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Jerry Bowles
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Sunday, January 01, 2006
George Rochberg Tribute

On Wednesday December 28 at 8 PM, Weill Hall was almost completely full of (mostly) New Yorkers and Philadelphians (including this one) for an all-Rochberg concert. The composer, who is frequently credited with launching musical post-modernism (at least of the "uptown" variety) by pulling tonality out of the jaws of serialism, died at age 86 in May of 2005. He had recently completed his memoirs (which Kyle Gann has reviewed, prompting some eloquent musings here, here and here) but had stopped composing a few years ago because he felt he was physically unable to handle the emotional turmoil that it produced in him. He had been working on a seventh symphony, which he claimed would have been the darkest, most violent thing he had ever written.

In fact, Rochberg took music very, very deeply to heart throughout his life. His musical studies were interrupted by service in World War II, where he endured some wrenching battlefield experiences. From then on, he seemed always (as an artist, at least) to view life through a glass darkly. He was one of the first American serialists, and by general consensus became the best of them, developing his musical language to an extraordinary level of sensitivity to gesture, pitch structure and expressivity, and bringing to it a high technical polish. But when his son Paul died of a brain tumor in 1964, Rochberg found his sharply honed musical language inadequate to write (or sing) his almost unfathomable grief. He began to refract his music through others with musical collage and quotation -- building musical works around existing works by Bach and Mozart, or wholesale quotations of Mahler -- and, in 1972 began producing works that were either entirely tonal or that contained extended sections of traditionally tonal music, employing musical language that (variously) Haydn, Beethoven or Mahler would have been entirely comfortable with ... almost. The music was never derivative, however, and Jay Reise in his 1981 article "Rochberg the Progressive" in Perspectives of New Music, showed how the tonal music was deeply connected with the atonal music elsewhere in the piece. It was this annealing, more than just the revival of tonality and claiming for it a role in contemporary composition, that was Rochberg's primary achievement. Rochberg continued to explore this idea for the rest of his creative life, producing a large body of chamber music including String Quartets 3-6, Symphonies 4-6 (Number 5 was recently released on Naxos and was nominated for a Grammy in 2003), a Violin Concerto for Isaac Stern (recently restored to its original version on another Naxos CD) and many other works for intermediate forces. (The Naxos CDs, by the way, feature a really unfortunate drawing of the composer; see his publisher's page or, for a small view of how nobly he aged, see this.)

From the 1960s on, Rochberg famously held that serial music was incapable of expressing emotions beyond a narrow range of neurotic angst and violence. But it was not a desire to write comedy or joy that inspired him to break out of that range; rather, a deep sadness, a nostalgia, something more tender, as in his first two entirely tonal pieces, the Ricordanza and the slow movement of the Third String Quartet (later transcribed for String Orchestra as the Transcendental Variations, appearing on the same CD as the Symphony No. 5). But in Rochberg, genuine angst (or at least irony) and frequently violence, is never far away. After you hear the Third String Quartet or parts of the Fifth Symphony, or his vigorous tonal fugues, you wonder what he would have unleashed had he completed the seventh symphony. And you wish he had been able to complete it. (I believe he said that it would have torn his guts out, or something equally drastically gastric. He didn't mince words.)

Wednesday evening's tribute assembled several loyal performers who, in Gene Rochberg's words, "gave so many years of friendship and devotion to the new works as they were written," and a smashing group of young students, to perform four of Rochberg's signal chamber works. The 1972 Ricordanza for cello and piano, his tonal breakout piece, was lovingly, almost cantorially offered up by Norman Fischer and Jerome Lowenthal. One of Rochberg's last serial works, La Bocca Della Verita, for violin and piano (from an original for oboe and piano), received a thrillingly hair-raising exorcism by Charles Castleman and (again) Jerry Lowenthal -- how could an oboe contain this music? This is jagged, explosive late-1950s serial music taken to a new level of refinement, beside which contemporaneous Stockhausen seems clumsy and Boulez esoteric.

The 1982 Cello Quintet (string quartet plus cello) was entirely new to me. It hasn't been recorded, but it should be, and quickly. It is dedicated to dear friends and finds Rochberg about as sunny as I've ever heard from him. But it's not light music - it's full of juicy ensemble writing. (The man wrote for strings better than almost anyone.) And it was performed with panache by a group of young musicians -- Rhiannon Banerdt and Genevieve Purcell, violins; Deborah Apple, viola; Jessie Mark and Mitchell Lyon, cellos -- who threw themselves into it and had the audience whooping with delight. I imagine it's hard to "get" Rochberg at such an early age, and though there was certainly room for them to grow into the piece, after awhile I forgot about their age. This piece is a real find.

Finally, Castleman, Fischer and Lowenthal reunited, along with Laura Bossert (violin) and John Kochanowski (viola) for the turbulent Quintet for Piano and String Quartet of 1975, a nearly 40-minute 7-movement arch that spans most of Rochberg's metastable emotional space: a spooky Introduction, central Sfumato and Epilogue, bracketing a Fantasia, a fugal scherzo, a set of "Little Variations" and a traditional but here penultimate Finale. Dedicated to his wife Gene (who was in attendance), this, along with the String Quartets, is core Rochberg, chamber music division. I always respected this piece, but I must admit that this performance was the first time I really liked it. It was worth the hundred mile drive each way for this performance alone.

I don't have all the details of how the evening was put together, but I know that Edith Reiber, another long-time friend of the Rochbergs, had a considerable hand in the proceedings, for which a few hundred people owe her considerable thanks. The result was both a supreme tribute to an urgently creative life and an evening of extraordinarily rich and satisfying music with an emotional range that few 20th century composers could command. Think what you like about Rochberg's turn to tonality; composers would do themselves a great favor by studying his supreme craft, the finely wrought musical ideas, the vigorous fast music, the knife-edge nervous system, and the resplendent instrumental writing. The later music is supremely human; La Bocca Della Verita is superhuman.

Thank you, George, for bringing music around. In your current capacity, see if you can do the same for God.


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