Much as conductor-composer Pierre Boulez is a towering figure in music and a celebrity in his own domain, he is one with seemingly little interest in the star-making machinery that exists in classical music.
At the Japan America Theater last week, in one of his four concert programs during a recent monthlong stay with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the audience offered a wildly enthusiastic ovation upon Boulez's arrival. The stoic Frenchman was taken aback.
"I was surprised," he said later in an interview. "First of all, by the welcome they gave me. I am not Johnny Carson, after all. That was very pleasant, I must say."
Boulez, however, shares with Carson his years on the planet--66--and the fact that Boulez also has become a comforting institution within the cultural ranks he represents.
What he doesn't share with Carson is retirement--it isn't even a dim prospect for the tireless music-maker.
Fittingly, it was the morning of Carson's final day on the air when Boulez spoke in his temporary abode, an apartment near the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
As opposed to the typical jet-in, jet-out agenda of guest conductors, Boulez prefers longer conductor residencies. Before landing in Southern California this month, Boulez had a similar extended stay in Chicago.
"It's more rewarding this way," he explained. "First, you get contact with the orchestra. If you do that for only one week, you feel like you have done nothing. If you are with a group of musicians who are working with you for one month, then you get personal relationships with them.
"But it's not only that: you form your sound progressively, which you cannot do in one week."
It has been three years since Boulez last swept through the area, performing several concerts in Los Angeles before winding up his Southern Cal sojourn at the Ojai Festival.
This weekend, Boulez will return to Ojai to head what promises to be the strongest festival program since he was here as music director in 1989. Since then, the festival has been somewhat adrift in, respectively, overly hip and overly conservative programming fare.
In a sense, the return of Boulez--his fifth appearance in the world-renowned festival's 46 year-history--signals a return to integrity. For the most part, the five-concert festival is rooted in the works of stalwart 20th-Century composers.
Boulez made several late additions--in both his Los Angeles concerts and the Saturday night concert in Ojai--of music by Olivier Messiaen. The influential French composer and pedagogue, who left his imprint on Boulez in his student days, died April 27.
Messiaen, who was the featured guest composer in Ojai several years ago, played a particularly important role in Boulez's early development. "It's very trivial to say, but for me, it's a part of my youth which has just disappeared," Boulez said in a fleeting moment of sentimental reflection.
"He was very important for my formation. For me, he revealed what composition was--just by being there and looking at scores, and writing scores in a certain way. Even when he was doing exercises, he was always thinking of composition.
"He was the only professor who left a mark on me from my time in the conservatoire . The classes of Messiaen were the only interesting, provocative ones, where you could learn something."
This year, the Ojai Festival opens with a veritable blockbuster duo of 20th-Century masterworks. Schoenberg's chamber classic "Pierrot Lunaire" will set the stage for Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat"--two landmark works from before 1920.
Adding to the appeal will be the directorial touch, on "L'Histoire," of theatrical cause celebre Peter Sellars.
"If you're playing 20th-Century music, you cannot avoid the names of Schoenberg and Stravinsky," Boulez said. "Also, Stravinsky was often a guest in Ojai."
Another guest in Ojai's long list of luminary visitors was the late Aaron Copland, whose "Short Symphony" is also on the weekend's roster. "I don't much like his Populist period," Boulez said. "But this period in the '30s and also in the early '60s were very interesting."
One notable distinction between this year's program in Ojai and that of three years ago is the scarcity of Boulez's own compositions. "I cannot do the same thing always," he shrugged. "We have to change. Next time, you will see more of my music."
As a composer, working in an assiduously atonal style descended from 12-tone music, Boulez has been known to work slowly and to revise past works. What are Boulez's compositional habits at this juncture in his career?
He patiently listened to the question, then pointed to a table that held a score-in-progress and freshly sharpened pencils.
"There is the answer," he smiled. "That's a piece I have already written. I am just making the instrumentation. You cannot really invent something when you are so busy. But this type of work you can do. It's not just mechanical--you have to invent, but on a different level."
A long-standing champion of 20th-Century and contemporary music, Boulez is familiar with the problem of insufficient preparation time for foreign new works. New music, he said, is "difficult to perform because it is unknown and people have to become familiar with the idiom. That's all. It requires a little more time rehearsing than a piece which is familiar.
Is Boulez, true to his reputation, a devout crusader for music of our time?
"I think that everybody should be a crusader," he said. "I should not be an exception. I am seen as an exception, and I should be seen as normal. After all, some of these pieces were written 60 years ago.
"These Bartok pieces which I played yesterday (Four Pieces for Orchestra) are very beautiful pieces and why nobody performs them is a puzzle for me. They are brilliant pieces, especially the scherzo. For a conductor, you can lash that out. But nobody plays them. I think the lack of curiosity of some of my colleagues destroys me--excuse my French. Why they don't discover pieces like that is amazing to me."
As a much in-demand conductor, does Boulez have a looming, and expanding mental library of works at his fingertips?
"Yes," he answered, "but it is not obtrusive, because when I have finished conducting, I don't care. That's like getting out of the water after you are swimming. You are just out."
In Boulez's case, that's not for long.
* WHERE AND WHEN
The Ojai Festival, May 29-31. Pierre Boulez conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic, featuring, as soloists, violinist Cho-Liang Lin, pianist Andre-Michel Schub and soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson. For tickets and information, call 646-2094