Pierre Boulez, leading figure of classical music, dies at 90

FILE - In this Dec.20, 2011 file photo, French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez conducts the Paris Orchestra at the Louvre museum in Paris. Boulez has died, Paris Philharmonic says Wednesday Jan.6, 2016. He was 90.(AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)
FILE - In this Dec.20, 2011 file photo, French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez conducts the Paris Orchestra at the Louvre museum in Paris. Boulez has died, Paris Philharmonic says Wednesday Jan.6, 2016. He was 90.(AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — Pierre Boulez had a reputation as a hardcore modernist steeped in the dissonances of 20th-Century music. But that didn’t stop him from turning in brilliant performances of decidedly Romantic composers such as Mahler and Wagner as he forged a career as one of the leading figures in contemporary classical music.

Boulez traveled a long path from avante-garde composer to recording star who won 26 Grammy awards. He started out as a rebel who once said any composer who did not realize the necessity of dissonant twelve-tone composition was “useless.” To the end, he continued to reject what he considered easy ways of pleasing audiences or music he found uninteresting.

The French conductor and composer died peacefully Tuesday at his home in Baden-Baden, Germany, said his assistant Marion Thiem. He was 90 and had been unable to conduct recently due to eye trouble, she said.

Boulez ranged well beyond the strict confines of modernism. For some of his last recordings he chose the lush, moody works of early 20th-century Polish composer Karol Szymanovski. And he did a 1984 album with another musician of uncompromising tastes, Frank Zappa, including Zappa compositions such as “The Girl in the Magnesium Dress.”

While his own compositions remained resolutely difficult — and a tough sell for most audiences — his skills in imposing clarity on large-scale works by audience favorites helped make him a concert-hall star.

Even performing something as turbulent as Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” or one of Gustav Mahler’s sprawling symphonies, Boulez remained a cool and contained presence on the podium, preferring a dark business suit and tie to tuxedo and tails, his gestures communicating logic and precision. He didn’t use a baton.

He turned more and more from composition to conducting during his career, leading the New York Philharmonic, where he succeeded Leonard Bernstein, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra during the 1970s.

He conducted Wagner’s “Ring” cycle of operas at the Bayreuth Festival Theater and also worked with the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris and the London Symphony Orchestra.

To say he had mellowed, however, would be a step too far. In a 2010 interview with Philip Clark for the classical music publication Gramophone, Boulez couldn’t conceal his lack of interest in the more conventional music of American composer Aaron Copland, terming it “folklore and dance.” He dismissed German composer Paul Hindemith by saying his music “is very well put together, yes” but “says nothing to me.”

“I may be wrong, but I equate music with culture,” he was quoted as saying in the interview. “I don’t think music is an entertainment product. It’s a product of culture — not for marketing, but to enrich lives.”

“All these years, I’ve been trying to convince people that music is not there to please them; it’s there to disturb them.”

Born in Montbrison, France, on March 26, 1925, Boulez initially studied before turning to music. He studied harmony at the Paris Conservatory with composer Olivier Messiaen and had lessons from Rene Leibowitz in the dissonant 20th-century style known as twelve-tone composition. His compositions include the Second Piano Sonata from 1947-48 and “Le marteau sans maitre (The Hammer without a Master), a setting of surrealist poetry by Rene Char for six instruments and voice.

In 1977, he launched IRCAM, a Paris-based institute focused on music, acoustics and electronics.

French President Francois Hollande paid tribute to Boulez on Wednesday.

“Pierre Boulez made French music shine throughout the world,” Hollande said in a statement. “As a composer and conductor, he always wanted to reflect on his era.”

Thiem said Boulez never married. He is survived by a brother, Roger, and a sister, Jeanne Chevalier, along with several nieces and nephews. Funeral plans were incomplete.

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Hinnant reported from Paris.

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This story has been corrected to show the accurate name of the publication is Gramophone, not The Gramophone.

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