January 2, 2017. Happy New Year to all! As we look forward to another year of great music, we’d like to remember some of the musicians who left us in 2016. Pierre Boulez, a towering figure in classical music of the last 60 years, died on January 5th at the age of 90. Boulez was a composer, conductor, writer, speaker, music organizer – he did it all. A student of Olivier Messiaen, he started composing in the late 1940s. He soon became one of the better-known proponents of serialism. Together with his friends Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and Bruno Maderna, he was a central figure in the Darmstadt School, a hugely influential group of young modernist composers who attended summer courses in the German city. He started conducting in the late 1950, initially specializing in modern music but eventually expanding his repertoire to cover large parts of orchestral literature; he became especially known for his interpretation of French music and, somewhat surprisingly, Gustav Mahler, esthetically his opposite. In the late 70s, on a suggestion of President Pompidou, he organized an institute for musical research, the famous IRCAM. IRCAM became a laboratory for new music, especially electronic. Within it, Boulez organized his own ensemble, called Ensemble Intercontemporain, with which he toured around the world. While at IRCAM, Boulez staged several important opera productions, from Wagner to Berg’s Lulu. In the 1990s he returned to conducting, working with major orchestras: the Chicago Symphony, the London Symphony, the Cleveland, the Vienna Philharmonic and many others, maintaining an amazing schedule. Health problems forced Boulez to slow down in the last 10 years of his life, but he continued making music almost till the end of his life. His last composition was completed in 2006. Boulez died in Baden-Baden and was buried there.
Two very important conductors of chamber orchestras died last year: Sir Neville Marriner on October 2nd (he was 92), and Nikolaus Harnoncourt – on March 5th; Harnoncourt was 86. Neville Marriner, who started his music career as a violinist, was the founder of the world-famous Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Working with that orchestra he became one of the most recorded conductors in modern history. The Academy of St Martin in the Fields started in 1958 as a small ensemble without a conductor, but expanded to a chamber orchestra shortly after. The violinist Iona Brown, who became the conductor of the Academy following Marriner, and Christopher Hogwood, who later organized his own Academy of Ancient Music, were early members of the group. The Academy and other chamber orchestras that Marriner organized later, used modern instruments and modern interpretive approaches. The orchestra’s recordings were technically brilliant, never ponderous and always a pleasure to listen to. Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s approach was very different: he was one of the leaders of the “period,” or “historically informed” performances and his ensembles were one of the first to use period instruments. Harnoncourt, a cellist, organized Concentus Musicus Wien in 1953. He was then playing in the Vienna Symphony (Vienna’s “second orchestra”) and most musicians came from that orchestra. Harnoncourt and his colleagues researched the repertoire and performance technique for four years before giving their first official concert in 1957. During that time the musicians leaned to play different viols rather than modern violins, violas and cellos; Harnoncourt himself switched from the cello to viola da gamba. The ensembled played rarely heard pieces, like operas of Monteverdi and Rameau and made first “authentic” recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. In an unusual feat, Concentus recorded all of Bach’s cantatas. In his later years, Harnoncourt turned to amore standard repertoire and for several years worked with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He also conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and successfully staged several operas.
We’d also like to note the wonderful Hungarian pianist Zoltán Kocsis, who died on November 6th at the age of 64. A great virtuoso with a repertoire stretching from Bach to Kurtág, he was especially well known for his interpretation of the works of his compatriot, Béla Bartók: Kocsis recorded all of his solo piano works and piano concertos. In 1983, together with Iván Fischer, Koscis founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and since 1997 lead the Hungarian National Philharmonic. Koscis performed with all major orchestras and in 2013 received the Gramophone award for his recordings of Debussy.
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