in seiner enormen Begabung als Institutionsgründer Weichen gestellt für eine Zukunft, von der wir alle profitieren.

My English Transcript

And here’s my English translation; Wolfgang Rihm spoke freely, without manuscript. I did not try doing a word-by-word / 100% “accurate” translation. I rather focused on reproducing the content / what Wolfgang Rihm presumably meant to say. Translations of German or French expressions are given in parentheses: (). Explanatory / external additions are given in square brackets []; expressions in other languages and borrowed words (also the occasional highlighting) are in italics. Again, the subtitles were just added to help the online readability. They are not part of Wolfgang Rihm’s text.

Sometimes, ladies and gentlemen, one enters a circle and feels that the central figure is not present, or is present in a different form, as a strongly defined force, as perceptible gravitation. And to me, here and now, after this composition (or this part of a composition) it is a very special moment to enter this resonant space. You will have noticed that this is music that entirely consists of its own resonance, its echoes, pre-echoes, and in the responses to its own, momentarily uttered questions. It’s something very unique, in my opinion only realized in Pierre Boulez’ music: a music that for one is of high intellectuality, but at the same time also of an almost transcendental sensuality. That’s something we can enjoy very much, but also something that allows us to follow its profound internal structure, hereby making the rewarding experience of eavesdropping on problem areas.

Pli selon pli

One example is the handling of the poem “Don“, which stands in the center of the first part of “Pli selon pli” that we just listened to. Only the first line of that poem is used; what happens in the center of the piece are rather pre-echoes from subsequent parts of the composition. It’s not a part of the poem “Don” itself, but rather “yet to come”, a glimpse—marvelously enacted by the singer—as if it wasn’t here yet, as if something just became vaguely perceptible, as if something was yet to arrive.

And this first line, exposed the way in which this composition starts, this child, presented and coming from an Idumean, and Edomite night, is of course asking the question: what is this? What does “Edom” signify here? It is a highly problematic location—the bible also mentions it—a place that is despised, really. Mallarmé uses this place as the location at which a reproductive weakness was overcome: it’s the place in which—according to ancient myths—humans are reproducing asexually; the place in which a reproductive process takes place that is “not the right thing”, that does not occur in nature.

Don” — A Gift

Placing this phrase at the beginning of “Pli selon pli“, hereby declaring this composition as a gift, “Don“, coming from this (hopefully overcome) problematic sphere is a giant leap. This leap is positioned at the very beginning: it’s the beat, the beat of the orchestra, which embraces everything that will follow later in this piece, also in subsequent parts. You all know the composition, for sure: with this same beat, the composition will also conclude. At the end, “Tombeau” (tomb), we hear the same chord, at least in its substance, following the word “La mort” (death). This way, birth and death are both forced into one and the same entity [Gestalt].


This short glimpse onto a composition naturally also opens the view onto its creator. The very first word is “ich” (I), and of course it’s the author who is speaking: Pierre Boulez, stating “Ich bringe [das Werk]” / (I’m bringing [the work]). He does not retract behind his music, he exposes, unfolds himself in this composition, step by step, in great generosity. And that generosity was typical of his character in the circumstances in which we (myself, you) had the privilege of encountering him: a character of great generosity, affection—but also plainness.

The more complex the shapes and textures of his artistic production were, the more straightforward he appeared himself, and the more he was accessible for all those small problems of logistics, of the making of art. Especially in the case of music, this is a highly contaminated area: music doesn’t come to life by itself, but music—as you all know—requires an institution in which it can expose itself.

The Realizer

The word “institution” is very central, important for Pierre Boulez, the realizer: Pierre Boulez was gifted with the ability to generate institutions as creative centers, in a creative act. Institutions of course not as centers for renewed bureaucracy, für additional complexity, difficulties, but for the purpose of enabling: wherever he sensed the possibility, chance to motivate, to get something on the way, he found the right words with the right people, in the right moment. And what is fascinating with this: never he placed himself in the center, never was this about institutions created for the higher glory of their initiator (as one can find only too frequently), but it was always about an institution for enabling, to create something, for coming generations, for young people.

“Schönberg is dead”

Like any sensible creator, Boulez started his creative career—as parricide. Of course: “Schönberg est mort” (Schönberg is dead). Who would write this at age 26? We read this, thinking: at that time, people (just picture this: people didn’t even know of Schönberg’s existence!) read that he died, declared dead by a young man. You need to picture this situation: today, this is a bonmot among ourselves; he uttered this in writing, back then.

But this also has a meaning. First: “I know who I am”, and second: “I can kill my father because I know what he has given to me”. This cutting of the table-cloth, this act of separation always leaves behind a portion of the table-cloth with the who is cutting. And that’s something we can very well observe with Pierre Boulez: he has inherited exactly the tradition which he is able to declare dead. And the purpose not to declare Schönberg dead, but rather the institutionalization of a Schönbergian philosophy that has moved away from its living roots.

Schönberg as Nucleus for Life

That’s what he must have felt back then: it started to become difficult to call upon Schönberg, because the codification, the enthronement of power ultimately deprives Schönberg of what he really is, namely a generative pole, a nucleus of life. Somebody like Pierre Boulez of course calls for a large number of adversaries and enviers. That’s exactly what people have blamed him for again and again: that he was pacting with power.

But people did not realize that to him, power always was something that helped getting things on the way, helps enabling something that needs to be inseminated in order to come to fruition. Power by itself does not bear fruits. Powerful people are aware of this. Those who use art, proximity to art, the facilitating of art to secure their own survival. Numerous politicians arte only still remembered because they created centers for the arts, because they allowed something in art to happen.

The Festival Academy as Legacy

That’s something Pierre Boulez has realized over and over again: “I need to give this a chance, make something possible”. And he has done so in wonderful ways: today, here, you see the result, an orchestra of young people. This only exists because he once brought this to life. Because, together with Michael Haefliger, he founded this academy. Because he projected this idea into the future—as an idea. What is this idea? It’s the idea to bring together young people, in order to familiarize them with a repertoire which they have little chance to hear, to see, to use in the daily “stages of use”, of executing art.

Just in the same way in which Haydn’s symphonies are the foundation for performing orchestral music from the classic-romantic era, the orchestral works by Debussy, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Berg, and Webern are the foundation [for performing contemporary music]. Conveying this [foundation], passing this along to young people, to youth from all over the world, that was the idea for this academy, this Lucerne Festival Academy. The purpose is not to breed yet more academists, to make them all uniformly articulate one and the same style of interpretation, but to facilitate, to enable [forms of] encounters between a constantly renewing group of young people.

The Alumni of the Festival Academy

And if we now experience a group of “alumni”, you should think of the term alumnus, alumna, derived from [Latin] alere, to nourish: these are people [artists] that have long been nourished: namely by Pierre Boulez, and by the situation here in Lucerne. These all are musicians that came here from all over the world in order to dedicate a memorial to Pierre Boulez. And this memorial, the selection of pieces, all this we have done together. The memorial is of course an active one, i.e., within two days a program was rehearsed: the program that you are about to hear. This could never be achieved in day-to-day concert life. Even famous orchestras could not achieve this so quickly, because these ensembles have so many other duties as well. And this is just one example for institutions founded / initiated by Pierre Boulez.

Composer vs. Conductor

All this of course is rooted in Pierre Boulez’ composing. He is not just a conductor who is also composing, as one could annoyingly read in many obituaries. I always felt: what are they talking about? what are they writing about? This was a big, big composer who also was a wonderful conductor! One could read: a conductor who also wrote compositions. No, it’s his oeuvre that if in the center, a core oeuvre of this era. One could state that he impersonates exactly the same as the historic situation around Arnold Schönberg, declared dead: Schönberg combined the threads of Brahms’ and Wagner’s music. Pierre Boulez combined the threads of Debussy’s and Schönberg’s music.

There is a vast integrating force in his composing, the combining of cultures. His modern view and his modern culture was always also founded on the characters of Debussy, Cézanne, Mallarmé. He was very, very specifically also a culturally formed figure. A figure of course also to be seen as complemented and deepened by the worlds of Schönberg, Webern, Berg, Paul Klee, and James Joyce. Thus, he has been integrating in his oeuvre as composer, unfolding — “pli selon pli“, fold by fold — in his realizing as conductor, unfolding his oeuvre, and equally the works of others. And with his enormous gift as institution founder he has been setting directions for a future which we all are profiting from.

After this excellent (in my opinion) and profound speech, it took some 15 minutes to rearrange the podium for the following compositions:

Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra, op.6

The Composition

Alban Berg (1885 – 1935), one of the founders of the New Vienna School, composed his Three Pieces for Orchestra, op.6 between 1913 – 1915. The work (last revision published 1929) is dedicated to Arnold Schönberg. This work requires a very rich orchestral setting (17 woodwinds, 15 brass instruments, 6 percussionists, 2 harps and celesta, strings (5 voices, large setup). It features three movements (the times given are those specified by the composer):

  1. Präludium (Prelude, ca. 4 minutes)
  2. Reigen (Round Dance, 4.5 – 5 minutes)
  3. Marsch (March, 8.5 – 9 minutes)

The Performance

For all I can tell: the large orchestra formation of the Alumni of the Lucerne Festival Academy offered an excellent, superb and mature performance in these pieces. In particular, one should consider that this was rehearsed (together with Stravinsky’s “Sacre du printemps“!) in a mere two days. But as already in parts of the first piece in the concert, I sensed some “emotional distance” here; I can of course not objectively “prove” this, or conclude this based on objective criteria. It really is my personal impression, which may have been influenced by Matthias Pintscher‘s rather technical conducting style:

  • In the Prelude, I primarily missed some of the impressionist richness in tonal colors & shadings, even though in parts it felt like a (late) romantic interpretation
  • The “Reigen” was playful, fluent, dance-like. However, I expected more life, more of the bizarre, the caricature aspect, the fantastical atmosphere (similar to that found in Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse”).
  • The last piece, “March“, was full of drive and action, often enthralling. It came closest to my expectations, with its allusions to Gustav Mahler’s music. The latter is my personal association in sections of this piece.

Sure, it was a good performance. Still, I consider Alban Berg the most emotional among the composers of the New Vienna School; for this, the interpretation in this concert (for me) had some deficit in emotional intensity. It was falling short in the imaginative dimension.

Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps

The Composition

Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) completed his ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) in 1913. When the piece premiered in 1913 in Paris, this composition (along with the avant-garde choreography) caused a veritable scandal. The reception of this music has changed since, fortunately. It has become one of Stravinsky’s most popular works.

That evolution in perception also applies to Boulez’ attitude towards this music. Initially (1951), he liked the music as impressive playground for rhythmic developments. But otherwise, he found its musical language too much captured in old schemes. However, over the years, “Le Sacre du Printemps” became his favorite composition by Stravinsky. So much that (according to the program notes) he almost felt like having composed it himself. I’m not going to discuss every detail of this performance. Still, let me outline the structure of the piece, in its two parts:

I. L’Adoration de la Terre (Adoration of the Earth)

  1. Introduction
  2. Les augures printaniers — Danses des adolescentes (Augurs of Spring — Dance of the Young Girls)
  3. Jeu du rapt (Ritual of Abduction)
  4. Rondes printanières (Spring Rounds)
  5. Jeux des cités rivales (Ritual of the Rival Tribes)
  6. Cortège du sage (Procession of the Sage)
  7. Le sage (The Sage)
  8. Danse de la terre (Dance of the Earth)

II. Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice)

  1. Introduction
  2. Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes (Mystic Circles of the Young Girls)
  3. Glorification de l’élue (Glorification of the Chosen One)
  4. Evocation des ancêtres (Evocation of the Ancestors)
  5. Action rituelle des ancêtres (Ritual Action of the Ancestors)
  6. Danse sacrale: l’élue (Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One)

The Performance

To me, the interpretation sounded and felt technical-mechanical, rather than emotional. This is in line with my findings about the interpretation of the Three Pieces for Orchestra by Berg. It was somewhat dry, overall (like also the pieces by Berg). To me, this music ought to represent the most vital aspects of Russian life: vivid, exuberant, sparkling, like a funfair scenery. Some of this dryness may be attributed to the acoustics: the echo chambers were all closed. This certainly helped the transparency of the orchestra sound. It facilitated the coordination within the orchestra. It definitely was also helpful for the more intimate segments in Pierre Boulez’ compositions. However, I suspect it may have had a negative impact on the amount of atmosphere in the compositions by Berg and Stravinsky.

But I should state that (especially considering the minimal preparation time) the orchestral performance was amazingly good, virtuosic, youthful (as expected with these musicians!). Matthias Pintscher did an excellent job at controlling and coordinating the orchestra with his accurate-metric conducting style. Despite the rather fluent tempo, there were very few noticeable mishaps. One example were some coordination issues in the last part. Likely, these resulted from the large distance between the horns (rear left) and the trombone and tuba sections on the rear right side of the podium. But overall, from a technical point-of-view, the orchestra performance was excellent.

The Right Choice?

With its duration of over half an hour, Igor Stravinsky’s “Sacre du printemps” filled the biggest portion of this memorial concert. Sure, it is a key artwork of the 20th century. It may be the composition that Pierre Boulez liked the most among Stravinsky’s oeuvre. But still, I asked myself whether it wouldn’t have been better to select a shorter composition, or maybe to play a part of the “Sacre” only, perhaps adding another segment from “Pli selon pli” instead? This would have given more weight to Pierre Boulez’ compositorial oeuvre. There was no intermission in this concert, but still, the event lasted more than two hours. The 15-minute delay caused by the rearrangement after the memorial speech was not helpful either. Could that not have been done during an intermission?

Boulez: Mémoriale (… explosante-fixe … Originel)

Pierre Boulez wrote his composition … explosante-fixe … (…exploding-fixed…) 1971/1972, as a memorial for Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971). The work initially consisted of seven parts, called “Originel” and “Transitoires II – VII“. It’s a one-page, aleatoric composition. The composition went through a series of revisions. Initially, the composer did not specify the instrumentation. One suggested possibility was with two violins, two flutes, two clarinets, and harp. Later, the composition evolved into a work for solo flute with the accompaniment of seven instruments, including electronics. This was later dumped again.

1985, Boulez reworked the initial part of the composition, “Originel“, into “Mémoriale“. Boulez dedicated this to the memory of Larry Beauregard, the deceased flutist of the Ensemble InterContemporain. The last revision of this composition from 1991, for flute and eight instruments, concluded this concert in memory of Pierre Boulez. It now turned into a swansong for the composer himself.

So, the concert did not conclude with a big splash, such as Stravinsky’s “Sacre du printemps“. It rather ended with an intimate, atmospheric piece, in an impressive interpretation by the flutist Yi Wie Angus Lee. This turned into a solemn, pensive, and very touching moment. More than ever before in this concert, one could feel the big void that this composer is leaving behind. The silence after this last performance made it clear: Pierre Boulez, a really great mind in the music community, is going to be missed.


Matthias Pintscher (source:; © Felix Broede)
Matthias Pintscher (source:; © Felix Broede)


For the same concert, I have also written a (much shorter) review in German for, see also the note at the top. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.

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2 thoughts on “Boulez Memorial Concert — KKL Lucerne, 2016-03-20”

    • He certainly was a good conductor — but overall, I agree with Wolfgang Rihm: his role as composer is far more important…

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