The Cleveland Orchestra's Thursday evening tribute concert honoring French musical legend Pierre Boulez was extraordinary in every way. The event celebrated not only Boulez's upcoming 90th birthday, but also marked the 50th anniversary of his first performances with the Cleveland Orchestra, when Boulez made his American professional conducting debut at Severance Hall at the invitation of then-Music Director George Szell. Since then Boulez has performed more than 200 concerts with the orchestra and has established himself as a beloved musical presence in the city. His concerts, often programmed with thorny modern works, were regularly sold-out.

Pierre Boulez © Ingpen & Williams
Pierre Boulez
© Ingpen & Williams

The concert, conducted by current Music Director Franz Welser-Möst, was conceived in four parts, each relating to a major aspect of Boulez's career: composer, teacher, conductor, and friend. Each section featured a major work relating to Boulez's own compositional output or conducting career, and each was preceded by a short video with members of the orchestra reading excerpts from letters that Boulez wrote to the orchestra over the years and reminiscing about their experiences with him. These were remarkable and heart-felt comments. Perhaps most affecting were the segments with principal keyboardist Joela Jones, who has played with the orchestra since 1970 and recorded the solo piano part of several Messiaen works with Boulez and the orchestra. She described in some detail Boulez's conducting – never with a baton – and how easy he was to follow. Others commented on how Boulez could pick out a single wrong note played in a thick orchestral texture. But even with his great intellect and towering musical skills, each of the musicians spoke about Boulez’s humility, sense of humor and the respect he paid to the orchestra’s musicians.

Even the incumbent conductor seemed awed by the Boulez legend. Welser-Möst described the musical impact that Boulez has had on the orchestra; Boulez took the precision of rhythm and intonation that had been drilled into the orchestra by George Szell and extended those virtues to works of the 20th century.

Joela Jones opened the concert with Boulez's 1945 Twelve Notations for solo piano. These short movements, totalling about ten minutes, capture the essence of Boulez's musical language in their consistency of style. They are character pieces, and although each has an abstract title — Fantasque – Modèré; Très vif — there is a crystalline musical thought.

The music of Alban Berg has loomed large in Boulez's conducting career; including the première of the three-act Lulu, as well as an acclaimed recording of Wozzeck. Welser-Möst here led a powerful performance of the Three Fragments from Wozzeck, with Michelle DeYoung as mezzo-soprano soloist, who is no stranger to Boulez-led performances with The Cleveland Orchestra, primarily in works by Mahler. The excerpts capture three key moments from the opera relating to Marie, Wozzeck's common-law wife. Wozzeck kills Marie, drowns himself, and then the neighborhood children (here well-sung by the Cleveland Orchestra Children's Chorus) tell Marie's son that his mother is dead. He sings "Hop, hop" to quiet rocking music. The boy soprano who sang Marie's child was uncredited, but he did a fine job. The part of Marie was a bit more problematic as sung by DeYoung. She had all the notes in the extremely wide range required, with the power to ride over the vast orchestra. Yet the part of Marie is for a soprano, so the high notes, especially in the lullaby, were quite effortful. But it seems rude to quibble with what was overall a thrilling performance by soloist and orchestra.

Claude Debussy's Jeux was the third work on the program. Jeux was part of the first concert Boulez conducted with The Cleveland Orchestra in 1965. It is easy to understand why it caught his fancy; the music – a ballet about an amorous couple playing games on a tennis court at night – is evanescent, constantly changing tempo, complex of rhythm and gossamer textures. Welser-Möst caught the ever-changing nocturnal moods.

The concert ended with a return to Boulez's own works: his later re-workings for orchestra of the piano Notations. Welser-Möst included five of the segments here. They are not mere arrangements or orchestrations, but greatly expanded new works; each, however, retains clearly audible connections to the pieces he wrote when he was 19 years old. Each movement still seems as musically inevitable as the 1945 piano pieces did. Conductor and orchestra gave committed performances that surely would have pleased the French master.

There was a huge ovation for the performers at program's end. The only thing missing from this happy party was the presence of Pierre Boulez himself. Alas, his health is apparently too frail to allow him to travel. We are forced to confront the prospect of a Cleveland musical scene without visits from Pierre Boulez, our musical friend and teacher.