Now aged 90, legendary French composer, conductor and teacher Pierre Boulez has made a huge contribution to the development of music in the 20th century and inspired generations of young musicians with his pioneering spirit. His recordings have earned him an incredible 26 Grammy Awards, as well as countless others.
A first on African soil, Boulez was celebrated on Sunday 28 June at the ‘Day of the Giants’ at the Goethe-Institut in Parkwood, Johannesburg, an all-day event that was free to the public. Leading South African classical musicians Jill Richards and Waldo Alexander honoured Boulez in an informal, informative and interactive day of both serious and playful music. They explored Boulez’ work with performances of his ‘Second Piano Sonata’, ‘Anthèmes for solo violin and live electronics’, and ‘Domaines for solo clarinet’, performed by Morné van Heerden. All were South African premieres of the songs.
Jill Richards spoke to Music In Africa shortly after the event to explain its significance. “We wanted to celebrate the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez, one of the greatest composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. He was born in 1925 and it’s great to have such a grand old man still with us,” she said.
“Boulez’ music is not much played here, if at all. I believe it’s really important music on a global scale, even if it’s not mainstream. So it was an opportunity to bring rarely played music to a Johannesburg audience, many of whom are interested in what’s happening around the world musically. I’m fairly sure that this was the first time all three Boulez works on the programme were performed in South Africa. It was a joy to be able to perform them!” said Jill.
The event also explored the relationship between Boulez and two other giants of 20th century music: John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. All three had profound influences on the music of their time. The day included a rare performed of Cage’s infamous silent piece, ‘4’33”’, performed by American diplomat and journalist Brooks Spector. Jill continued: “We decided it would be a good idea to highlight two other geniuses, Stockhausen and Cage, as they both had strong connections with Boulez at some point, and their work was equally significant and ground-breaking.”
Giving the event a more contemporary air, new compositions “in response to the works of Pierre Boulez” written by alumni of Wits University were performed by Richards, van Heerden and Alexander. These composers were Diale Mabitsela (‘The Seventh Room’), Felicity Mdhuli (‘Female Deers & Golden Suns’), Samora Ntsebeza (‘Syzygy’) and Victoria Hume (‘How to Organise Delirium’). Jill explains: “They were very well received. I think a lot of audience members were delighted to be hearing brand new works by younger composers, written specially for the day and in response to various aspects of Boulez’ music that interested them. The works were a real highlight of the day.“
In order to connect with the audience and hear what they were thinking, there was also a Speakers’ Corner for people to comment and discuss the music that was on show, as well as a panel with composer Andile Khumalo, musicologist Lindelwa Dalamba and Felicity Mdhluli.
Overall the event will go down as a resounding success, an important event in this year’s classical music calendar. “I was thrilled!” adds Jill. “We really weren’t sure how much interest there would be. The only surprise was at the number of people who came, and who stayed. The auditorium was pretty much full all day. The audience was interested and excited to be hearing such a lot of wonderful music, and listened really attentively.”