In praise of the back-seat driver

Pierre Boulez chose to celebrate his 70th birthday by passing on a few trade secrets to a trio of tiros. Stephen Johnson was there

"The principle is very simple. It's like driving - just start and stop." This remark, delivered with a characteristic Gallic shrug, marked the high point of part two of Pierre Boulez's conducting masterclass at the Barbican on Thursday. Was it rea lly that easy? Boulez certainly makes it appear so - even if the driving analogy suggests that he knows it isn't. A movement of the wrist, a raising of the fingers, and you feel you know exactly what he means. And so, more to the point, does the orchestr a. Boulez takes the rostrum for a few minutes, and the harmonic structure of the opening paragraph of his Notations is clear as a laser display.

The impression could have been illusory. All three test-pieces had apparently been well-prepared in the morning's rehearsal. But when the three conducting students each took Boulez's place, the difference was striking. The tension, the focus, the steadiness of the beat - suddenly you couldn't take these things for granted any more.

This is not to denigrate the students. To submit yourself to a Boulezian deconstruction in front of a London orchestra and a well-filled auditorium is a brave enough thing to do. To try to realise someone else's precise instructions in scores as challenging as Notations, Stravinsky's The Song of the Nightingale and Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra under those conditions comes close to the world of the stress-induced nightmare.

And there were moments when one had to ask whether what Boulez was doing really was imitable. There were two priceless examples in The Song of the Nightingale. One student had been coping with the stupendously colourful opening "Fete" section (rather well, I thought) when he came to a seven-bar celesta passage - a colour contrast and nothing more, surely. "No, no, no," said Boulez. "You must understand the rhythms, then it will make sense." He pointed to the celesta, and suddenly the rhythms, subtle andirregular, leapt into life. There was even more fun with a solitary bassoon trill at the end of the "Marche Chinoise". "It's so simple," said Boulez. But it wasn't. From him, it was a stylish gesture - a flourish, a pause for breath, then a tongue-in-cheek resolution. When the student tried it - well, as Winnie the Pooh would have put it, "It just didn't."

Still, there was one major frustration - and, if it felt so to me, how much more must it have weighed on the poor guinea-pigs. All three of them, conventionally, use a baton. Boulez, famously, doesn't. What he conveys with an inclination of his right hand can be immensely significant. After this, the baton tended to look like an encumbrance - almost like a walking-stick on a dance-floor. I understand why a nervous student might avoid confrontation on such an issue in a packed concert hall, but Boulez atleast could have addressed it.

So, in the end, this masterclass did what most masterclasses do, and indeed often seem designed to do - it demonstrated the Master's skill, somewhat at the expense of the students. But it has to be said that Boulez never gave the impression of wanting itthat way. He plainly tried to be helpful rather than patronising (a very difficult balancing act, that) and there were little encouraging gestures - especially the fatherly squeeze of the arm at the end of each session. Could this really be the modernist monster of popular mythology?

Talking to the three brave volunteers after the morning rehearsal, I was struck by how genuinely positive they all seemed about the experience. Two of them described Boulez himself as "very nice" - with a clear implication that not all masters are as pleasant or encouraging. I've deliberately avoided mentioning the students' names until now - my task is to appraise the event, not to try to guess the potential of students under exceptional circumstances. But their comments are worth noting. Harry Curtis (25) says he can see why some people criticise Boulez. "His conducting is very minimalist - it doesn't look emotional. But he shows what you can do if you get the orchestra on your side - if you make it absolutely clear what you want. He doesn't try to make you musical or expressive - if you've got that, it'll come through. If you haven't, why are you conducting?"

Martin West (26) played under Boulez in the marvellous 1987 National Youth Orchestra Gurrelieder at the Proms. For him, it's "nonsense" to talk of Boulez as a "non-phraser" (Hans Keller's pungent description). "He's obviously mellowed with age. And in Notations he really showed us how the lines that are important come through. It was fabulous experience!"

The youngest, the Israeli Ilan Volkov (18), has watched Boulez in rehearsal, but he found working with him much more helpful (a "lovely atmosphere", he says). As for Boulez imposing his ideas, "Well, he wants you to try it his way. You can disagree with it, but it's a valuable experience to try it - not to be a mere imitator, but to incorporate his ideas. I was impressed by how relaxed he made the players feel. You know they're getting the right message, and that they're able to make music much more freely. He doesn't expose his feelings, but I'm convinced they come through - much more than if the conductor's an exhibitionist!" Important lessons all round, for this critic included. Strange that there were so few professional conductors in evidence. You're never too old - or too established - to learn.

n Boulez conducts the LSO: 3pm Sun, Barbican, London (071-638 8891)

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own