Michael Henoch first encountered Pierre Boulez in early 1969, when the maestro and champion of modern music made his conducting debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His two weeks of subscription concerts featured works by Debussy, Bartok, Webern and Messiaen (as well as future CSO music director Daniel Barenboim on piano). The experience made a lasting impression on Henoch, who joined the orchestra as assistant principal oboist in 1972 and went on to work closely with Boulez before and during the composer-conductor’s more than five decades with the CSO, first as a guest maestro, then as principal guest conductor and then finally as Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus.
Of that revelatory experience in 1969, Henoch recalls, “My first encounter was hearing music played so cleanly and precisely that it was just hard to believe how pristine it sounded. And therefore it communicates better when it’s played that way. When everything’s balanced, when you can hear everything you need to hear. When he was conducting, you could hear every note in the score. When he would rehearse, it was like a master class in how you actually deconstruct a piece — how you have to take it apart, sometimes note by note, measure by measure. And there’s probably no greater ear for balance and rhythmic synchronicity in the music than what Pierre Boulez had.”
Boulez died in Jan. 5, 2016, after a long illness. His legacy will be honored May 20 at SPACE in Evanston, when Henoch and his 16-member Dempster St. Pro Musica — an ensemble consisting of many CSO musicians and led by former Civic Orchestra of Chicago conductor Cliff Colnot — will perform a tribute to Boulez titled “Making Music Modern.” The concert is free (reserved tickets are required); the program includes works by Debussy, Webern, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Varese, John Cage, Earle Brown and Boulez himself.
None of those composers’ works are easy to perform, and they also can prove challenging from a listening perspective. “A lot of times, modern music is poorly performed because it’s difficult to play and it’s under-rehearsed,” Henoch says. “[Boulez] had a huge influence on me in the way I work as a musician — how you go about putting something very complicated together.”
In the spirit of Boulez, a master of making tonally and rhythmically complex compositions less intimidating both for players and audiences, Henoch and his Dempster St. colleagues will attempt to make the repertoire they’ve chosen as approachable as possible. Aside from the playing itself, they’re doing that through program notes emailed in advance to attendees and verbal introductions to each piece that are somewhat more detailed than usual.
“We try to demystify everything we play,” Henoch says. “And we’re hoping that this makes [the audience] less apprehensive about this music and kind of breaks down the barrier.”
Making Music Modern: May 20 at 2 p.m. at SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston. Admission is free but reservations are required. To reserve tickets, call Dempster St. Pro Musica at (847) 905-0875 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
TOP: Pierre Boulez. | Photo: Deutsche Grammphon