Appointed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus in 2006, Pierre Boulez is a composer, conductor, tireless advocate for new music and one of the most important musical and intellectual figures of our time. Boulez was named principal guest conductor of the CSO in March 1995, only the third person to hold that title in the Orchestra’s history. An eloquent and passionate advocate of the music of the 20th and 21st centuries, Boulez has become one of Chicago’s most popular conductors in his annual residencies with the Orchestra.
In honor of his 85th birthday, the CSO paid tribute to Boulez with a four-week celebration in January 2010. He conducted two weeks of subscription concerts in Chicago—including Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Dalbavie’s Flute Concerto, his own Livre pour cordes and Stravinsky’s The Firebird—joined by pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich, vocalists Michelle DeYoung and Falk Struckmann and CSO Principal Flute Mathieu Dufour. The Orchestra and Boulez also presented two concerts in New York’s Carnegie Hall and gave one performance in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In addition, Boulez presided over a concert of his own works and world premieres on the Symphony Center Presents MusicNOW series, and David Robertson, a close colleague and longtime collaborator, led both the CSO and the Civic Orchestra in tribute programs to Boulez.
Born in 1925 in Montbrison, France, Pierre Boulez initially trained in mathematics and later pursued studies in piano, composition and choral conducting at the Paris Conservatory, where his teachers included Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz. In 1954, he founded the Concerts du Petit Marigny, one of the first concert series entirely dedicated to the performance of modern music, which later became the Domaine Musical series. Throughout the next decade, he was much involved with musical analysis, and he taught in Darmstadt and at Basel University. In 1963, he was a visiting professor at Harvard University, and in 1976 he became a professor at the Collège de France.
Pierre Boulez began his conducting career in 1958 with the Südwestfunk Orchestra in Baden-Baden, Germany. His reputation as a leading musician brought him to the attention of George Szell, who invited him to conduct in the United States for the first time with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1965; he subsequently held posts there as principal guest conductor and musical advisor from 1969 until 1972. In 1971, he became chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and that same year he succeeded Leonard Bernstein as music director of the New York Philharmonic, a position he held until 1977. His positions with these orchestras garnered him an international reputation as a foremost interpreter of music by Berg, Webern and Schoenberg as well as Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Wagner.
His difference of opinion about state intervention in the arts in France, as espoused by André Malraux, led Boulez into voluntary exile for several years. He returned in triumph in 1974, when the government under President Georges Pompidou, decided to build a music research center at the Pompidou Centre and invited Boulez to be its creator and director. From the Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) sprang the creation of a major and permanent instrumental group, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, one of the world’s finest contemporary music ensembles, which Boulez has conducted in France as well as on extended tours abroad. In 1991 Boulez resigned as conductor of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, while continuing as its president. Boulez is also cofounder of Cité de la Musique, a music center in Paris created in 1995.
His numerous compositions are widely performed, including Le marteau sans maître, Pli selon pli, three piano sonatas, Le visage nuptial, Répons, …explosante-fixe… and Notations. Boulez also has published five books about music. His many awards and honors include honorary doctorates from Leeds, Cambridge, Basel, and Oxford universities, among others; Commander of the British Empire; and Knight of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. In 2009 he was awarded the Inamori Foundation’s 25th Annual Kyoto Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Arts and Philosophy.
Pierre Boulez’s vast discography includes prizewinning recordings of Parsifal from Bayreuth and Berg’s Lulu (world premiere recording). In 1989, he signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon to record a broad range of 20th-century masterworks with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as contemporary repertoire, including his own works, with the Ensemble Intercontemporain. He has won 26 Grammy Awards since 1967; eight of those were with the Chicago Symphony, including best performance and best album awards for Bartók’s The Wooden Prince, Cantata profana and Concerto for Orchestra, as well best performances for Mahler’s Ninth Symphony; Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle; and Varèse’s Amériques, Arcana, Déserts and Ionisation. He also received the 1999 award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition for his Répons, recorded with the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Boulez’s other CSO recordings include Stravinsky’s The Firebird; Mahler’s Symphony No. 1; Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande and Variations for Orchestra; and A Tribute to Pierre Boulez, the 2005 CSO From the Archives release, and, most recently, the CSO Resound all-Stravinsky album including Pulcinella, Four Études and the Symphony in Three Movements, released in January 2010.
Pierre Boulez first appeared with the Chicago Symphony on subscription concerts in February 1969 conducting Debussy’s Jeux, Bartók’s First Piano Concerto with Daniel Barenboim, Webern’s Passacaglia and Six Pieces for Orchestra, and Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum.