Sarkissian reflects on Boulez

  • Ara Sarkissian (right) and Pierre Boulez during a Lucerne Festival Academy workshop. (Summer 2009)

    Credit: Priska Ketterer/Lucerne Festival

Ara Sarkissian
April 18, 2016

The Lucerne Festival Academy exists, in my mind, as an idyllic confluence of music, nature, purpose, and education. The program began in 2003 under the leadership of Pierre Boulez and Festival Executive and Artistic Director, Michael Haefliger. It was designed to become an annual contemporary music festival where students would gather from around the world to study, perform, and celebrate a genre of music which continues to be overlooked by most of the music world. During my first year in 2007, our main project was Stockhausen’s Gruppen - a formidable work calling for three separate chamber-sized orchestras conducted by three conductors, simultaneously. It was beyond anything for which I was prepared, but that experience turned out to be the spark that ignited my passion for contemporary music.

Lucerne, located southwest of Zurich, is, itself, paradisal. Its mountainous panorama and clean glacier lake provide more than ample restorative energy. As a native of Wyoming, Lucerne reminds me of the magnificence of nature. Aside from the breathtaking scenery, Lucerne has a rich history. In fact, Richard Wagner’s retreat, where he composed and premiered Siegfried Idyll, is a 15 minute walk from the city center. The Wagner House now serves as a museum with circulating material on exhibit. Indeed, Lucerne has been historically a retreat for many Europeans, so the creation of a music festival (of which the Academy is a part of now) was inevitably founded by Arturo Toscanini in 1938. The Lucerne Festival has ever since been a destination for musicians and music-lovers to see the world’s greatest orchestras and soloists perform. During the four summers I attended the Academy, I was privileged to hear, sometimes numerous times, performances by the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, Ensemble Intercontemporain, English Baroque Soloists with John Eliot Gardner, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra with Claudio Abbado, and many others.

Working under Boulez’s direction was an unforgettable experience. He was grandfatherly in a way - calm, direct,insistent, yet humorous. Sounds, colors, and balances had to be exact, and correct rhythm was the lifeblood of rehearsals. His interpretations always stemmed from a deeper analysis of the score, and you always had a feeling that you were given special insights or secrets. Additionally, the fact that he personally knew and worked with so many composers during his lifetime meant that his understanding and knowledge of the 20th century canon were both intimidating and inspiring. From reading various accounts of the man, you might expect him to be hot-tempered and highly opinionated, but my experiences with him were of the contrary. Only once did I witness him express serious discontent, and it was deservingly dispensed at the first violins. English was the official language of the festival, Boulez insisted on this, and I was always humbled by his ability to naturally shift between French, German, and English- sometimes within the same sentence. His conducting technique was flawless and exact; someone remarked once that he was so precise a blind person could see his cue. His gesturing exemplified the acoustic reality of the music and was never over-emotional or to be considered grand-standing; he had too much respect for the music to do that.

Reuniting in Lucerne with my fellow alumni to honor Boulez one last time was a meaningful, emotional experience, to say the very least. Matthias Pintscher, now the conductor for the Academy, led us in the tribute comprised of works by Boulez, Berg, and Stravinsky. Artistically, Wolfgang Rihm will carry on Boulez’s vision to ensure more generations of musicians will have access to this elite experience. It was remarked by Dominik Deuber, the managing director of the Academy, that “this may feel like the end of something, but really, it is the beginning of something new.”

It occurred to me then in 2007, as it does now, that nationally we have been in a cultural rut which is exemplified by orchestras leading audiences over the decades to believe that compositions by Stravinsky, Bartok and Ives are “new music.” I am appreciative of Interlochen Arts Academy for commissioning new works to be premiered as part of the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial Festival, and I am proud of our students for taking on this monumental task. Although the New York Philharmonic Biennial does not have the same agenda as the Lucerne Festival, there is a distinct idea that is shared- the education and expansion of new music for all ages, which is something Boulez tried to do in the 1970’s during his tenure with the New York Philharmonic. I would like to encourage the greater Interlochen community to rally behind our involvement in the New York Philharmonic Biennial celebration and to support our students who will brave the contemporary music scene this June in New York City. The exposure to new music and Boulez meant so much to me personally and framed who I became as a musician and educator; it is an honor for me to share those experiences with our students and community during this exciting time forInterlochen and the New York Philharmonic.

—Ara Sarkissian, Interlochen Center for the Arts