Pierre Boulez, the celebrated Modernist French composer and conductor who died Tuesday at 90, was a familiar face on Los Angeles’ cultural scene, having conducted numerous times throughout Southern California, including several stints leading the Ojai Music Festival.
He was a close friend of the late Ernest Fleischmann, the head of the L.A. Philharmonic. He also collaborated with Frank Gehry on projects including a new concert hall in Germany that the architect has designed and that will be named after Boulez when it opens this year.
Gehry said in an interview Wednesday that although Boulez had a reputation for being an imposing and exacting maestro, he also could be a generous teacher. The architect invited Boulez to a Yale course he taught on designing concert halls.
“Pierre gave his time to me and students many times. He would spend a whole day with them, and sometimes two days,” Gehry recalled.
Boulez gave feedback to the architect during the creation of Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A. But the city’s music lovers hadn’t always been kind to Boulez.
Gehry remembered a performance of the L.A. Philharmonic decades ago at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Boulez was on the bill as a conductor, but when the audience heard the Modernist music on the program, “people left. ... It was almost vacant.”
Eventually, Southern California caught up with Boulez. He led the Ojai Music Festival several times, putting together adventurous programs that expanded the boundaries of classical music.
At one festival, he led a performance of Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” that included rap performers from South L.A.
“They weren’t used to working with a conductor,” recalled Ara Guzelimian, a former artistic director at Ojai and the current provost and dean of the Juilliard School in New York. When the rappers missed their entrance, Boulez was patient with them and took the time to explain the timing.
"[Pierre] was endlessly patient with these young women in a world they weren’t familiar with,” he said.
Still, he added, Boulez was “a formidable intellect and giant musical mind. He could be very imposing. There were enough people he terrified and angered. But personally, he was a witty and charming man who delighted in laughing.”
Guzelimian said he will dedicate a concert this week in Chicago featuring Juilliard students to the memory of Boulez.
The French composer-conductor made his U.S. conducting debut in L.A. with the popular Monday Evening Concerts series in the late ‘50s.
The new Pierre Boulez Concert Hall in Berlin will feature about 700 seats and is expected to open this year at the Barenboim-Said Academy, a center for music and humanities.
Gehry said he designed it as a gift to Boulez and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who is a cofounder of the academy along with the late writer Edward Said.
The architect said that the hall features ground seating in an oval formation, with a balcony that is another oval suspended above it.
Here is the full Times obituary on Pierre Boulez.