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Glenn Gould left his whole estate to the Toronto Humane Society and the Salvation Army. Some of his admirers thought there should be some remainder for artists who, like Gould, have changed the musical world, so they raised enough money to fund a $50,000 triennial prize, the latest edition of which was given to French composer Pierre Boulez on Sunday at the CBC's Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto.

There's some irony in the fact that a man whose last thought was for the world's unfortunates is memorialized by an award for people who, like Boulez and Yehudi Menuhin and Oscar Peterson (two other Gould Prize laureates), have been most fortunate in their talents and careers. But then, Gould commemoration is a minefield of ironies. Since his death, his name has been associated with a major piano competition, a broadcast concert hall and several conferences, even though he hated public gatherings, live performance and competitiveness of any kind. Something about this very unconventional musician seems to compel people to honour him in the most conventional ways.

Boulez, at least, has no appetite for convention. Throughout his long career as composer, conductor and intellectual pamphleteer, he has displayed Napoleonic scorn for the idea of doing things as they have been done before. He's a hard-core Modernist of a type rarely encountered any more. His published missives bristle with a heroic moral tone that's peculiarly French.

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"We can no longer elude the essential trial," he wrote in 1974, "that of becoming an absolute part of the present, of forsaking all memory to forge a perception without precedent . . ." That most people go on eluding this trial has not impeded him one jot.

But Boulez on paper and Boulez in action are quite different. He is, above all, a superb musician, whose fiercely abstract conceptions of how music should be built are wrapped up in a highly sensual understanding of what musical beauty is. His performances on Sunday of a career-sampling of his own works, with musicians gathered by New Music Concerts, were models of taste, passion and precision. Anyone expecting to be slapped around by the cold hand of serialism would have been surprised by the warmth and lyricism of some of the music.

"For all his rash and irreverent dictums, his talent and imagination are unquestionable," Gould wrote about Boulez in 1956, in what could have been the citation for Sunday's award. Ironically enough, the statement also echoes what many have said about Gould.

Boulez in conversation sounds anything but rash. He's 77 now, and the pitiless demands of the present have long since relaxed to encompass a selective engagement with the past. As composer and orchestra leader (most recently, of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he is principal guest conductor), Boulez is willing and even eager to grapple with old music, so long as it has something he can voice in the language of the moment. The Futurist zeal of former days is still there, but it's couched in terms of renewal.

"The present is made from the past, but you don't have to be engulfed in it," he said, during a conversation after Sunday's award concert. "People are very comfortable with their libraries and museums. But libraries and museums are like phoenixes. They have to burn every day and be reborn from their ashes."

Boulez the composer is continually rethinking and reusing bits of music he wrote 30 or 40 years ago. His garden is full of plants that have mutated into something else, or grafted themselves onto each other, or put out new shoots from old wood.

"I am very attracted and even hypnotized by the old material," he said. "Sometimes when you're very young you hit something that is much more difficult to hit later on. Because you are more genuinely yourself, and there is more spontaneity. After that, you are under control much more, and it doesn't have the freshness of the beginning."

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The idea of the old revolutionary savouring the naive fruits of his youth has some poignance. But sentimentality is not part of Boulez's nature. If he's still toying with motifs he thought up when he was in his 20s, that's because the practical musician in him still sees some potential for growth.

It's like Wagner, he said, discovering in Gotterdammerung that the leitmotifs he devised years before for Das Rheingold had far more content and possibility than he had first imagined. Or like the scientists who, in the seventies, discovered some seed corn in a 4,000 year-old Egyptian tomb, and got it growing.

The reference to science is characteristic. Boulez, who excelled in mathematics as a boy, has always been sensitive to the siren call of a scientific, rational basis for modern music. But he also clings firmly to a romantic ideal, of music as an "organized delirium" of "hysteria and collective spells." In this, he's a grandson of Arthur Rimbaud, who wrote about "a rational disordering of all the senses." Boulez's more direct poetic mentor is the symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé, whose words appeared on Sunday in two sections from Pli selon Pli, in a terrific performance with mezzo-soprano Patricia Green.

Boulez has been a mentor to many young musicians, one of whom he honoured on Sunday with the City of Toronto-Glenn Gould International Prize, a protégé award of $10,000. Canadian-born cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras received the award with a charming speech and a fierce performance of Boulez's Messagesquisses,which, unusually for his works, ended with a walloping big climax. Sometimes even the most unconventional artists find a route to a traditional way of doing things. Sunday's concert was taped for broadcast on CBC Radio Two's Two New Hours on Jan. 5 at 10:05 p.m.

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