Obituaries
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Obituaries

Obituaries

Pierre Boulez, a polymath with a zeal for reforming the musical culture dies at ninety. 

Obituaries Boulez lg 316
Boulez in 1989
© T. Martinot/Lebrecht Music & Arts

PIERRE BOULEZ 
MONTBRISON, FRANCE, MARCH 26, 1925—BADEN-BADEN, GERMANY, JANUARY 5, 2016  

COMPOSER, CONDUCTOR, theorist, teacher and experimentalist—for more than fifty years, in all these capacities, Pierre Boulez was a force for innovation and rigor in classical music. 

His ambition as a composer was not just to create works of value but to change and renew the language of music. As a conductor he showed a similar reformational zeal—to make performers more competent in modern music and audiences more accepting of the new idiom. He taught young composers, produced ample commentary in the media and embraced new technology—all in the same effort to affect the course of music history. By the turn of the twenty-first century, Boulez had achieved a prominence that owed more to his masterful conducting than to his uncompromising atonal compositions.

Born on March 26, 1925, in the Loire town of Montbrison, France, the son of an engineer, Pierre Boulez was studious as a child, drawn to chemistry and physics until music became his main interest. He studied composition briefly at the Paris Conservatory during the war and pursued private studies of theory with composers Olivier Messiaen and René Leibowitz. Through Leibowitz, he became acquainted with the twelve-tone music of Arnold Schoenberg.

In one of his early published essays, the twenty-seven-year-old Boulez declared, “Any musician who has not felt … the necessity of the dodecaphonic [twelve-tone] language is USELESS.” In the quest for a system or “grammar” for contemporary music, he wanted to take serialism further, beyond the use of a “row” of twelve notes, to encompass “the different parameters of sound: pitches, durations and rhythms, timbres and attacks, intensities.” This “super-serialism” or “total-serialism”—the pursuit of abstract models to generate and guide musical form—would dominate his composing style.

In Paris in 1954, Boulez founded a “composer’s concert series,” Domaine Musical, dedicated to the performance of contemporary works, instituting a model that would often be imitated. Despite modest financial resources, the Domaine Musical—especially its premieres of early Boulez works—attracted attention. One result was a series of commissions and teaching engagements for Boulez in Germany starting in the late 1950s; he made Baden-Baden his home base between 1959 and the late 1970s. 

In 1955, with Le Marteau sans Maître (The Hammer without Master), he obtained his first major success. The work, his third composition inspired by the Surrealist poetry of René Char (1907–88), combined his super-serialist technique with an exotic, sultry sound palette—five instruments, percussion and contralto voice—and a restless rhythmic irregularity that marked most of his work. Within months of the Baden-Baden premiere, Le Marteau was performed in six cities in Europe and the U.S. In a filmed interview he gave in 2014, Boulez described Le Marteau as a turning point, in which he balanced the influence of the Vienna School with that of Debussy.

Always alert to modern developments in visual arts and poetry, Boulez turned for inspiration from surrealism to the Symbolist poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, who cultivated chance and random effects. “Open form” had already marked the Boulez Sonata No. 3 for Piano (1957), which allowed the interpreter certain choices concerning the sequence and duration of particular passages. The style was pursued in the Mallarmé-inspired Pli selon Pli (Fold by Fold), 1957–62, hailed as one of Boulez’s finest works, and the favorably received Domaines (1961–68). 

Although not formally trained in conducting, Boulez gradually began to lead performances of his own and others’ works. In Cologne, Germany, in 1957, he conducted the world premiere of his Visage Nuptial. More assignments as guest conductor followed—notably, in 1963, a fiftieth-anniversary reprise of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and performances of Boulez’s own works at the Edinburgh Festival and in Los Angeles, both in 1965. Soon his conducting schedule left him little time for composition. He polished his conducting skills and focused on twentieth-century repertoire during assignments with major ensembles—the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, London’s BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra. His tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, from 1971 to 1977, was troubled by his aloofness, and by audience resistance to his preferred repertoire. But he is credited with improving the orchestra’s discipline, and his experiments with alternative concert formats, the Rug Concerts and Prospective Encounters, appealed to young audiences.

After a lengthy residence abroad as a conductor—along with teaching assignments in Germany, in Switzerland and at Harvard—Boulez returned to France to head IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), which combined the efforts of scientists, technicians and composers. “There are some [musical] instruments which should be transformed,” he said at the time, “because we still have instruments that were made for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” IRCAM’s innovative technology paralleled his interest in changing “the ritual of the concert,” which he had attempted in New York.

While managing IRCAM and its performance arm, the Ensemble InterContemporain, Boulez accepted a professorship at the Collège de France and wrote several new works. He combined IRCAM-inspired electronic effects and a continuing experimentation with open form. A work titled explosante/fixe (explosive/fixed, 1971) was revised in 1991–93 as a “kit” or menu of musical material for performance, leaving the choice of instruments and tempos completely unspecified. 

Although he wrote music for solo voices, Boulez had a highly selective relationship with opera. The only way to reform the institution of opera, he told Der Spiegel in an interview in September 1967, was “to blow up the opera houses.” He once declared that the Paris Opéra “is full of dust and shit.” As for opera repertoire, his tastes were limited to Wagner, Mozart, Mussorgsky, Debussy and Berg. Yet he seemed drawn to opera under certain conditions, such as the chance to work with innovative collaborators. He was planning several projects with Wieland Wagner at the time of the latter’s death. When he speculated about writing an opera himself, he spoke of Jean Genet as a possible librettist, but nothing came of the project.

Yet he made a distinctive mark as a conductor of opera. A landmark achievement occurred at the Paris Opéra in 1979, when Boulez led the first performance of the three-act version of Berg’s Lulu. The composer’s orchestration was completed, and brief connecting passages were created, by Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha, on the basis of Berg’s sketches and notes. Staging was by the controversial young French director Patrice Chéreau (1944–2013). Boulez’s conducting, by revealing the cogency and force of the complete work, helped establish it as a modern classic. His interpretation of Lulu had a degree of subtlety, wit and tonal variety that had eluded conductors of the incomplete version and would influence successors. 

While his operatic activity remained rare and was at first criticized for a certain coldness, Boulez had scored another important breakthrough conducting Wagner at the Bayreuth centennial. In 1976, he had teamed with Chéreau to produce a radical version of the Ring cycle. Inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s 1898 commentary The Perfect Wagnerite, Chéreau staged the cycle as a capitalist saga in an industrial setting in the 1870s. After initial outrage and disapproval of the conductor’s style, Chéreau and Boulez were later imitated by directors and conductors, as “contrarian” stagings and musical approaches to Wagner proliferated.

Boulez’s flexibility was especially effective in the major confrontations between characters in the Ring, scenes that moved from hushed intimacy and quasi-spoken effects to emotional peaks at bracing speed. He had complained in interviews that these works often suffered from a generalized Herculean delivery; his performance provides a convincing alternative—fluid, subtle, varied and quick.

In the final decades of his long career, Boulez remained a vital presence at festivals and other major venues, while continuing to record a sizeable repertoire that included many of his own works. His conducting achieved a gloss and depth that complemented his noted precision; no longer could his performances be dismissed as arid and excessively detached (charges that had some validity in the 1960s).

It’s true that most of Boulez’s late composing activity might better be called adaptation, since in the 1980s and ’90s he continually revised, enriched and expanded existing works, claiming that everything he wrote was a “work in progress.” Yet he delighted his admirers with a return to composing solo piano works, such as Incises and Sur Incises in the 1990s and the brief Une Page d’Éphéméride (2005), composed in his customary atonal style, bristling with rhythmic vigor. 

Some critics pointed to a decline in substance in his mature compositions, and many saw him as having been condemned to irrelevance by his allegiance to serialism at a time when most successful composers were returning to traditional harmony. But if he continued to develop the narrow path blazed by Schoenberg and Webern, Boulez also followed his idols’ examples in mastering a complexity and rigor that transcend systemic concerns.

It was typical of Boulez that, just shy of his eightieth birthday, he was instrumental in founding a forum for young musicians, the Lucerne Festival Academy. This advanced educational program gathers more than 100 young instrumentalists from all over the world for three weeks in Lucerne each year to rehearse and perform music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Whatever the fate of his own works, Boulez was consistent in pursuing qualitative and quantitative reforms of the musical culture.  —David J. Baker 

Obituaries Mattawilda Dobbs lg 316 
Dobbs in Stockholm, 1958, holding a button from the
court dress of Gustave III that she wore as Oscar in
Un Ballo in Maschera

Enar Merkel Rydberg/OPERA NEWS Archives
 

MATTIWILDA DOBBS 
ATLANTA, GA, JULY 11, 1925— DECEMBER 8, 2015   

THE FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN soprano to sing leading roles at La Scala, San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, Dobbs was a lyric-coloratura whose charm and technical brilliance won her prominence in an era when opera-house opportunities were scarce for artists of her race. Dobbs began her career just as the doors to U.S. opera houses were opening for African–American singers—Camilla Williams made her historic New York City Opera debut the year that Dobbs graduated from college—and just before Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry achieved the status of authentic international opera stars. Dobbs is remembered as a pathbreaker, but her career was regrettably short: she was a first-class singer who never won the full measure of recognition warranted by her artistic accomplishments.

The daughter of John Wesley Dobbs, a founder of the Atlanta Civic League and the Atlanta Negro Voters League, the soprano began singing in Atlanta’s First Congregational Church at the age of six. After earning her bachelor’s degree from Spelman College in Atlanta in 1946, Dobbs studied voice privately in New York with Lotte Leonard, a German-born concert soprano who served on the faculties of Mannes and the Juilliard School. Dobbs studied at Mannes and at the Berkshire Music Center’s opera workshop and received the 1947 Marian Anderson Award. In January 1950, while Dobbs was studying for her master’s degree in Spanish at Columbia University, she created the role of Sally in The Barrier, a musical drama by Jan Meyerowitz and Langston Hughes that was presented by the university’s Opera Workshop. Dobbs did not stay with the cast when The Barrier was presented on Broadway the following season, after she had completed her degree, because the John Hay Whitney Foundation had awarded her a two-year fellowship that enabled her to study in Paris with Pierre Bernac, the eminent French baryton-martin.

In 1951, Dobbs won first prize in the International Music Competition in Geneva, Switzerland, an honor that brought her international attention and jump-started her career. She made her professional debut at the 1952 Holland Festival in Stravinsky’s Rossignol and her Wigmore Hall recital debut in January 1953. Later that year, Dobbs bowed at Glyndebourne, as Zerbinetta in Carl Ebert’s staging of Ariadne auf Naxos, and made her La Scala debut, as Elvira in L’Italiana in Algeri, an accomplishment that put her on the cover of Jet magazine, hailed as “opera’s most promising Negro voice.” Within a year, she sang the Queen of the Night in Genoa and the Siegfried Woodbird at Covent Garden. In January 1954, when Dobbs sang the Queen of Shemakha in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Coq d’Or in London, Andrew Porter’s OPERA NEWS review dubbed her “the best thing in the show”; Porter also called her first Covent Garden Gilda a few weeks later “ravishing.” Lord Harewood, a director of the Royal Opera House when Dobbs made her debut there, named the soprano “the outstanding coloratura of her generation.” Dobbs appeared as a guest at Covent Garden until 1959 and sang at Glyndebourne through the 1961 season.

In March 1954, Dobbs sang Zerbinetta with the Little Orchestra Society in a Town Hall concert of Ariadne auf Naxos, winning singular praise from Olin Downes of The New York Times: “[She] immediately proved herself to be one of the gifted bravura singers now before the public.” When Dobbs made her U.S. debut in a staged opera in October 1955, in San Francisco Opera’s Coq d’Or, OPERA NEWS's Joseph Kerman wrote that the soprano “sang wonderfully.” 

On November 9, 1956, Dobbs made her Met debut, as Gilda opposite the Rigoletto of Leonard Warren and the Duke of Jan Peerce. She was the third African–American to sing a leading role at the Met. Contralto Marian Anderson and baritone Robert McFerrin preceded her, in 1955, but Dobbs was the first artist of her race to establish a genuine presence on the Met roster, singing twenty-nine performances with the company during eight New York seasons. In 1957, during her first Met season, Dobbs appeared as a guest on The Ed Sullivan Show, singing “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess. Her last Met performance was as Gilda, in 1964.

Dobbs was a resident of Europe for much of her singing career. She lived briefly in Spain with her first husband, playwright and journalist Luis Rodriguez García de la Piedra, who died in 1954, just a year after their wedding. In 1957, Dobbs married Bengt Janzon, a journalist who managed press and publications for the Swedish Royal Opera, and thereafter was based in Sweden; she appeared regularly in Stockholm and at Drottningholm Court Theater from 1957 to 1973. Dobbs made her Hamburg Staatsoper debut in 1961 and was a member of the Hamburg ensemble for two years. She made her Wiener Staatsoper debut in 1963, as Zerbinetta, and also sang opera in Brussels, Paris and Florence. Dobbs sang at several European festivals and appeared in recital and concert in Australia and New Zealand, as well as Israel and the Soviet Union. Whenever Dobbs appeared in recital in the U.S., she refused to sing before segregated audiences; she did not appear professionally in her native city of Atlanta until 1962, when the Municipal Auditorium was desegregated. In 1974, she sang at the inauguration of her nephew, Maynard Jackson, as mayor of Atlanta.

After she retired from the stage, Dobbs taught voice at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Illinois, Spelman College and Howard University, where she served for fourteen years on the faculty. Dobbs joined the Metropolitan Opera’s board of directors in 1989 and remained a member of the association until her death.  

Dobbs was incapable of affectation, onstage or off; her singing, unfailingly stylish and exceedingly lovely, was charged with honesty and dignity. Modest, unassuming and—by her own description—shy, Dobbs was an unlikely trailblazer, but that’s exactly what she was: a singer whose courage was the equal of her artistry.  —F. Paul Driscoll 

Obituaries Kurt Masur lg 316 
Masur in 2007
© C. Christodoulou/Lebrecht Music & ARTS
 

KURT MASUR
BRIEG, GERMANY, JULY 18, 1927—GREENWICH, CT, DECEMBER 19, 2015  

AN ARTIST OF CONSCIENCE, integrity and authority, the maestro was best known in the U.S. for his transformative term as music director of the New York Philharmonic (1991–2002). Masur was named the NYPO’s music director emeritus in 2002 and retained that title until his death.

Born in Brieg (Brzeg) in the Central European region of Lower Silesia—then part of Germany and since 1945 located in Poland—Masur studied at the National Music School in Breslau (Wroclaw) and at the Leipzig Conservatory. He established his conducting career in what was then the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), serving as a coach and assistant conductor at the Landestheater Halle; Kapellmeister of the Erfurt City Theater (1951–53); Kapellmeister of Leipzig Opera (1953–55); conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic (1955–58); and general music director of the Mecklenburg State Theatre in Schwerin (1958–60). From 1960 to 1964, Masur was music director of the Komische Oper in East Berlin, conducting innovative productions by Walter Felsenstein and Götz Friedrich during what is now considered a golden age for that company. Masur returned regularly to the Komische Oper for concert engagements and was an honorary member of the ensemble at the time of his death. Masur was named chief conductor in Dresden (1967–72) before being appointed Gewandhauskapellmeister of Leipzig in 1970. Masur led the Gewandhaus, one of the most important orchestras in Germany, through 1996, conducting hundreds of tour concerts and establishing a new concert hall for the orchestra in 1981.

Masur had been regarded as a supporter of the GDR—he was awarded the National Prize of East Germany in 1982—until the late 1980s, when he became increasingly vocal in support of government reform. In October 1989, Masur’s artistic and humanitarian gravitas made him a calming force at a time when Leipzig was overwhelmed by antigovernment demonstrations: the conductor’s pleas for restraint, broadcast on local radio stations, were successful in preventing bloodshed. Masur attributed the collapse of the communist regime shortly thereafter to “A revolution … for the spirit of freedom.” On December 31, 1989, Masur led the Gewandhaus in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that was telecast throughout Germany as a symbol of the reunification that would be formally completed the following year.

Masur’s tenure at the New York Philharmonic was marked by an almost immediate improvement in the standard of orchestral playing—thought by many to have deteriorated under Masur’s charismatic predecessor, Zubin Mehta—and the restoration of the orchestra’s importance as a symbol of world culture within the city of New York, a position that Masur reaffirmed with the NYPO’s moving memorial concert for the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Without question, the audience, the orchestra and the critics responded to Masur’s musical discipline and to his enormous capacity for work. But the uncompromising standards of a distinguished musician were perceived in some quarters as autocratic behavior; Masur clashed repeatedly with the NYPO board and with the orchestra’s powerful executive director, Deborah Borda. The orchestra announced in 1998 that Masur would leave at the end of the 2001–02 season.

Masur later served as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (2000–07) and music director of the Orchestre National de France (2002–08). He remained conductor laureate of the Gewandhaus and honorary music director of the ONF at the time of his death.

HEINZ FRICKE
HALBERSTADT, GERMANY, FEBRUARY 11, 1927—BERLIN, GERMANY, DECEMBER 7, 2015  

THE CONDUCTOR BEGAN his career as a coach at Theater Halberstadt in Sachsen-Anhalt in 1946. Fricke was Kapellmeister in Leipzig (1950–60) and led the Berlin State Opera for thirty-two years as general music director, beginning in 1961; he stayed with that theater until he reached the mandatory retirement age of sixty-five. Despite numerous invitations, Fricke did not appear in the U.S. until after the GDR was dissolved. Fricke made his U.S. conducting debut in 1990, leading the San Diego Opera Orchestra in a Wagner concert, and made his official U.S. opera debut in 1992, with Der Rosenkavalier at San Diego Opera. Later that year, Fricke appeared as a guest conductor at Washington National Opera, leading Der Fliegende Holländer. In 1993, at the invitation of Martin Feinstein, then the opera company’s general director, Fricke was appointed music director of WNO and of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. Fricke soon became a central figure in the musical life of Washington, rebuilding the corps of musicians shared by WNO and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra into a world-class orchestra. 

Fricke’s personal repertoire included more than 180 operas, operettas and ballets, in addition to symphonic works, and his energy and expertise were seemingly limitless. At the time of Fricke’s official retirement from his Washington post, in 2010, more than one-third of the orchestra’s musicians were artists who had been chosen by Fricke, guaranteeing that his impact upon classical music in Washington will continue for decades. Fricke remained the music director emeritus of both WNO and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra at the time of his death. 

RODNEY MILNES
STAFFORD, ENGLAND, JULY 26, 1936—CHELTENHAM, ENGLAND, DECEMBER 4, 2015  

A LONGTIME CONTRIBUTOR to Opera, beginning in 1971, and later that publication’s editor (1986–99), Milnes was a perceptive, witty and influential writer, whose career of more than thirty years included stints at Queen (later Harpers and Queen), the Spectator, the London Evening Standard and The Times, where he was chief opera critic for a decade, beginning in 1992. Milnes’s precise, concentrated reviews and essays were unsparing: his 1988 Spectator review of The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 at ENO called Philip Glass’s opera “dreary tosh” and said that novelist Doris Lessing’s libretto “makes J. M. Barrie sound like Strindberg.” Milnes generally favored traditional opera stagings—he so disliked Harry Kupfer’s 1988 Bayreuth Ring that he never returned to Bayreuth again—but he was not close-minded, writing in OPERA NEWS in 2005 that he admired “without reservation” Deborah Warner’s work on her controversial modern-dress production of Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne. He famously loathed surtitles, calling them “idiot boards” that distracted audiences from the music. Under his given name of Rodney Milnes Blumer, Milnes also prepared a number of opera translations that were performed at ENO, including Rusalka and Tannhäuser.

JOHN EATON 
BRYN MAWR, PA, MARCH 30, 1935— NEW YORK, NY, DECEMBER 2, 2015   

COMPOSER, TEACHER, JAZZ PIANIST and electronic-music pioneer, Eaton studied with Milton Babbitt, Edward T. Cone and Roger Sessions at Princeton, where he wrote his first chamber opera, Ma Barker (1955), led a student jazz group and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Eaton then worked and lived in Rome, where he first encountered the Fonosynth, a large synthesizer designed by Paolo Ketoff. Eaton worked with Ketoff to develop the Synket, a portable synthesizer, and later collaborated with Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer, on creating a touch-sensitive keyboard.

While living in Rome, Eaton composed Heracles (1964), a large-scale three-act work, written in a free serial style, that required 300 performers. When Heracles was chosen to open the new Musical Arts Center at Indiana University, Eaton moved back to the U.S. to assist in musical preparations for the opera’s stage premiere, in Bloomington, Indiana, in April 1972. Eaton was appointed professor of composition at IU, where he taught for more than two decades and was director of the university’s Center for Electronic and Computer Music. 

Eaton’s other operas composed during his time at Indiana—all of which reflected his growing enthusiasm for the expressive possibilities of microtonalism—included Myshkin (1973), an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, scored for chamber orchestra and electronic instruments, which had its world premiere on television’s NET Opera Theater; the children’s opera The Lion and Androcles (1974); the grand opera Danton and Robespierre (1978); and the one-act Cry of Clytaemnestra (1980). Clytaemnestra was presented by San Francisco Opera’s Spring Opera Company in 1981, and The Tempest, a condensation of Shakespeare’s play by librettist Andrew Porter, had its world premiere in 1985 at Santa Fe Opera.

Despite Eaton’s unquestioned prominence, few U.S. opera companies presented his work, daunted by its complexity and its lack of crowd-pleasing themes and tunes. Uncompromising, rigorously disciplined and intellectually curious, Eaton thrived in the academic world. He was an important composer but never a popular one—a designation that meant little to him.

Beginning in 1992, when he was appointed professor of composition at the University of Chicago, Eaton composed a number of small-scale works he called “pocket operas,” including Peer Gynt (1992) and Let’s Get This Show on the Road (1993). Eaton retired from the University of Chicago faculty in 2001 but remained active as a composer. His adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, had its world premiere in 2010, and he finished an opera of King Lear in 2012. spacer 

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