January 5th of 2021 marked the fifth anniversary of the departure of the great Pierre Boulez, that versatile giant who took one of the main places in the history of music of our times. Composer, orchestra conductor and relentless cultural disseminator, he was at the same time one of the characters who had the greatest influence on my education. I had the privilege of meeting him in Switzerland, during the conducting courses he began to give 11 years before his death. All his life he had refused to teach and he strongly disapproved of the traditional school system. Not for nothing had he been expelled from the historical Paris Conservatoire after objecting to a teacher in the Fugue class. Boulez claimed that the encounter between teacher and student should be brief and intensive, if only for a few days. In 2004 he took over the Academy of the Lucerne Festival, one of the biggest music festivals in the world. At that time I was studying in the Netherlands.When I heard about the 2005 call for applications for its master class, I did not hesitate to apply. Each successful applicant would be able to conduct the Festival Academy Orchestra, made up of young people from around 30 countries from the best educational institutions. All this under the guidance of Boulez himself, who, in the middle of a period of tributes, was turning 80 years old. Out of a hundred or so contestants, four young people were chosen: two Germans, an American and myself. When I found out, I could only feel privileged and euphoric. I wanted to prepare myself as never before and review all the basics of music and conducting technique as such. I came from a tradition of choral conducting, a different world indeed, but it turned out to be an invaluable tool: soloing voice by voice, singing everything, was the best way to internalize the “sound image”. However, I had to prepare myself with an orchestral perspective. I then turned to the best advice I could think of, consulting three enormous new music specialists: Lucas Vis, who would later become my primary professor in the Master’s program in conducting at the Amsterdam Conservatory; Ed Spanjaard, who kindly opened the doors of his home to me for three summers; and Peter Eötvös, who always maintained an intense working relationship in the Netherlands where I was based.
Back in Lucerne, during the master class, it was my turn to take the podium. We began with Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. Each time, Boulez allowed me to play long passages without stopping the orchestra to make any observations. At the end of a section, he suspended the sound with a strong signal. He stood up and conducted exactly the same fragment. It was evident that he wanted to show me something that could not be verbalized; beyond something technical: something metaphysical. He “interpreted” in every sense of the word. After conducting a few pages with a sober expression, he reaped the climax he had gradually built up, as if the score had clamored to come out of the paper. With both hands, he had shaped a sonorous mass that could be felt, that must be conducting! When he finished, he turned to me and asked, “Did you see how I did it?” I don’t know what he thought when he noticed that I was unable to articulate a word. Three revealing conclusions had me completely abstracted. The first one: Boulez was a giant, and now I understood in which dimension; the second one: musical interpretation, in a pure sense, cannot be taught with words; the third one: to live that aesthetic experience was a gift for a few. While I took a couple more seconds to come back from the trance, Boulez continued to give me indications. The “pedagogical moment” had happened, and it was only the beginning of the course.
In those days, after the sessions were over, and after staying a couple of weeks more to attend the legendary Festival rehearsals and concerts, I returned to Holland. I had graduated in composition at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague just a month before, and was about to start my master’s degree in conducting at the Amsterdam Conservatory. Lucerne was an essential background to later study for a year at the Paris Conservatoire, and thus to be able to conduct in seasons of professional orchestras with which the institution had a well-articulated relationship. It was seven years of preparation in the old continent. Of all that period, the simplicity of Pierre Boulez, in combination with his profound artistic identity, constituted one of the life lessons that have had the greatest impact on me. He, that living legend, would take the bus to the concert hall, stand in line at the theater’s cafeteria, and enjoy commenting on his latest professional achievement as a young man beginning his career. Everything he did was instructive.
A phrase he pronounced in those days that I never forgot: “Seek excellence and people will talk about you, good and bad, it is inevitable.”