Last month, Daniel Barenboim inaugurated the Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin, which will bring musicians from across Europe and Asia to study in the German capital. At the opening, Barenboim surprised his invited guests with an impromptu performance with musicians from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in the academy’s new concert hall. Designed by Frank Gehry, the hall has a ‘modular’ design, with warped oval tiers enclosed in a box-shaped room, all focused around the central stage. However, the most interesting feature of the hall lies not in its flowing architecture or fine-tuned acoustic design, but rather in its name: the Pierre Boulez Saal.

Pierre Boulez © Harald Hoffmann | DG
Pierre Boulez
© Harald Hoffmann | DG

While he was still alive, Barenboim told Pierre Boulez that he wanted him to come and make music in the hall. Now, it has become a memorial to the French conductor and composer, almost a year after his death. Indeed, Barenboim’s achievement in securing state support for the academy – the German government will not only cover students’ tuition fees and accommodation, but also donated two-thirds of the €35-million construction costs and a 99-year lease on the building – is reminiscent of Boulez’s own cultural and political influence.

In 1977, the French President Georges Pompidou persuaded France’s prodigal son back to Paris, promising to found a new cutting-edge research facility working on the boundaries of music and science. The resulting institute, IRCAM, situated in the bowels of the Pompidou Centre, pioneered the use of electronics in contemporary music. Latterly, he garnered state support for the Cité de la Musique complex in the French capital, which opened in 1995 and was complemented by the new Philharmonie 20 years later.

Boulez’s presence continues to loom large, not only in bricks and mortar, but also through the legacy of his reforming zeal. He was famously iconoclastic as a young man – as well as notoriously declaring that the most “elegant” solution to the dearth of modern music on opera stages would be to “blow the opera houses up”, he called Paris a “provincial town” with an opera house “full of dust and crap”, and proclaimed that “it is not enough to deface the Mona Lisa because that does not kill the Mona Lisa. All the art of the past must be destroyed.” 

Later in life, as he became more renowned as a conductor, Boulez found himself in charge of the very institutions he had once railed against. Admirably, he channelled the anger and energy of his youth into practical solutions to rejuvenate classical music. As a conductor, he was a pioneer of a new type of concert culture, championing contemporary music and bringing classical music outside the concert hall.

During his period as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s, Boulez introduced cutting edge repertoire to the orchestra, and inaugurated a popular series focused on 20th-century music at the Roundhouse – a former engine shed in North London. Concurrently, he was appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic, where he experimented with new concert formats – dedicating seasons to the music of a particular composer, exploring new music through informal evenings of talks, open rehearsals and performances, and leading a series of “rug concerts” in which the concert hall was stripped of seats and patrons were free to wander, sit or lie on the floor as they pleased.

In many ways, the way classical music is presented today is made in Boulez’s image. The Philharmonia Orchestra recently came to the end of an excellent yearlong exploration of Stravinsky’s music at the Southbank Centre with Esa-Pekka Salonen. Last summer, the Proms returned to the Roundhouse for a concert of Birtwistle, Ligeti and Georg Friedrich Haas, as well as visiting the Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park in South London for minimalist music by Steve Reich. Composers trained at IRCAM, from George Benjamin to Kaija Saariaho, continue to bring electronic wizardry into the concert hall.

Yet the world outside has turned on its axis, and inherited practices don’t always fit contemporary realities. Instances of charismatic figures such as Boulez or Barenboim pushing through expensive cultural projects at the taxpayer’s expense are increasingly rare. Whilst the proposals for a new Centre for Music in London, backed by incumbent LSO chief conductor Sir Simon Rattle, were criticised by many, the loss of government funding for the project dealt a blow to hopes of increased subsidy for classical music.

Existing institutions, too, must adapt to a cash-strapped and rapidly changing cultural landscape. Large arts organisations in the UK face funding cuts whilst orchestras and opera houses everywhere face a fight for survival. New music festivals such as Huddersfield, Darmstadt or Donaueschingen are vital laboratories of innovation – Boulez was involved with all three – but have to work hard to ensure the most exciting developments in contemporary music don’t become ghettoised. And, as technology becomes ever more accessible and electronic music no longer the preserve of engineers and scientists, organisations like IRCAM have to keep up with the experiments of bedroom producers.

This is the world in which a new generation of Barenboims and Boulezes have grown up. Young composers, performers and conductors must often work harder than their forbears to make sure they are heard. Enterprising young groups such as Bastard Assignments and Filthy Lucre present performances of new and uncompromising music across London in casual venues such as Café Oto in Dalston. In Berlin, concerts and festivals run by young and penniless avant-garde enthusiasts have been popping up in basements, former breweries and transport depots for over a decade. Forget taking orchestras into warehouses – these are the fringes speaking back to the concert hall.

It is worth considering what battles Boulez would be fighting as an angry young composer today. I’d like to think the answer might be given by the winner of the 2017 Grawemeyer Award, Andrew Norman. Upon receiving the award for his orchestral work Play, he called attention to the fact that the award has only been given to three women throughout its 30-year history, commenting that “in all honesty, I'm a white man and I get lots of commissions and there are systemic reasons for that, reasons we should all be talking about.” Addressing the racial and gender imbalance in classical music would be a monumental achievement to surpass any concert hall, and would be in the radical spirit of Boulez himself.