Boulez And What’s His Name – 2 Very Different Conductors

While I was working at the Roundhouse Theatre in London, we not only held Rock Concerts regularly, (see my earlier posts about them) but for a period, we also hosted a series of classical concerts.  well, I use the term “classical” to differentiate them from the Rock Concerts, but in fact they were concerts made up of modern “serious” music.

What on earth do you call the contemporary equivalent of Bach and Wagner?

Whatever the correct term for this sort of music happens to be, the BBC had decided in its wisdom that they would broadcast a series of live concerts of extremely modern music under the baton of Pierre Boulez, who at that time (1974) was the resident conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

I am not sure why they had made this decision, except perhaps it might have been simply because Boulez was not only a conductor, but also a composer of such music, and a very active proponent of modern music.

Whatever the reason, a whole series of these concerts were put together and broadcast live from the Roundhouse over a period of several months.

Most of these concerts left me totally cold, as I have never been able to get into the more modern type of music.. all those plunks, squeals and roars simply fail to move me in any way – other than as far away from it all as I can get.   Having said that, working with Boulez was an unalloyed pleasure. He was such a gentle person, totally lacking in the arrogance I found to be the norm with many of the other conductors I worked with over the years. All conductors (except Boulez) insist on being addressed as Maestro for some reason, but he didn’t.   Well at least he never expected me to use that term, I always simply addressed him as Monsieur Boulez, and my technicians simply addressed him (to the total horror of the BBC guys and the members of the Symphony Orchestra) as Pierre.  Which didn’t phase him one bit.


As I said, off stage he was a delightful and relaxed man, extremely easy to work with and simply a pleasure to be with.  On stage however he was very different, still extremely civilised and polite, but meticulous and totally engaged in his work.  A total professional in all respects.

I noticed one curious thing during these concerts, there is a distinct difference in the mentality of the people who play different instruments.  As I said, the music being played was of the Plink Plunk variety, and was not liked by most of the musicians,      The percussion and brass players seemed very willing and happy to play this sort of music, whilst the string and woodwind players resented it and complained bitterly about the years they spent learning to play their instruments, and now they were reduced to this rubbish (as they thought it to be).

Another aspect of these concerts that interested me was discovering how easy it was to work with the BBC Radio technicians.   These were a bunch of somewhat older men, who tended to wear tweed jackets with leather elbow patches and to smoke pipes.   They were all veterans of either the Second World War or the Korean War, and relished recounting horrific tales of their doings in those wars.  But that aside, they were extremely easy to work with, unpressurised, friendly, seriously professional but not in an aggressive fashion, and generally a delight to know and work with.   Very, very different to the horrible people who work in TV or films.

The only piece I can recall from that series of concerts is a rather odd piece called With100 Kazoos, by a bloke called David Bedford, which was commissioned for this series of concerts, but never actually got played as there was a basic misunderstanding about the underlying idea of it. But it was rehearsed at least, and was actually quite fun.  Here is a video all about it from another BBC program.

So that was a completely professional musical experience, intriguing, musically perhaps rather less than satisfactory, but still interesting to watch happening.  At about the same time we also had a very different musical experience at the Roundhouse.

This was the realisation of a dream that a guy had.   For his entire life (apparently) he had dreamt of conducting a full size symphony orchestra, and had finally managed to get himself into a financial state to realise this dream of his.

He hired one of the two main symphony orchestras in London, I can’t now remember which one, but it was either the London Symphony Orchestra or the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and rented the Roundhouse for one night,  printed posters and tickets for this great, never to be repeated event, and prepared himself for this culminating and supreme moment in his life and invited all his family and friends to the concert.  He only had access to the orchestra for the day of the concert, so they “rehearsed” in the morning so that they could play the music as he wanted it played.

Luckily for him he had chosen a program of very standard pieces (Also can’t remember what they were), so they were pieces the orchestra had played hundreds of times before, and could thus play them in their sleep.  Which as I said, was lucky for him, as he had simply no idea of how to conduct such an orchestra.

Anyhow, we were all enchanted by the fellow, loved the totally serious way he went about it all, the incredible and totally unfounded self-assurance he displayed, and the main fact, which was that here was a man making a life-long dream come true.   Even the musicians, a notoriously hard hearted bunch, went out of their way to pretend that they were taking his instructions and conducting totally seriously.   He was wrapped in a sort of soft cloud of people trying to make this event as successful as possible, purely out of the pleasure he was giving us all by making his dream a reality.

In due time, the relatively small, but larger than we had all expected, audience came in, seated themselves, and the orchestra sat themselves down.. and then the first Great Moment – he entered the stage, in full penguin suite, mounted the conductor’s box, turned to his audience and solemnly greeted them all, and then turned to begin the concert.   He raised his baton… gave the beat, and off it went.

All totally successful, the music was competently performed obviously, he was in the seventh heaven, as he was utterly convinced that it was his superb conducting that had made the music sound so good… his audience enjoyed what was after all a very good concert by one of England’s best orchestras, and we were all pleased for him too.

So, a total success in all respects.  And the man himself was over the moon at the realisation of that dream of his….  It had worked as well as in his most feverish imaginings he had hoped it would, so his money was well spent, and he went on his way, never to be seen in the Roundhouse again, a happy and fulfilled man.

Good things can and do happen at times,and this was surely one of them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: