Interview with Robert. R. Reilly

Robert R. Reilly has pursued a most unusual career. He was the music critic for Crisis magazine for 16 years, and continues to review concerts and operas for Ionarts, an arts blog that covers the Washington DC area and elsewhere. He has also written for such publications as High FidelityMusical America, and the American Record Guide. But, like most of us who write about classical music and are not on university faculties, he has earned his living in other fields. Reilly’s “day jobs” have included 25 years in American government. He served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and in the White House under President Ronald Reagan, as well as in the U.S. Information Agency. He was the director of Voice of America, and has published widely on foreign policy and “war of ideas” issues. He is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind and other books.

As a critic Reilly’s chief interest is the music of the 20th and 21st centuries, and that is the subject of his 2002 book Surprised by Beauty. Readers may not associate the word “beauty” with 20th- and 21st-century music, and that offers a clue to the unusual perspective presented in this book. Now Ignatius Press has just issued a much-expanded and updated edition of Surprised by Beauty, with additional material provided by Jens Laurson, a close associate of Reilly’s and a former contributor to Fanfare. Having been acquainted with Reilly’s thoughtful and perceptive writing for a number of years, I am pleased to have the opportunity to interview him. (In the interest of “full disclosure,” I should add that he has commented favorably in print on my work, although we have never met.)

I guess that my first question stems from my curiosity about your dual careers. I would think that working in government doesn’t put one in contact with many people who are as focused on the arts—and on classical music in particular—as you are. Are the people with whom you have worked aware of the musical side of your life? Have you found others who share your passion? (I once ran into Newt Gingrich in the men’s room during the intermission of a Washington production of Barber’s Vanessa, so I guess you’re not totally isolated.)

(That’s very amusing, as I recently ran into Newt Gingrich and his wife at the Washington National Opera production of Götterdämmerung.)

Government and classical music are, as you indicate, often unrelated, if not antithetical to each other. I remember that, at Fort Lewis, it created some puzzlement in my armored cavalry unit when I went to hear Joan Sutherland sing Turandot at the Seattle Opera. Eyebrows were raised. However, sometimes music and government can be good partners. Early in the Reagan administration, from my US Information Agency office, concert pianist John Robilette began the Artistic Ambassadors Program. The program was John’s inspiration, and he conducted it brilliantly for seven years. My principal contribution was to urge that a new piece of American music be composed for each artistic ambassador who went on tour for USIA. John and I spent hours in my home listening to records of American composers to select the commissions. The government wasn’t used to doing this kind of thing, or at least hadn’t been doing it for some years. So it was with some amusement that we sent composers like George Rochberg, Morton Gould or Lee Hoiby government purchase orders for “1 each, piano music, 10 minutes” or for other kinds of compositions. In any case, the program was very successful overseas and represented our country very well as one with a vibrant musical culture. There is now a significant collection of the manuscripts of all the works commissioned for this program at the Library of Congress. The program died along with the heedless destruction of USIA in 1999.

When I was the VOA director, I had the privilege of working with Robilette again. (By the way, Fanfareinterviewed him around this time in its September/October 2001 issue.) I asked John to arrange a series of live recitals at the Voice of America’s beautiful auditorium in honor of the VOA 60th anniversary. These we recorded and broadcast all over the world. John attracted such notable artists as Byron Janis, the Jacques Thibaud String Trio, and tenor Robert White. They were given only token honoraria, as we had no real funding to do this. I should also mention that composer Steve Gerber, who became a dear personal friend, wrote the Fanfare for Voice of America that was premiered in the same auditorium. He later incorporated it into his Second Symphony. Steve was very excited that there was to be a separate chapter on his music in this edition of Surprised by Beauty. I was very grieved that he was taken by a virulent form of cancer last year and did not live to see it in print.

In any case, if the government has a functioning brain, it should harness classical music to help represent this country at its very best. Unfortunately, it has suffered from a bipartisan lobotomy. As I began my short tenure as VOA director, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which exercises executive power over VOA, decided to eliminate our Arabic service, which was aimed at adults, and substitute for it a new all–pop youth music station with J Lo, Eminem and Britney Spears. That was a very interesting thing to do in the middle of a war. And what a way to help win the war against the terrorists! Just keep those Arabs dancing. The condescension implicit in this approach was felt in the Middle East, as I know from my personal experiences there. Also, I might add, as I departed VOA for the Defense Department, the Board eliminated the concert series I had begun with Robilette, canceling the scheduled appearance of the Tokyo String Quartet. In another mindless act, though one taken earlier and not directly by the Board, Rich Kleinfeldt’s excellent classical music program on VOA was eliminated. (It is lucky for us in the Washington DC area that Rich continues to broadcast at WETA-FM classical station.)

One other anecdote – this one in a more lighthearted vein: I was meeting with conductor José Serebrier and his wife Carole as they were having lunch with the lady who was, at that time, the manager of the Washington National Opera. When she learned that I was at the Defense Department, she said that she knew Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was an opera aficionado, and asked exactly what I did at DOD. I answered, “I am his musical advisor.” I didn’t even personally know Rumsfeld, but at least it got a good laugh.

I know that one question that often arises in the minds of classical music aficionados with regard to critics with dual careers is: Does this person have any formal training in music? Care to comment?

Outside of some piano lessons in grade school and some choir boy singing, I have not had formal training. My graduate studies were in political philosophy. Like George Bernard Shaw (with whom I would not compare myself in any other way), I have largely learned on the job, with the help of musician and composer friends, as well as a great deal of personal study. I hasten to add that that study went on for 15 years before I began to write about music. (I should add that I have been an avid Fanfarereader since vol. 1, no. 2.) I have been driven to put into words what I love or admire in what I hear . French poet René Char wrote that the “grace of the stars resides in
their compelling us to speak.” This music compelled me to speak. I want to understand it and for others to listen and love it, as well. That’s how I see myself, as a music missionary, more than as a critic.

As you know from having read the book, there is not a lot of technical language in it. Most of it should be accessible to the educated layman. In my many conversations with composers over the years, by the way, I found that they seldom speak in technical language. If anything, they are more likely to use metaphysical or philosophical language to get at what they are trying to express. The way they compose really is directed by their conceptions of reality. You can clearly see this in the composer interviews in the last part of the book.

Anyway, I don’t write for experts because I’m not one. I’m simply a lover who is trying to sing in words what really can only be sung in music. You yourself know how difficult this is, as you have done it so well in your books and reviews.

Thanks very much. Can you describe for us just how you became so interested in classical music—and of the past hundred years, in particular?

I think I was about 19 years old when, quite by accident, I heard Leonard Bernstein’s recording of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony with the New York Philharmonic. I was seized by it. It changed my life. Sibelius famously said, “God opens His door for a moment and His orchestra plays the Fifth Symphony.” That is what I heard. It lifted me so far outside of myself, I was never the same afterward. I had not known human beings were capable of such things. Classical music immediately became my avocation. I bought a portable record player and would make friends sit down and listen to Sibelius. Had I only heard the Fifth Symphony earlier in my life, music would’ve become my vocation in some form. In any case, that started my rampage through the world of classical music.

Mozart was really my window onto every form of classical music. I hadn’t initially been attracted by opera until I listened to Mozart’s operas. (One of the thrills of my life was playing
Pasha Selim in a Metropolitan Opera Studio production of The Abduction from the
Seraglio.) The same is true of chamber music. I then began to listen to music of every genre and period. I found myself eventually gravitating to late 18th/early 19th century music, and to 20th century music.

I was fascinated by 20th-century music not only because I found much of it immediately attractive, but also because it underwent such profound transformations and, in fact, at least partially, a derailment. Why would someone want their music to sound like a catastrophe in a boiler factory? I wanted to understand what was behind these transformations. I also wanted to know how some composers held up under the pressures of the avant-garde to continue their vocation of beauty. As you know, there were many of them – far too many to include in my book. I avidly followed what composers said about their music, read their books, and then sought some of them out to hear firsthand what they thought they were doing. Some composers contacted me after reading my reviews. It enriched my life incomparably that some of them became my friends.

Your book presents a rather unusual point of view, hinted at in your title, and it is one that I share to a large extent. I think that we both agree that music of the past hundred years is not uniformly ugly, atonal, or anti-musical; that there have been many composers who have pursued the traditional musical values of emotional and spiritual expression, seek to communicate those values to listeners, and have done so by drawing upon the formal processes that have served as the foundation of Western classical music for some 500 years.  But the additional notion that you add, quite explicitly, is that the dissolution of tonality proclaimed by some composers coincided chronologically with the breakdown of religious faith, and that that correspondence is no accident. Would you agree with that summary of your central thesis?

Yes, I would generally agree with that, except it is not simply my thesis but what many composers have told me, including those who do not consider themselves particularly religious. And I wouldn’t necessarily tie it to loss of a specific religious faith as I would to a loss of the transcendent, coupled with a metaphysical breakdown of the teleological order in nature. John Adams sensed this when he related that he had “learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.”

Here is another way to put it. If there is a natural order to creation, you will be impelled to write a kind of music that reflects it. You will search for the “harmony of the spheres.” If there is no such order, there will be a different kind of music, if one can call it music at all when it reaches a certain point of disintegration. If there is no “harmony of the spheres” to approximate, you will most likely end up with some kind of organized or unorganized noise – in either case it will be arbitrary. I am alluding here, of course, to the centrifugal forces unleashed by Arnold Schoenberg, who held that tonality does not exist in nature and, therefore, we can be habituated to hear dissonance as consonance. However, as Aristotle observed, no matter how many times you throw a stone in the air, you cannot habituate it to fly upwards. It will always drop down. Likewise, Schoenberg’s system neither achieved the supremacy of German music for another century, as he claimed it would, nor succeeded in habituating us to dissonance. The reason is because there actually is a natural order to things, and tonality exists as a kind of natural law in the world of sound.

Some music critics have gotten quite upset because of what I have said about Schoenberg’s serial system. They insist that it’s just another technique, like any other technique. That’s certainly not how Schoenberg thought of it. My criticism of Schoenberg is more against his faulty metaphysics than it is of his music. Of course, the one reflects the other – that is my point.

Throughout the 20th century and today, there has been and is a broad range of composers attesting to the connection between the spiritual and the musical. Sibelius – not what you would call a traditional believer – said that, “The essence of man’s being is his striving after God.” Therefore, composition, according to him, “is brought to life by means of the Logos, the divine in art. That is the only thing that really has significance.”

I know some composers who have left the faith to which they once belonged or even to which they at one time converted, but who nonetheless retain a very deep sense of the spiritual and the transcendent. Scottish composer James MacMillan recently said, “in spite of the retreat of faith in Western society, composers over the last century or so have never given up on their search for the sacred.” So my thesis is not sectarian in a religious sense, though as a Catholic I am very much aware of the musical treasures that Christianity has inspired, including, say, McMillan’s Seven Last Words.

Now let’s talk for a moment about the word “beauty,” because of its importance in your title, and because it can mean different things to different people. For example, I think that for many people “beauty” is used to describe the sort of warm, slightly poignant serenity exemplified by, say, the second movement of Barber’s Violin Concerto. Others think in terms of Keats’s line, “Truth is beauty, beauty truth,” which opens the word to a wider interpretation. I’m inclined to reserve the word for the Barber sort of expression, but I consider other qualities in music equally valid, in the Keats sense; I just don’t use the word “beauty” for them. I think of the highest musical values as authenticity and depth of emotional and often spiritual expression, as articulated through meticulous craftsmanship. I think of this as a broader concept than “beauty,” which may, of course, be one manifestation of such expression. Can you speak more about what the term “beauty” means to you?

I understand the distinction you’re making, but I would take the word beauty farther in the Keats sense. I’ve always liked Dostoyevsky’s statement that “beauty will save the world.” In other words, beauty is in some way salvific. In this sense, beauty means more than the second movement of the Barber Concerto. Beauty can pierce; it can slay; it can upset the soul and engender wild longings. It provokes wonder. It can also, in a way, redeem. The great German theologian Josef Pieper spoke of the “recollecting power of the fine arts, for the emotional shock brought about by eros and caritas – in short, through the attitude rooted in the mysterious experience that Plato called theia mania.” Plato knew that all beauty is reflected beauty and that beauty is a sign of, and a path to, ultimate goodness.

I think that’s what George Rochberg was after when he told me “I have re-embraced the art of beauty but with a madness.” He said, “but what do I mean by what is beautiful? I mean that which is genuinely expressive, even if it hurts… I know that what is really beautiful hurts.” Then he exclaimed, “Music remains what it has always been: a sign that man is capable of transcending the limits and constraints of his material existence.”

I think music was derailed in the 20th century when it lost this sense of beauty as its mission. The loss of vocation is powerfully reflected in Schoenberg’s statement that he was “cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.” One can imagine how Dostoyevsky or Plato would’ve reacted to that remark.

It’s clear that a religious or spiritual core is very important in your understanding of a composer’s work, and when it’s relevant in the case of a particular composer it becomes your central focus. Yet there are some composers whom you have highlighted whose music—from my standpoint—has no particular connection to spiritual concerns at all. The most striking example to me–without making a qualitative judgment of my own—is Morton Gould. Can you comment on that?   

The highest vocation of any art is to make the transcendent perceptible, and I think music is uniquely suited to this hieratic goal. As the great Swiss mystic Max Picard said, “In sound itself, there is a readiness to be ordered by the spirit, and this is seen at its most sublime in music.”

But not all music has to be sublime. Not everyone has to be at the top of Mount Parnassus – there are ascending slopes or steps. Mozart reached the heights, but he also wrote wonderful divertimenti for entertainment on social occasions. Dvorak composed most of his music in the kitchen, and its great warmth and domesticity reflect this. In music, the good is not the enemy of the great. If all we listened to was Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, Bruckner’s Eighth, Mahler’s Second and Nielsen’s Fourth, etc., we would probably suffer from acute altitude sickness.

Morton Gould was certainly a very good composer who mastered a number of colloquial musical styles. He had great fun with them, which is why it is such fun to listen to him. In terms of my general theme, I think Gould clearly demonstrated that tonality was not exhausted. He worked within the traditional tonal frames of reference, and produced works that still sound fresh. In some of his compositions, I think he also caught that sense of yearning in the American soul. He clearly had an appetite for beauty. I think it’s a big mistake to condescend to composers writing his kind of music. That’s why he and others of his ilk are in the book.

I suppose it is inevitable that I would find some of the composers you highlight less worthy of attention than others who would seem to illustrate your thesis through music of the highest caliber, yet are not included by you. I am thinking, for example, of Daniel Catan, Joly Braga Santos, Nicolas Flagello, Andrzej Panufnik, Arnold Rosner, Lee Hoiby, Samuel Jones, and Alan Hovhaness, who seem conspicuous by their absence. I’m especially surprised by the omission of Peter Mennin, as his approach to musical composition shared so much in common with that of Edmund Rubbra and Vagn Holmboe, both of whom you treat with great respect and understanding.

You have touched a sore spot. My publisher was panicking at the size of the book, which is slightly more than 500 pages as it is, and unfortunately I had to cut 28 composers out of it, including a number of those you mention. Taking them out was heartbreaking. If all the Fanfare subscribers will buy the book, perhaps then I can persuade the publisher to bring out a new edition that would include everyone you mention, plus the others who ended up on the cutting room floor – like Havergal Brian, William Alwyn, Boris Tchaikovsky, Paul Juon, Harold Shapero, Joseph Jongen, etc. As for Mennin, I am not sure I would have the nerve to write anything after the brilliant job you did concerning his music in your book, Voices of Stone and Steel.

Thank you for such kind words. I hope to be worthy of them.

Walter Simmons 
© Fanfare 2017

Second Interview with Arnold Rosner

Arnold Rosner is one of the most unusual and fascinating American composers of his generation. Born in New York City in 1945, to a culturally unsophisticated family (his father ran a candy store in northern Harlem), he took piano lessons as a boy—as did so many Jewish boys his age—although he did not especially enjoy the routine of practicing. But he did get hooked on classical music. Certain sounds in particular appealed to him—especially juxtapositions of major and minor triads—and before long he was working these sounds into music of his own. His family—fully aware of the remote prospects of success offered by a career in classical music—did little to encourage these efforts. So he attended the Bronx High School of Science, and then New York University as a math major. But all the while he was composing—sonatas, symphonies, concertos, etc.—not that anyone was especially interested in hearing the fruits of his labors, other than he. His composer-heroes at the time were Alan Hovhaness, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Carl Nielsen, and their influence on his early creative work was readily apparent. 

Graduating from NYU before he turned 20, he then spent a year at the Belfer Graduate School of Science, continuing his studies in mathematics. The following September he entered the University of Buffalo with a major in music composition. This was 1966, when the serial approach dominated university music departments, and young composers were essentially coerced into adopting it (although in retrospect some of these academicians have rather disingenuously attempted to pretend that this was never the case). Rosner was subjected to the tutelage of Leo Smit, Lejaren Hiller, Henri Pousseur, and Allen Sapp, who dismissed his creative efforts with varying degrees of contempt. In describing his educational experience at Buffalo, Rosner has written that he “learned almost nothing” from these pedants. While his fellow composition students may have caved in to the pressure to embrace the style du jour, Rosner stubbornly refused to accept a view of music that violated his most fervently held artistic values. And so, responding as do most totalitarian academic regimes to those who refuse to conform to approved doctrine, his department rejected the work he had submitted as his dissertation: a composition for orchestra entitled Perchance to Dream, which has yet to be performed. Realizing that they would never accept the kind of work he considered legitimately meaningful, he gave up the notion of a doctorate in composition, and decided instead to pursue a degree in music theory, with a dissertation—the first ever—on the music of Alan Hovhaness. He completed this successfully, and in the process became the first recipient of a doctorate in music granted by the State University of New York. 

It was around this time—as a result of our shared interest in Hovhaness—that I met Rosner and became acquainted with his music. At this point none of it had been performed, aside from a few unrehearsed readings provided grudgingly by friends and acquaintances. But I and some of his other friends saw value in his work, and, in fact, recognized in it a unique creative voice. We attempted to draw attention to it among active professionals, and during the 1970s and 80s, little by little his music began to be heard. Reactions to his work have ranged from those who have found it derivative and simplistic, to others who find it utterly unique, profound, and spiritually exalted.

In 1991, after the first recordings of his work had been released, I interviewed Rosner for Fanfare (14:5). More than two decades have passed since that interview, many more recordings have appeared, many more listeners have become acquainted with his music, and it seems an appropriate time to revisit the careerof Arnold Rosner, now 67 years old.


Well, it’s been more than twenty years since we sat down for our previous Fanfare interview. I guess the first question is: What has happened during the past 20 years?

I continued to compose until recently, I try to get my music “out there”—through live performances, publications, and recordings in whatever the current listening medium may be. (I still compose with pen and paper—a few of us notate music that way instead of on computer. Our friends think we are insane.) Lately I have been trying to sort through stacks of papers in an attempt to create an organized archive, so that if there is interest in the music in the future, it will be there. Every composer has to go through this though we rarely talk about it. One can become obsessive about it, even having a “doomsday” feeling. For me the greatest fear is the possibility that some works may simply not exist in 100 years. Imagine a symphony being sent from Prague to Vienna before modern printing or computers, and somehow all written traces were lost in limbo. (It is said that Dvořák lost a symphony this way. When asked what he did about it he shrugged, “I wrote a new symphony.” More recently Alan Hovhaness left a new guitar concerto in a New York taxicab and it was never recovered.)

Do you feel that your music has gained any “traction,” so to speak, with the public during the past 20 years?

  It’s not as though my work hasn’t generated interest to some degree. I would say that my name is in moderate-size letters on a very crowded map. The total number of compositions is 123, and by now about half of them are on CD. Meanwhile, community college teaching has been the full-time day job.

You say you composed until recently?

I stopped at Opus 123 about two years ago. I signed nothing in blood-and-granite, and still have pen, ink, paper, and ruler in case I go back. But I feel promoting and archiving to be more important now, and think that there is something about that approximate number of pieces that more or less “makes the statement” for most composers since Beethoven. After a while one is repeating oneself, technically or spiritually, or a theme is a little too similar to something one has already written. A “macro-composer” like Wagner, Berlioz, or Mahler took fewer works to “say his thing.” As you know, I wrote my PhD dissertation on the music of Hovhaness; there is someone who didn’t know when to put the pen down and take some time off. Milhaud and Villa-Lobos just kept it coming, too. And this writing too much is not only a recent quirk. Do we need, however devout one may be, ALL the Palestrina, Lassus or Victoria masses? And this is without modern recording. So did one ever hear those contrapuntally rich pieces more than once in one’s life?

I would think that this excessive productivity is most flagrant in the cases of Baroque composers like Vivaldi, Telemann, et al.

In numbers of repetitive works you are absolutely right, but the whole late Baroque mentality virtually demanded it. I’ve heard the story—perhaps it’s a myth–that every time a young woman graduated from Vivaldi’s “cappella” school, she was expected to play the solo in a concerto written especially for her?

Have there been any significant recent performances or recordings?

There have been many and sometimes they are very lovingly played and sung, and as well received. Most recently Albany has released a two-disc set of my vocal music, featuring the extraordinary soprano Elizabeth Farnum. And I understand that MSR has just reissued Barbara Harbach’s beautiful performances of two of my works for harpsichord. The first of these, Musique de Clavecin, is a major opus of intensely tragic and even frightening tone—neo-Couperin à la Freud, perhaps. The other, Sonatine d’Amour, is a much gentler, affectionate sibling to it. Also, within the next few months Naxos will be releasing an excellent performance of “Trinity”—my Symphony No. 8. Nevertheless, these would have to be considered “medium visibility” efforts. High-end musical organizations may deserve some blame but some sympathy too—so many of them are going broke.

Have any of your pieces achieved any sort of popularity or public identity?

In concert halls, I’m afraid not. But on radio, and with “streaming audio,” it’s a strange new world. Fanfare readers may or may not realize that there are now data bases of recommended classical pieces available on CD, suggested for broadcast. These lists are selected by real flesh-and-blood folks and they include CD label, number, and also duration and mood comments. One of my works, A Gentle Musicke, is on such a list. It is played on WQXR in New York, and thus world-wide on “streaming audio,” more than once a month. At the rate it’s going it won’t be long before this piece is half as well-known as Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor or Ravel’s Bolero. Friends and critics have written to remind these data sources that I have 100 more pieces, including 30-40 on CD, but thus far to little or no avail.

In our earlier interview I wrote, “Rosner embraces the sounds of medieval cadences, open fifths, ecclesiastical and middle-Eastern modality, Renaissance polyphony, Elizabethan dances, vigorous neo-Baroque counterpoint, and spacious triadic harmony in the manner of Vaughan Williams.” Would you say that your style or approach has changed in any way since then?

Let me first say that your description of my style in that older interview shows insight and wisdom, but can perhaps be clarified or “fine-tuned.” While both emotional and technical aspects of early music are represented in my music, I rather see myself as part of a 20th-century community that embraces 19th-century artistic values, while continuing to expand the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic language. So I would rather be considered part of one big happy family that also includes composers like, say, Bartók, Prokofiev and Barber, as different as each may be from the other. When my current students ask how this family differs from Webern, Varèse and other such composers—and these are students with no liberal arts background—I shrug and say, “If a glaring wrong note goes by in performance and the audience doesn’t notice, that’s the other family.” 
As to my emphasis on the neo-archaic, let’s go back a few hundred years. When music in our western tradition began to employ harmony and counterpoint, sounds were combined to please the ear, of course. Some remarkably expressive successions of chords were possible—this is apparent from the literature—although the “alphabet” (or “scale”) was only seven notes. The historical period that I’m referring to might be identified as 1364-1611—250 years from Machaut’s Mass to Victoria’s death. 
After that, one can hear a jump in complexity and expression in Monteverdi and Schutz in the early 17th century, expanding the “alphabet” to twelve notes. All that music (what is called the Renaissance and early Baroque) uses remarkably little dissonance. Well, I claim that there is a grand style there that was overlooked, in that period of transition between late Renaissance and early Baroque music, and by “grand” I mean technically, emotionally, and in its colors, however you take that. My work is strongly influenced by that period, and I will admit to being “neo” of that. Remember, Stravinsky said, “If Gesualdo had been recognized when he was alive, the course of music would have been entirely different.”

But later during the 1600s, a tighter, more predictable language began to develop—what we think of as “tonality”—which helps to divide sections, point our ears toward endings, and transitions, and so forth. A piece is “in D minor,” or “in A-Flat Major.” Well, to my ears and mind, that development, most clearly represented by the music of the 18th century, is a step BACKWARDS, because the harmonic structures turned safe and “limited.” But meanwhile, the orchestra evolved, and structures like symphonies and fugues emerged and became dominant. I do not reject these developments.

This is a very unusual perspective. Let me make sure I understand what you’re getting at. You’re saying that you’re particularly interested in the period between 1364 and 1611, but even more so during the period of transition shortly after that, when a “grand” style developed, but was subsequently overlooked. Yet composers like Monteverdi and Schutz and even Gesualdo aren’t exactly esoteric today.

Monteverdi, Schutz and Gesualdo WERE pretty esoteric for long periods of time, but with the advent of recording and the discoveries of people like Nadia Boulanger, Carl Orff, and others, who said, “You know, there’s some remarkable stuff gathering dust on museum and church library shelves,” this music re-surfaced from what was something of a “dark age.” But even before this re-discovery, other composers picked up elements of this “grand” style, in one way or another. You can hear this especially in music of the late 1800s, albeit with greater freedom: more dissonant harmony used tastefully, overlapping chords, and so forth. This “tasteful dissonance” includes some pretty pungent stuff, but it is constructed fairly simply. And voila! A hybrid style begins to develop. Spanning hundreds of years, consider the dissonance that can be found in Gesualdo’s madrigals, or the end of the first movement of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, with its loud E-flat harmonies ramming against pedal D’s. But it’s not all a matter of dissonance. There can be a striking use of consonance within a more modern context that suggests or draws upon that early 17th-century freely chromatic harmony: for example, in the prelude to Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, or “Senza Mama” from Puccini’s Suor Angelica.

This is the musical lineage that I believe my music follows, and places me among the large conservative, “neo-romantic” group of composers. For such composers emotional expression is primary, while the structures and rhetoric of 19th-century music offer the potential for much further expansion. The group of composers I’m describing may find inspiration in Wagner, Debussy, traditional opera, ethnic music, or elsewhere. Your comment years back about my music points to the fact that within a generally neo-romantic aesthetic, I developed what might be call a “neo-1600” perspective, in which a significant source of inspiration is the pre-tonal music of Monteverdi and Schutz. I would object to citing it as a really predominant source, but both emotionally and technically it is a main aspect of who I am compositionally.

What I have attempted to do is to fuse structures and scoring derived from the Romantic period with melody and harmony of the Renaissance and early Baroque. And I am not the only one to do this—there’s a varied crew from Nielsen to Orbón, including examples like Harris’s Third Symphony and Sibelius’s Seventh. One might question whether such composers happened on such non-tonal harmony through their own exploration, or whether they were influenced by, or even knew, the earlier music, or were introduced to it by another individual. (I have heard that Respighi was influenced and inspired by early music as a result of his wife’s bringing it to his attention.)

Would you say that your compositional style has changed over the years?

No, I don’t think so much at all. There is something I call “stile estatico,” or ecstatic style, where I use a complex cross-rhythm or cross-color overlap in some pieces. I sometimes have sections and even whole movements that feature cross-rhythms and irregular combinations of harmony or scoring. Imagine high-register strings moving once per second, trombones once every two seconds, and harp and chimes once every five seconds. Of course, they are often “out of phase” with each other. I try for a colorful texture with high spiritual intent. I first used this technique in 1983, in Of Numbers and of Bells for two pianos. Can it work? Does it work? Those who listen to Of Numbers and of Bells (Albany TROY163) or the “Pythagoras” movement from the upcoming release of my Trinity, can form their own opinions. But still, 90% of my music from the last 20 or 30 years is stylistically much as it was before. Perhaps one might point to some shifts in emphasis on performing media—less a cappella choral music than years back, and more opera and band music of late.

At the time of our previous interview you had completed two works for wind band. I see that you now have eight. To what do you attribute this increased interest in that medium?

One tries any reasonable combination if one feels capable and perceives that there are enough musical and coloristic elements to go around, without every piece sounding the same. I have always categorically rejected electronic and computer music. But the band was something else. I rejected it too, and somewhat snidely at first: “Do real composers write for band?” But more or less simultaneously, just past my 40th birthday three different and unconnected individuals gave me evidence of the real music I had failed to recognize. They were Bob Margolis (former student and now composer and band publisher), Simeon Loring (the conductor of bands at my school), and, of course, yourself. There was no ignoring your combined advice. These works do get performed and one—Trinity, which I mentioned earlier—is about to be released on Naxos, while we are in the planning stages of an all-Rosner disc to include the other seven.

In our previous interview you spoke of having had to battle the serialists when you were in graduate school. But at the time we spoke, you felt that the minimalists had replaced the serialists, and that they were no better. Yet this “stile estatico,” as you call it, sounds a little like the sort of thing that Steve Reich did with his “phase” pieces. Have you changed your view of minimalism or of its influence over the past two decades?

I feel that such music and hard-line minimalism are an incomplete part of some potentially richer, more complete and varied music. Older Fanfare readers may recall LPs on a label called “Music Minus One,” which contained the orchestral accompaniments to concerted works, in order to facilitate the preparation of soloists learning those works. I find most minimalist “phase” music and all its cousins to be “Music Minus One” scores where the “minus” segment might be a moving chorale or perhaps a songful melody that might ride angelically over a cross-rhythmic, or cross-coloration accompaniment, thereby adding another element to the mix. That is what I try to do in my stile estatico.

But what about composers like John Adams or Jennifer Higdon or Michael Torke—composers who embrace the repetitive textures of minimalism to some extent, but integrate many other kinds of musical ideas into their work? Or that whole European group such as Arvo Pärt and John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, and the many others who have pursued somewhat similar paths? They have embraced a kind of minimalism of tonal materials and rhythmic activity, but without the chattering repetition. These composers seem to be seeking the kind of spiritual elevation or devotional mind-states that you are striving for in your stile estatico. Do you see them as kindred spirits in any way?

I will not make any individual negative statement about any living composer, but I guess I can say that of the six names you mention some are more interesting than others, and among their works some may be more appealing than others. The stile estatico idea may be there in part, and I guess a lot depends on performance. The main voice or voices need to be heard clearly above the minimalist motoric activity.

And what about some of the most recent developments in the contemporary music scene?

I shouldn’t say it but I will: Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

The climate is bad for me—but what is especially disturbing involves some pieces that looked as though they were becoming classics 50 years ago. For a while we were hearing live performances of symphonies by Joonas Kokkonen and Allan Pettersson. The British orchestras might play a symphony of Malcolm Arnold or Robert Simpson. But lately, I heard a broadcast of a live performance by an American orchestra playing Vaughan Williams’s 6th. It sounded very neutral, as if the players had never heard it. Not only that, but it was directly preceded—almost like an introduction—by the Fantasia on “Greensleeves”—an utterly incongruous juxtaposition.

So you’re saying that some of the 20th-century symphonic music that for a while seemed to be gaining a foothold in the repertoire may have fallen by the wayside. But how about within the United States today? We seem to be witnessing a rare period when there are no stylistic “requirements,” so to speak—any kind of music seems to be potentially acceptable.

On the other hand, in re-reading our previous interview, I note one unfortunate development: At that time we spoke of conductors such as Gerard Schwarz, David Amos, and Leonard Slatkin, who were specializing in the American orchestral repertoire. But most recently Schwarz and Slatkin seem to have backed away from this repertoire, and Amos doesn’t seem to do much recording any more. What do you suppose this indicates? It seems to me that Leon Botstein, with his American Symphony Orchestra and his summer program at Bard College, is doing the most intellectually stimulating and musically gratifying programming of anyone on the East Coast of this country.

Botstein certainly deserves high praise not only for his programming attitude, but also for his consistent commitment to it over a period of time. But don’t count the other maestri you mentioned out altogether. Some are in transition, looking for new ensembles, funding, multi-recording projects of one kind or another. I am aware of such plans developing but thus far they are not for open discussion. But the general “unfortunate development” of which you speak still describes the major part of the scene. It is old news and there’s no point in crying in our beer about it, so just a couple of catch phrases capture it for me: technology has replaced thought and humanism; there’s too much background music and not enough foreground music; and finances, finances, finances.

Do you see the Naxos American Classics series and Albany Records as having picked up the slack to some extent?

 Yes, praise is due Klaus. Heymann (and Peter Kermani and Susan Bush at Albany as well), and there are fine lower-profile producers too numerous to mention. 
In the film Other People’s Money, in a corporate proxy battle the Danny DeVito character points out that the surest way to go out of business is to have an INCREASING share of a DECREASING market. Well, what does that imply for both composers and champions of good new music?

That reminds me of a notorious speech given by William Schuman during the mid 1960s, when he was president of Lincoln Center, in which he stated, “Far from having any hope of making money, our task is to lose money wisely.” This attitude eventually led to his forced resignation from his position.

In high places one must be careful what one says that can be quoted out of context. I did not know of the Schuman quotation, but only a week or two ago, Klaus Heymann was interviewed on WWFM and was thus heard streaming anywhere in the world, saying “95% of our releases lose money.” I think that those two quotations–some 50 years apart—are making related—and rather important—points.

In our previous interview you spoke about your frequent use of Christian musical genres and forms despite the fact that you are Jewish. Since that time I notice that you have completed two operas—Bontsche Schweig and Spinoza—both based on Jewish themes. At the same time the piece of yours that seems to have attracted the most attention is your Symphony No. 5, which was composed in 1973, but was released on Naxos American Classics about five years ago (8.559347). That work is fashioned along the lines of a Roman Catholic Mass, but for orchestra only. Has your attitude about Christian musical forms changed in any way?

The European musical palette, from serious Church music with organacantus firmus, to canzonettasand dances, cannot be denied as the basic foundation of mainstream European music for centuries. Many other ethnicities had some delightful modal music, with captivating rhythms, going on “behind closed doors,” so to speak. Ultimately the serious Jewish composer finds himself trapped behind non-traditions. Lighter material is considered frivolous, but more serious music is condemned if it sounds Catholic, yet no other style was acceptable for it. Salamone Rossi finds a small crack to get through, but even as recently as Mendelssohn and Mahler—they both converted—the one writes St. Paul, the other Veni Creator Spiritus. Well, in my view we are all brothers and music is my religion, so I wrote chamber operas on the folk legend of Bontsche Schweig and on the historical situation involving Baruch Spinoza, and about two years ago attended a fine performance in which one Betty Devine conducted the 80-voice Houston Choral Society at a church, in a performance of my Magnificat. All that has never changed. As for the church and our lives, once upon a time all the peace and civil rights rallies were held in churches and temples, but today they are much eclipsed by the “religious right.”

The band work soon to be released by Naxos is your “Trinity.” The title suggests that this is another Christian-oriented work.

In part, but it’s really wider than any one religious viewpoint. The general emotional area is spiritual, even pantheistic. While the first movement is neo-Christian in attitude, the second is Satanic, while the third takes a Pythagorean, Music-of-the-Spheres approach.

In 2006 you wrote an essay on Sequenza 21 called, “The Bicycle Pump” (http://www.sequenza21.com/rosner.html), in which you expressed your feelings about Mozart. Your brief overview of music history earlier clarifies your thoughts somewhat. I gather that the essay generated a great deal of controversy. In retrospect do you regret having written it? What are your thoughts about the controversy?

I should be so lucky as to create “a great deal of controversy.” It got a little Internet blog ripple. The only real negative consequence was that somebody who got to review my next release panned it, basically saying: If that’s what he has to say about Mozart’s music, then so much for his. What happened there was prompted by conductor David Amos who, among other things, edits a column on music for a local newspaper in San Diego. With praise galore for Mozart’s 250th birthday his provocative and novel idea was to get a less positive piece from someone whom he truly respected, who, however, thought Mozart was overrated. Whom did he call? Me. Somehow it got around, Sequenza 21, wherever else. The Internet has its quirks—post something one time, and it appears 101 times, with no control, no editing. As for my thoughts, I have nothing much to add regarding the piece or its content, but could tirade on and on about the Internet.

You mentioned the recent release of a two-CD set on Albany that features your vocal music. Does this comprise your entire solo vocal output?

There are two other vocal sets, on Volumes I and III, respectively, of my chamber music on Albany CDs (TROY163 and TROY553). One is Nightstone—Three Settings from the Song of Songs, and the other is Besos sin Cuento—6 Spanish Songs. The new release has all the rest of my work in the “art song” category.

Interview with Richard Zimdars

Richard Zimdars is a pianist who has been on the faculty of the University of Georgia for almost thirty years. Although he has maintained an active career as a pianist, he loves teaching and embraces an identity as an “academic” with pride. Born and raised in Milwaukee, he attended the University of Wisconsin, at Milwaukee, studied in Germany on a Fulbright Grant, and then did graduate work at Boston University and the University of Iowa.

At the University of Georgia he holds the position of Despy Karlas Professor of Piano, named for a much beloved member of the University of Georgia piano faculty, who died in 2010 at the age of 91. She had made a number of endowments, among them the chair that bears her name, and which Zimdars is the first to occupy. He has given master classes in many countries of the world, and his writings have been published in a variety of piano-related publications. His translations of The Piano Master Classes of Hans von Bülow and The Piano Master Classes of Franz Liszt are published by the Indiana University Press. He was also the artistic director of America’s most ambitious festival honoring the recent Liszt Bicentennial, under the auspices of the American Liszt Society.

Zimdars traces his attraction to American music back some 45 years, when he first discovered Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations, and this is an interest he has nurtured ever since. His latest recording (in the liner notes of which I am quoted generously), Persichetti and Pupils,follows previous Albany releases: one dedicated to music by Ives, Copland, Cowell, and Rudhyar, and the other to music by Roy Harris. I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss with him this latest recording, as well as other related subjects.

How was it that you happened to encounter Copland’s Piano Variations, and what was your initial reaction to it?

In 1966 my undergraduate teacher, Richard Neher, suggested Copland’s Piano Variations as a good choice for a twentieth-century work to complete my sophomore recital.  My fascination with Copland’s ability to build a large piece from such minimal thematic material was immediate. I was instantly attracted to the later, lively variations, but was a bit impatient with some of the less active variations, to which Copland assigned rather slow metronome marks. Over the years, I’ve heard performances in which some variations are played 15-20% faster than the score indicates. I think such speeds are detrimental to the listener’s clear reception of the music, so I’ve stuck closely to Copland’s indicated speeds.

Who are some of the people who influenced the course of your musical development most deeply?

In addition to Richard Neher, my other piano teachers, who were not shy about playing contemporary music.  Bela Nagy, who gave the Budapest premiere of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3, assigned me Schoenberg’s Suite für Klavier, Ives’s Sonata No. 1, and a piece from Messiaen’s Catalogue of the Birds. Carl Seemann was performing and recording Bartók and Stravinsky in the 1950s. John Simms was the first person, with violinist Rafael Druian, to record all the Ives violin and piano sonatas. James Avery, an extraordinary pianist who played and recorded Wolpe, Stockhausen, Ferneyhough, and Wuorinen, was also a conductor of the most challenging repertoire for large chamber ensembles.

The first indoor concert I can remember was when my father took me to hear Nathan Milstein perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. This was in 1957. Growing up hearing the CSO in the standard repertoire was a priceless experience. As a high school student I had the good fortune to study French horn for two years with the legendary John Barrows. Barrows’s magnificent lyrical playing has remained with me to this day, and can be heard on the recent issue from Bridge Records of the Brahms Horn Trio, performed at the Library of Congress. My high school experience of playing first horn in works like Pines of Rome, Don Juan, and the Brahms 4th Symphony with Milwaukee’s Music for Youth Orchestra, under conductor Milton Weber, a pupil of Monteux, greatly expanded my horizons.      Pianists William Masselos and David Burge, both champions of new music, are people I greatly admire. Peter Serkin and Garrick Ohlsson have done much to bring newer music to audiences. Both deserved a place in Philips’s Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century series of recordings, but were unfortunately not included.

Persichetti and Pupils is an intriguing concept. Persichetti taught an enormous number of musicians who have gone on to considerable acclaim, from Thelonious Monk to Philip Glass to Lowell Liebermann. What gave you the idea to do this recording, and how did you select the composers to include?

I had owned the scores to several of the pieces in this album for close to twenty years, and had taught the Persichetti Ninth Sonata for the first time in 1993. I bought the Druckman score because of its title, and first performed it and the Persichetti sonata about ten years ago.  Around that time I had a doctoral student, You-Ju Lee, who was acquainted with Marga Richter and wanted to do her dissertation on Richter’s piano music. I remember looking at the bright red cover of Marga Richter’s Piano Sonata in Chicago’s Carl Fischer music store on Wabash Avenue decades ago, but my initial contact with it came when You-Ju Lee performed it on one of her doctoral recitals. Later, I learned the piece myself and first played it in public in 2006.

What are the qualities that appeal to you about Persichetti’s music? Have you played many of his works, besides the two featured here?

My engagement with Persichetti’s music is limited to his piano works and some of his chamber music. The only two of his piano works that I’ve performed publicly are the two on this recording. One of the four graduate seminars in keyboard literature that I teach is titled United States Piano Music: 1900-2000, so I was duty-bound to investigate his piano output. In the process, it became clear that Persichetti was not a composer who could be pigeonholed. I am drawn toward his piano works written after 1950. The Ninth Sonata has transparent piano writing and is a unified work of modest proportions. It is well-written for the piano, as is Winter Solstice.

Winter Solstice is the last of Persichetti’s dozens of piano works, composed a year before his death in 1987. What can you tell us about the piece?

Winter Solstice is a through-composed 13-minute tone poem with, at times, much denser pedaled textures than those of the Ninth Sonata. Displaying a motivic unity that supports its considerable length, it alternates calm and agitated episodes. Lyrical duets form a good portion of the quiet music, offering the pianist a chance to mold each part, producing an expressive dialogue. The massed sonorities produced by Persichetti’s detailed pedal instructions stand in contrast to the leaner sound of much of his piano writing. The score presents opportunities for the pianist to execute imaginative voicings, rubati, and mood changes.

Some have speculated that it was an intentionally valedictory work. Are there aspects that confirm or contradict this impression?

My response to the piece leads me to think so. In it I find nostalgia, longing, resignation, and its closing strikes me as serene yet inconclusive.

You have included a little-known early work by Jacob Druckman, a composer certainly not associated with piano music. What drew you to this piece?

The works of Druckman that I first heard were his Animus series of pieces for instruments and tape and his orchestral work Windows that received the 1972 Pulitzer Prize. In the early 1990s I played his Duo for violin and piano several times with the excellent violinist Alexander Ross, with whom I recorded the Ives and Roy Harris violin sonatas. As I mentioned, I purchased the score of The Seven Deadly Sins because of the title of the piece, and have had it in my active repertoire for about a decade. I found it puzzling that a piano work of major proportions by a distinguished American composer, and published by a leading firm had received so little attention. Maybe because it is in a more conservative style than Druckman’s later works? It is well-written for the pianist, with “Envy,” “Avarice,” and “Carnality” presenting the greatest challenges of execution. But what opportunities for interpretive flights of characterization! Who wouldn’t have fun playing variations titled “Anger” or “Sloth?”  And moving from “Gluttony” to the wild habañera of “Carnality” is sheer delight for me, and I hope for listeners as well!

And what about Marga Richter, one of Persichetti’s lesser-known students? You include three of her works. Have you developed a particular enthusiasm for her music?

As I said, my initial exposure to her music was via my doctoral student You-Ju Lee, who wrote her dissertation on Richter’s piano music. As her dissertation supervisor, I had to look at all of Richter’s piano music. I liked what I found, and immediately added Remembrances, a four-minute nocturne-like piece, to my active repertoire. The title of this piece can make one a bit nervous when playing it by memory! I learned Richter’s Eight Pieces for Piano for this recording, and hope to play them in public sometime soon.

As you say, she is one of the lesser-known students of Persichetti, but her accomplishments are not of a lesser order. She was the first woman to be awarded a degree in composition from the Juilliard School. Early in her career she was published by Carl Fischer, a major publisher. Artists of the caliber of Menahem Pressler, William Masselos, and Walter Trampler recorded her works during the LP era.  Many a composer would be pleased to have had their works performed by the Minnesota Orchestra, the Atlanta and Milwaukee Symphonies, and the Buffalo Philharmonic, as has been her good fortune. Richter’s orchestral works have been recorded by the London Philharmonic, the Seattle Symphony, and the Czech Radio and Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestras.

Do you have other recordings in the planning stage? Other American music perhaps?

I hope to make a recording devoted to character pieces for piano written after 1950. American composers would be included, as would composers from Asia and Europe. The stylistic range would be wide.

I am very concerned about the role that classical music will play in America’s future, what with the dwindling of music classes in public schools, and the evident aging of audiences at classical music events. As someone who has enjoyed direct contact with young people for many years, what is your perspective on the future of this art form? What kinds of changes have you witnessed over the years?

I share your concern with developing a future audience for classical music in America.

Growing up attending the Chicago Symphony’s ten-concert season in Milwaukee was my prime formative “classical music” experience, along with my piano and French horn lessons.  Attendance at those concerts was by no means restricted to the upper classes or elderly in those days, although much German was spoken among the older crowd during intermissions.  A Central European ambience was surely in evidence.  At home, the music played on our record player was the standard repertoire from Bach to Debussy. This music, and also the sounds of singers like Björling, Milanov, Warren, Albanese, Flagstad, Lotte Lehmann, John Charles Thomas, and Risë Stevens were – fortunately! – the sounds locked into my brain at an early age.  Musical memories are involuntary and reflexive. My tastes were formed early by my parents’ choices in recorded music: rock and roll was excluded, but not jazz or American musicals. Alvin and the Chipmunks crept in, too!

The distributors of broadcast and mechanically reproduced music exert tremendous power to form taste, their goal being financial profit. The huge economic organization of music distributors is predatory in the extreme. The vast majority of the distributed product is utterly unimaginative, fostering a worldwide appetite for generic styles directed toward the youth market. This product, marketed to appeal to the concerns of its audience, actually suppresses expression while sending a dumbed-down message of identity to listeners and potential purchasers. The infliction of this narrow musical choice on the public is masked by its seemingly limitless sources of distribution.

How to break the cycle? It cannot be broken, but now and again people do escape from its orbit. I’ve seen this happen often during my academic career. Recently I taught a one-day-a-week one-credit class to about a dozen freshmen at the University of Georgia who were not music majors. I had graduate piano students play Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt for the class.  They were entranced by the skills of the young pianists, and peppered them with questions.  After one class, a student, Elberta (alias), told me that despite the value that her metropolitan area high school placed on her athletic skills, she had longed to participate in music as well. Shortly thereafter my class was assigned to attend a University of Georgia Symphony Orchestra concert, and I saw Elberta with an athlete friend at intermission. Our orchestra is capable of performing works like the Mahler 5th and 6th symphonies, and since Elberta and friend had never been to a live symphony concert, they could not believe how good their fellow university students sounded. They asked, with innocent sincerity, what the purpose of the conductor in front of the orchestra was. This was enough to get us talking for the whole intermission, after which they enthusiastically returned to their seats!

It is never too late for people to expand their interests, and I think live concerts are the best way to do it. The earlier children are exposed to live music of quality, the better.  Opportunities to sing or learn an instrument should be available in every U.S. school system, public or private.  Until the stupidity of the mantra “No new taxes!” is recognized, I see little hope on the horizon.

Thank you for sharing your perspective. Your own efforts indicate that you are certainly doing your part to foster a broader range of musical interests among those within your sphere of influence.

Interview with Carlos Kalmar

 Carlos Kalmar is known to Fanfare readers as principal conductor since 2000 of Chicago’s Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, with which he has made a number of fine recordings, perhaps most notably the release devoted to orchestral works by the gifted but short-lived American composer Robert Kurka. Since 2003 he has also served as music director of the Oregon Symphony, succeeding James DePreist in that position. Most recently he has accepted the additional position of principal conductor and artistic director of the Symphony Orchestra of Spanish Radio and Television, Madrid.

Like a number of conductors of the recent past and present, Kalmar was born and raised in South America—in his case, Uruguay–where his parents emigrated from Europe—in his case, Austria. Now in his early 50s, Kalmar studied in Vienna, where he won a number of auspicious awards, and held conducting positions there, as well as in Hamburg, Stuttgart, and Dessau, serving as the director of the opera company in the latter city.

The Grant Park Orchestra is part of an annual summer music festival held in Chicago’s Millennium Park, where ten free outdoor concerts are offered to the general public. While these concerts include many popular favorites on their programs, they also offer a generous serving of contemporary and/or lesser known works as well. For example the 2011 series included Franz Schmidt’s Book with Seven Seals, Britten’s Violin Concerto, Sibelius’s Kullervo Symphony, and Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden, along with more familiar works. Kalmar’s new recording of three Pulitzer Prize-winning American compositions is his eighth for Cedille Records, and he has recorded for other labels as well.
Having admired a number of Kalmar’s recordings, I was glad to have the opportunity to get acquainted with him. His comments below have been edited for clarity and concision.

Given your multi-national background, you have been exposed to many different musical cultures. How do you feel this factor has affected your approach to conducting and your attitude about repertoire? Is there one musical culture with whose values you identify more closely than the others, or whose repertoire means more to you than others?

The greatest impact of working in America has been its effect on how I view repertoire. When I was studying conducting in Vienna, our emphasis was mainly on a select handful of composers (Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, etc.), who are considered the “main repertoire.” This narrow approach to repertoire persisted in Hamburg and later in Stuttgart as well. Once I came to Chicago and started working with the Grant Park Festival, my natural curiosity prompted me to re-consider this attitude toward repertoire, and I began to discover a much broader range of music, much of which interested me a great deal. This continued to affect my thinking and planning when I accepted the position in Oregon. I experimented somewhat, and really began to develop a sense of repertoire “outside the box.”

I wonder whether you can enlarge on this point. Where did your explorations “outside the box” lead you?

Having been trained in Vienna, my original frame of reference ended essentially with Mahler, maybe including some Berg and Schoenberg. But I had no real knowledge of music from other countries at that time. Because of that, after about ten or twelve years of experience, I started to feel that I needed to expand my musical horizon. So when the Grant Park Music Festival offered me the job, with the understanding that I would focus on the American repertoire, I took the opportunity to explore “everything”: Americans, Russians, the Brits!! And not just limited to those. Today, having conducted more pieces than the average conductor with comparable years of experience, I’m more aware than ever that classical music is so vast that a lifetime is not enough to savor all the great things that this art-form offers.

Are there any Uruguayan composers who interest you?

There are a few interesting pieces here and there. I only wish there were a Uruguayan composer of truly international stature.

Another aspect of my work that has changed over years (though it may have little to do with my experience in America) is my overall persona as a conductor. I think that my approach is now more energetic, more emotionally driven than when I started conducting.

Do you think that perhaps this is the result of developing a greater sense of self-confidence, that you feel less intimidated by the judgments of others? 

I believe that that is partly true. But I would add that over the years I got away from the idea that programing and music-making are intellectual exercises. I believe that intellectuality is only a part of the picture if one wants to succeed in music. And the more energetic focus has something to do with developing the capacity to channel energy in a more concentrated way than I could do many years ago. Experience is a wonderful thing!! On the other hand, the responsibilities of a music director in the U.S. are more extensive and demanding, compared to an equivalent position in Europe.

Those of us who live outside Chicago may not be familiar with the Grant Park Orchestra. Can you tell us about the role the orchestra plays, and from where it draws its players?

I would say that the primary obligation of the Grant Park Orchestra is to the Chicago community. But I would add that the wide exposure achieved by our recordings has helped the orchestra to reach far beyond the immediate area. For the local audience, the fact that the concerts are free enables us to reach a much broader segment of the Chicago community.

About 25% of the orchestra are members of the Chicago Lyric Opera orchestra, another 25% are freelancers from the general area, and the rest come from all over the country. We even have a fabulous bassoonist who is from Canada.

How did The Pulitzer Project come about? Whose idea was it? Is it intended to be a series, or is this release with works by Schuman, Copland, and Sowerby to stand alone?

After working successfully for several years with Cedille and its president Jim Ginsburg, we decided to do a recording with both orchestra and chorus. At the outset, Jim, our choral director Christopher Bell, and I were clear that we did not want to record standard repertoire. We were interested in following the more adventurous artistic path on which we had embarked several years ago with our first recordings from the Grant Park Festival. So we looked at some possibilities and discovered two American choral pieces that had each won the Pulitzer Prize, but neither had ever been recorded. So after Christopher and I studied the scores and reviewed the performance materials, we decided to go for it. Appalachian Spring, the only familiar piece on the recording, fits very well into this wonderful CD. 

There is one perplexing aspect of this release that has been raised by everyone with whom I have discussed it: In 1943 Schuman’s A Free Song won the first Pulitzer Prize given to a piece of music. In 1944 the recipient was the Symphony No. 4 of Howard Hanson; in 1945 the winner was Appalachian Spring–the ballet music as scored for 13 instruments; and in 1946 the award went to Leo Sowerby for his Canticle of the Sun. Therefore it looks as though you skipped over the Hanson—a work that not only won the Prize, but was also cited by Hanson himself as his own personal favorite among his seven symphonies. In view of the fact that there are dozens of recordings of the orchestral suite from Appalachian Spring, wouldn’t that have been the logical one to skip? And if you decided to include the Copland, wouldn’t it have made more sense to use the chamber scoring that actually won the Prize, but hasn’t been recorded so many times?

All true! But I did not want to do the chamber version, because I have such a great orchestra at my disposal, and as always, I wanted to include everybody in the recording. Also, we never anticipated that we might do a “series” of Pulitzer recordings, which would have justified recording the prize winners in consecutive order. 

Your recordings with the Grant Park Orchestra have focused on American music. Does the orchestra typically feature American music, or is there a mix? Are there plans for further recordings with the Grant Park Orchestra? Anything specific with which you can whet our appetites?

Right from the start our intention was to record American music, and I plan to continue on this very successful path. That does not rule out the possibility of our recording something other than American music. As a matter of fact, we have just now been recording the chorus in a wonderful a cappellaproject. And Jim and I will definitely pursue our joint search for other interesting projects.

If I’m not mistaken, you haven’t done any recording so far with the Oregon Symphony. Are there any plans along those lines? 

It so happens that our first recording with the Oregon Symphony will probably be released by the time this interview appears in print. It will be based on the program we performed last season at Carnegie Hall—a concert that drew considerable praise for both the quality of performances and the inventive programming. It is based on the theme—always relevant, I’m afraid—of war; the program will include Ives’s The Unanswered Question, John Adams’s The Wound Dresser, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, and Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony.

That is a fabulous program indeed! I can’t wait to hear that recording! 
In the United States, unlike the case in Western Europe, classical music plays a relatively small role—pitifully small, in fact. Does this concern you? Is there anything you feel you can do that might increase the appeal or broaden the reach of classical music in this country? Or do you feel that you are participating in a dying art form?

Of course I think about this serious problem. But then I look out and see the overflowing crowds that come to our concerts at the Grant Park Festival. Many of them are first timers at a classical music concert, and I trust that they will come back, and that we are doing something important to develop the audience of the future. I do not believe that classical music is a dying art form. Although this theme has been a constant refrain surrounding all of us artists for quite a while, the reality is that there are more concerts being offered today than was the case some 40 years ago.
And to broaden the reach of classical music in the USA I am a strong advocate for music education in our school system. The fact that we have dramatically decreased the number of teachers who teach music (or even art!!) in our schools, from elementary school on, is absolutely the wrong idea and does not bode well for the future of our children. 

Do you have any long-range plans or goals for your career in the years to come?

I dedicate myself with all my energy and talent to the great language of music. The important thing is to find the kernels of deepest truth in one’s art form and commit oneself to conveying those truths. My own ambition is about making something happen, not performing a particular piece, or focusing on the development of my career.

I am always happy to discover conductors with programming ideas that show a little more creative thought and originality than the norm. So I have tried to follow your work closely, and look forward to continuing to do so. I hope that you will continue with projects “outside the box.”

Interview with Tatjana Rankovich

I was first introduced to pianist Tatjana Rankovich through a mutual friend, back in the early 1980s. At that point she had just graduated with her Master’s degree from Juilliard. I can still remember the pieces she played that initially so impressed me: the Bach Toccata in C minor and No. 8 of Frank Martin’s wonderful Eight Preludes. Both the power and the sensitivity of her performances struck me immediately, as well as her ability to modify her approach to accommodate each composer’s style or area of the repertoire. I later began to appreciate the way she highlights the sensuality inherent in whatever she plays. Although she had been trained in the Grand Tradition in her native Belgrade, in the former Yugoslavia, her selection of the Martin Prelude pointed to a curiosity and a willingness to explore less familiar areas of the repertoire, and, indeed, when I told her of my interest in bringing to light lesser-known works of American music that I thought were of the highest caliber, she expressed a winning eagerness to delve into them. Initially I introduced her to the piano music of Nicolas Flagello, including his three concertos, one of which had been performed once; the other two, never. She was immediately won over by their emotional intensity and romantic passion, their sense of drama, of tragedy and triumph. She expressed interest in his solo piano works as well, and eventually learned and performed them. But she felt the greatest urgency about the concertos, that they must be heard, and that she was the one best suited to represent them to the music world. So we developed a plan to record two of them—the second and third (the two that had never been played). We accomplished this in 1995, and the all-Flagello recording was released the following year by Vox, and then was reissued a few years later by Artek, along with two overtures and a work for violin and orchestra played by the great virtuoso Elmar Oliveira. The recording was received more enthusiastically than we dared hope for—in Fanfare, as well as in other publications—and further first recordings of American works soon followed, including Flagello’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Today Tatjana holds a permanent place in the history of American music, as the first person to perform all three Flagello concertos, and the first to record them all, as well as his Symphonic Waltzes. In addition she is the first to record the respective piano sonatas of Paul Creston and Vittorio Giannini, distinguished works that she has subsequently performed throughout the United States and Europe.

During the past 25 years, Tatjana has maintained an active performance schedule, with a wide-ranging repertoire that embraces mainstream piano literature and American works of the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as compositions by Yugoslav composers. In 1990 she became a U.S. citizen, and also joined the faculty of New York’s Mannes College of Music. Most recently, to supplement her studio recordings she has released three compact discs of mainstream repertoire, taken from her live performances (reviewed elsewhere in this issue). This seemed like a good opportunity for her to reflect on her career—on what she has accomplished and on the directions that beckon to her for the future. Her comments have been edited for clarity and concision.

First, I wonder how you gravitated toward music in the first place.

My mom was the one who first exposed me to live concerts, ballet performances, and piano lessons. She was a piano teacher, and started teaching me when I was 6, but it wasn’t long before she decided to enroll me in a proper music school in Belgrade, where I took solfège and theory, besides piano lessons twice-a-week. When I was around 8, my mom took me to an all- Schumann piano recital and that was a real turning point. From that time on, I wanted to be a pianist! I was mesmerized by that concert, and I still remember every detail!

What was your training like in Belgrade, and who were your most influential teachers?

My mother took me to study with Arbo Valdma, at that time one of the greatest teachers in Belgrade. He had taught at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow before moving to Belgrade in the mid 70’s. My mom was adamant that I study with him and no one else, so she enrolled me at the Josip Slavenski Music School, where he had just been appointed. He was very new to Belgrade and I was his first student. Six months after I began studying with him, I won first prize in the State Competition of Serbia, with a “perfect 100” (that was the scoring scale). This attracted a lot of attention, and many talented students flocked to Mr. Valdma for lessons.

I followed Mr. Valdma to the Novi Sad Academy of the Arts, the best music school in Yugoslavia at the time, as soon as I graduated from high school. I continued with him until I was 19, when I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from the Novi Sad Academy. Mr. Valdma taught me how to understand musical architecture, the importance of good fingering, as well as some useful tips for memorizing.

What led to your decision to come to America?

For some reason I became obsessed with New York, with the Juilliard School, and with the English language—especially as spoken by Americans. In those days Belgrade had a very active concert life and I heard fantastic recitals by such young (at the time) Americans as Andre Watts, James Tocco, and Garrick Ohlson. I found something very special about their playing, which was different from that of pianists who came from Russia and Eastern Europe. Thinking back now, it was the phrasing, the lightness, clarity, and humor, all captured with amazing virtuosity. I still remember Andre Watts playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in the solo piano version. The concert hall was on fire! I was looking for this fiery connection with music. Since he could see that I was becoming restless, Mr. Valdma suggested that I go to Sion, Switzerland, to study with Clifton Matthews at the Tibor Varga Summer Festival. Mr. Matthews was another one of my most important teachers, and a wonderfully caring person. He heightened my awareness of such aspects as volume, gradation, and piano tone, and showed me different ways of drawing strength from my arms in playing chords. Working with him was a great experience. Since he also taught at the North Carolina School of the Arts (and still does), I decided to come to America in 1981 to continue my studies with him in Winston-Salem.

What was your initial reaction to America?

The North Carolina School of the Arts was a perfect bridge to a new culture and people were incredibly generous. To this day I have a very soft spot for North Carolina. But my heart was in New York and I wanted to study at the Juilliard. Coming from Belgrade, a busy capital city, immersed in a very competitive musical environment, I craved more of that. So, six months later, I was on the bus to New York to audition for Juilliard. I was accepted and awarded a scholarship. I was in the city of my dreams, and I’m still here.

At Juilliard I studied with Josef Raieff, who was a legend himself. He had studied with Lhevinne, Siloti, Bauer, and Schnabel. His playing had that beautiful old style that we hear in the recordings of Lhevinne and Rachmaninoff. After I earned my Master’s degree at the Juilliard, I went to London to study with Benjamin Kaplan, a music-teaching genius whom I’ve worked with on and off for many years. Studying with Mr. Kaplan is a great gift: He helped me achieve a true legato, and showed me the importance of maintaining a singing melodic line. He also gave me valuable lessons in analyzing a new piece. I apply what I learned from him not only to my own work, but also in all my teaching.

What made you so receptive to American music? So few American pianists have bothered to explore this repertoire. What was its appeal to you?

Even though I was very traditionally trained, I always had a taste for the “unknown.” Maybe it’s my spirit of adventure, but when I was still in Belgrade I would play works that were out of “the mainstream,” within the context of Belgrade, at least—Poulenc’s Aubade, for example, as well as lesser-known works of Scriabin and Shostakovich. When I was in Winston-Salem, one day in our piano literature class we were played some music by American composers—I remember Ned Rorem’s Barcarolles, in particular. I fell in love with them, learned them, and have since performed them often. I love the way the undulating 5ths and 4ths create such a beautiful melodic flow in these pieces. Later I got to know the Barber Sonata, Copland’s Variations, and Corigliano’s Etude Fantasy. I just loved the intensity coming out of all these works, which are written so well for the most powerful instrument, the piano. So all this prepared me for Flagello, Giannini and many others to come.

Did you find that your recordings of American repertoire paved the way for opportunities to perform it in concert?

To some extent yes and to some, no. I’ve been including American works on all my recitals—both in the United States and elsewhere. I love to experiment with building an interesting program around well-known older works, little-known older works, as well as unknown recent works, in various combinations. I have found this the best way to introduce new pieces. People seem to love hearing new works in a context with more familiar pieces, rather than a whole evening of unfamiliar works. That can be difficult on an audience. I find that in general people like to hear composers and pieces they can recognize. This gives them a sense of confidence that makes it easier for them be receptive to new works. Programming this way, I have had great success with so much American music, even when I present it in the smallest towns and places.

Now, with the Flagello concertos I haven’t been so successful in getting opportunities to perform them. I just don’t understand this aspect of the music world. I have recorded all three concertos, as you know. They are incredibly challenging virtuoso works, written masterfully for the instrument in a traditional style, romantic yet modern, with great melodies—passionate and intense—rhythmically exciting—simply fantastic! I am certain that audiences at Avery Fisher Hall or elsewhere would go wild over any of these. Why are conductors so reluctant? Is it political, financial? Can’t anyone listen with an open heart and hear that these concertos deserve to be heard over and over?

Do you feel that your adventurousness about repertoire has affected your career?

Yes, I have received a certain degree of recognition and interest, along with a number of invitations and projects, as a result of my many premier performances and recordings. But these invitations usually come from specialized venues or concert series dedicated to presenting new works, and, maybe most often, from networking connections I’ve made along the way. At the same time, I think audiences follow their favorite performers and it doesn’t matter to them what’s being performed, it’s more about where and when. I am sure that if Horowitz had had a chance to perform the Flagello Concertos, they would be famous today. That’s what happened with the Barber sonata, after all.

Who are some of the younger composers whose music you have championed?

I would start with the music of my husband, Ionel Petroi. I’ve played several of his works and have presented them in this country, in Greece, and in Serbia. He has two piano concertos that we are planning to record and hopefully will get some live performances. I am learning them now and this may happen soon.

Besides Ionel’s works, I’ve presented many other premieres. At the annual Keys To The Future festival in New York City I’ve introduced many new works. Also close to my heart are the works of Bruce Stark—and the late Robert Muczynski, whose piano works are just fantastic!

How do you decide what pieces you’d like to play? What are the factors that go into your decisions?

Very important to me is that a piece have good structure—and a sense of direction; it should also have an impulse and a story. I like my stories to be intense, even when they are quiet; but I need to tell a story through music. Much of the music composed today that tries to sound “experimental” involves gimmicks, which are there to hide the lack of something. Ideas seem thrown around without a clear sense of conviction. And often they show little understanding of how to draw the most from the instrument. Of course, once in a while there is a jewel that I can fall in love with. It always feels like such a great discovery and I am forever grateful to that composer. I like when a piano piece sounds like a piano piece, when the composer really knows how to exploit the full technical range of the instrument. I like great harmonies, interesting inner voicing, melodies with a sense of direction, and focused development of motifs.

I imagine that your versatility must be a great asset for you, as your career has evolved.

Yes, it keeps me musically alive and active. I am also very aware of the fact that we performers must continue to present new works that we believe in. Clara Schumann premiered the works of her husband and also many works of Brahms. Those pieces still live on, as do the piano works of Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Rachmaninoff to name a few. They are all part of my repertoire. The traditional school of piano playing and so much of the mainstream repertoire have given me an indispensable understanding of how to go about learning new music. I believe that if I can approach some of today’s works with that kind of clarity, I will have a story to communicate, and the music will be more accessible to the audience. Much of the music that I play calls for great passion. I never want my playing to convey a flat affect.

I know that you have been teaching at the Mannes School for a number of years. Do you enjoy teaching? How important a role does it play in your life? 

I do love teaching. I love the giving and the receiving aspects. It is a most wonderful feeling to see a student develop a love for music. Same as with my own learning process, one of the most important things to teach is how to actually understand the written score. Where does a phrase begin and where does it end? What happens in between those two? What is the rhythm of a melodic line and what are the inner voices doing? There is an important skeleton. If we don’t have this skeleton, we can’t really get into the atmosphere, voicing, and tone. Then there is a great deal to understanding technique and what makes certain passages so demanding. Observing the hand and realizing that the thumb is pulling back and sabotaging the rest of the hand, or that by eliminating unnecessary movement the hand can be better prepared for the next upcoming note or passage. Then one must be taught to do a certain type of thoughtful listening. I am very direct in my teaching. I don’t do much talking about sunsets and sunrises.

Are there other areas in music that interest you, beyond just playing the piano?

Yes, I am very involved with a non-profit organization called Performance Wellness, which is dedicated to treating many of the psychological and behavioral problems that afflict musicians and other performers. The approach was developed by a psychotherapist, Dr. Louise Montello. 
You know, it isn’t discussed much publicly, but a great deal of damage is inflicted on young students and performers, leading to all sorts of performance-related disorders, especially among classical musicians: various types of addictions, anxieties, debilitating stage fright, and all sorts of mental and physical injuries. I’ve wanted to get involved in this area for a long time, so several years ago I went back to school and received training in music therapy. This led me to Performance Wellness, and I am now using this technique in my work with musicians. I find it to be a very effective approach to overcoming the stresses of musical performance, by helping students use their essential, innate creativity to bypass the limitations of the rational, conscious mind. The approach integrates techniques from the fields of music therapy, behavioral medicine, and yoga science. I am trying to spread the word among schools, universities, and orchestras, to encourage them to incorporate this approach into their curricula.

What are your thoughts about the role of classical music in our society? As a teacher, do you see an enthusiasm for classical music among young people? Does the future of classical music concern you?

There will always be young people who are drawn to the world of classical music. They will expend great effort, just as we all did before them. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven have lived with us for so many years, and I do believe that their music will live on. But it seems to me that the group of young people who love classical music within this tradition is becoming smaller. Times are different, technology has taken over, and the influences and values of young people are in flux. The pace of life is very fast and young people can be easily distracted by gadgets and toys that modern technology has made possible. Many of my students are very enthusiastic, but they are also interested in other things as well. Classical music is very possessive. Becoming a professional musician takes tremendous time and often requires one to sacrifice other interests. It demands patience, a fanatical sense of ambition, emotional stamina, tenacity, and self-awareness. This is just the beginning; then you need to find good teachers, a means of financial support, and a whole lot of luck.

Another thing that really concerns me is the lack of emotion in live concerts. There is so much concern about “perfection,” or about finding some “new” way of approaching this or that piece. And I don’t always like the way music is “marketed.” To me it is “marketing on steroids.” I go to so many concerts that leave me unmoved and indifferent. Why would I care about a “new” approach that is drawing a lot of attention or about “perfection,” if I feel an absence of joy, enthusiasm, sincere emotion, with little intensity of artistic communication. There must be an authentic core of sincere feeling that can touch us and arouse us in the depths of our souls.

On the other hand, every once in a while there is a live concert that turns out to be a real musical journey. Performances like this I remember forever.

Interview with Lilia Boyadjieva

The piano artistry of Lilia Boyadjieva was first brought to my attention back in 1997 by a Greek friend, who urged me to hear a newly-released recording of the complete piano music of Samuel Barber featuring a Bulgarian pianist of his acquaintance. Somewhat skeptical that an unknown Bulgarian pianist living in France would have much to say about the music of an American composer whose works had already been assayed by such stellar figures as Vladimir Horowitz, Van Cliburn, and John Browning, I agreed to listen to it, motivated largely by a sense of obligation to my Greek friend, and also by the fact that the disc included several very early pieces I had never heard or seen before. I had always felt that Barber’s highly-touted Piano Sonata was an inherently flawed work, despite its many admirers, and that even the best pianists, trying a variety of approaches, failed to produce a fully successful result. I was in for a considerable surprise, because I found Boyadjieva’s to be the most fully realized rendition of the work I had ever heard. And I felt the same about the late Ballade, which, in the hands of most pianists, sounded like mediocre ersatz Scriabin. But this pianist was really able to breathe life into it. And the rest of the CD was similarly satisfying, resulting in my rather rash statement that this was “probably the most valuable CD solely devoted to Barber’s keyboard music.”

Since then, Boyadjieva has released two CDs on the Artek label: Around the Fugue, released in 2006, which offers a fascinating program of fugue-related pieces, from Bach, through Liszt and Franck, up to Shchedrin and C. Lee Wong (b. 1982); and, most recently, a Shostakovich program, comprising the Fantastic Dances24 Preludes, Op. 34, and Piano Sonata No. 2. Like the Barber recording, both of these display a confident sense of authority, analytical acuity, and textural clarity, combined with a voluptuous sonority. Discovering Boyadjieva confirmed my long-held belief that for every globe-trotting classical music celebrity instrumentalist there are at least ten more just as good, but barely known. So it was with great pleasure that I agreed to interview Ms. Boyadjieva on the occasion of the Shostakovich release. 


WS: How did you first become drawn to classical music and playing the piano?

LB: My father was a classically trained cellist, although he spent most of his later life playing in restaurants. He also played classical guitar, double-bass, saxophone, harmonica, and was a singer as well. So there were musical instruments all over the house, including a piano or two. My parents tried to force my older brother to learn the piano but he was very resistant. I was drawn to it, however, and would explore it on my own, trying to reproduce melodies I had heard—that sort of thing.

WS: How old were you when you began to study the piano seriously?

LB: Well, when I was five my mother took me to a private teacher who then arranged for me to enter the Sofia Music School at the primary level, for children aged 6 to 13. That is where I learned to love music and the piano. The school’s serious approach instilled within me a respect for hard work and self-discipline—a definite outgrowth of the political environment. When I was 13 I entered the second level of the school, for youngsters aged 13 to 18. This was essentially a professional school totally focused on music; all other subjects remained secondary. Satisfactory completion of the secondary curriculum led directly to the Sofia Music Academy. At the Academy my main teachers were Constantine and Julia Ganev. I had an especially intense relationship with Julia, almost a “love-hate relationship.” I was headstrong, with very firmly held ideas, which she didn’t always agree with. But in retrospect I feel grateful to both of them, as they taught me how to think about music in a very profound way.

WS: What was it like, growing up in Bulgaria during the 1960s and 70s?

LB: Up to a certain age children are largely oblivious to many aspects of their environment—childhood can be so carefree. However, very, very early, I became aware of certain “taboos”—that there are things that one could not mention outside the home, at the risk of some vaguely dangerous consequences. We were often warned not to joke about certain “forbidden” subjects. My father frequently mentioned a well-known musician who suddenly disappeared after making some innocuous political joke, and eventually died in a concentration camp. It was impressed upon us that this was not simply “good manners,” but a matter of life and death.

Although I was never personally bothered or pursued by any political organization, as I grew older I realized that I could not aspire to any meaningful form of “official” career without some degree of active participation in one or another political entity. But I refused to enter into this kind of game. I guess I was naïvely trying to live up to some ideal of truth and integrity in my own eyes. (I say “naïvely” after observing the way most people respond to such pressures.) This situation led to my decision to leave the country, so that I could be free to be my true self.

WS: When and how did you leave?

LB: My teachers, the Ganevs, were in regular contact with the major conservatories in Greece. It was through their efforts that I was offered a teaching position in Athens, which I accepted immediately. I saw this as an opportunity to escape the suffocating ambiance of Bulgaria. As it happened, I wasn’t sure that I would get an exit visa until the last minute. But I did, and left for Greece in 1984. The following year I won a prize in the Maria Callas Competition, and that helped me develop a pretty active career and a good reputation. But I maintained my connection with Bulgaria during the years that followed, by paying some taxes (possibly just bribes) and keeping in touch by returning to Sofia frequently. I lived in Greece until 1990, and still return to visit and perform frequently.
 
But my real dream has always been to live in the United States. It still is, actually. I would love to find a teaching position, and give master classes in the U.S. Perhaps in a summer program—I’ve done a good deal of that in Europe.

WS: How long have you been living in France? What made you decide to live there?

LB: My husband, whom I met in Greece, is a French citizen. So I agreed to live in France, although I really knew nothing about the country, other than that I could obtain citizenship there. Despite the change of regime that had taken place in Eastern Europe, I hadn’t yet gotten past the psychological “need to flee.” Living in Paris with my husband, and raising my two daughters there, we decided to stay there.

WS: How do you select repertoire to play and record? What are the factors that draw you to certain composers?

LB: It is difficult to identify all the factors that contribute to such decisions. When I am considering repertoire for a recording, I would say that the two main criteria are the originality of the idea—I have no interest in repeating something that has already been done time and time again, so that it is difficult to develop fresh, new ideas about the work—and my personal affection and affinity for the particular music.

For the Barber CD, for instance, I had heard the piano sonata in my youth on Bulgarian radio and fell in love with it. When I decided to make the CD, I discovered that there were relatively few recordings available of several of his works. At the suggestion of [Fanfare‘s own] Martin Anderson, I went to meet Barbara Heyman, Barber’s biographer. She showed me Barber’s archives, and we found some interesting items that had never been recorded before. My decision was made!

Then, having always enjoyed playing fugues, I developed what seemed to be an original and exciting idea of combining them into a sort of historical anthology. Hence the “Around the Fugue” CD, which I recorded in Greece.

As for Shostakovich, I was drawn strongly to his music after reading Solomon Volkov’s Testimony. Comparing the commentaries written by established musicologists during Shostakovich’s own lifetime—the only source of information during my youth—with the accounts given in Testimony, I find the latter much more convincing, no matter how inaccurate some details may be (according to certain critics). As a result, both my understanding of this music and my feelings about it became much deeper. I realized that my previous grasp of the music had been limited by the official socialistic drivel of the old days. The fact that the sonata [Piano Sonata No. 2] is very rarely played made me wish to draw attention to it, by projecting the emotion hidden in its apparent dryness and simplicity, which some seem to find unattractive.

WS: How do you view your “mission” or “role” as a classical musician in today’s world?

LB: As a concert pianist, I view my mission to be the re-creation of music according to my understanding of the composer’s intentions. But I also feel that my performances must have meaning and make sense to me. I must feel some personal satisfaction from them as well.

As a teacher, I feel obligated to impart my understanding of the music to those students who are capable of grasping it. And I very much enjoy doing that. I am trying to make music truly meaningful within a milieu in which flat, sterile interpretation seems, unfortunately, to be the norm.

WS: I see the Western Classical Tradition dwindling in importance among younger people. Is this your impression too? If so, are you concerned about it? What are your thoughts about it?

LB: I am not so sure that the Western Classical Tradition is really dwindling. Not that I am convinced of the contrary, but I believe it is very difficult to assess this issue objectively. Several factors, from demographics to ease of access, vary considerably and affect any such evaluation.

Because of its greater complexity, the art music tradition requires much greater effort and deeper involvement in order for people to really appreciate and enjoy it. The music that seems to attract big crowds of young people tends to be simple, rhythmical, and usually with elemental melodic lines, making it readily accessible and enjoyable without the need of any special effort.

So I find it very difficult to compare quantitatively whether the actual number of classical music lovers is really smaller, in proportion, than it was, say, 20, 50, or 100 years ago.

WS: I initially discovered your playing through your brilliant recording devoted to the piano music of Samuel Barber. Is there an American distributor for this recording yet? I understand that you have been commemorating Barber’s centennial with recitals in Ireland, Greece, and France. How is his music viewed in Europe today—at least in the countries where you have performed it?

LB: Unfortunately there is no American distributor for the initial Barber CD, although it is available via Amazon.com. However I am looking into the possibility of providing access to this recording by direct Internet purchase and download.

As for the public’s reaction upon discovering this music, they are mostly surprised that it is so accessible—the average listener is usually afraid of 20th-century music; they tend to find it too difficult to understand and enjoy. Many have fallen in love with Barber’s melodic and emotional content, as well as its jazzy elements.

WS: Shostakovich authority Louis Blois has mentioned to me that he is stunned by the beautiful tone you achieve, which he has described as “elegant, sumptuous, and shimmering.” He notes that these are qualities that are rarely applied in playing the piano music of Shostakovich. Did you make a conscious decision to approach his music in this way, or was this a more spontaneous phenomenon?

LB: Prof. Louis Blois’s comments are especially kind and flattering to me.

The way I approached this music, as I do with all music that I become involved with, is not at all spontaneous, but the result of hard work and fully conscious soul-searching, in an effort to find and convincingly project the deep meaning of each piece. I find that so many performers of 20th century music seem content just to render what is in the score. They don’t seem to concern themselves with matters of interpretation that might help to reveal the music’s deeper meaning.

WS: I think that is because often these performers don’t have a real understanding of what they’re playing—its “deeper meaning”—beyond simply what’s indicated in the score.

Who are some of the other composers you would like the opportunity to perform and record?

LB: I feel uncomfortable even to mention it, but lately I’ve had the notion to play some of Schubert’s sonatas. I’ve always liked the sonata as a compositional form and I find his writing pure, unencumbered, and clean—few notes with lots of musical content. Although it might sound very strange, I find that it shares similar characteristics with the music of Shostakovich.

WS: Do you have a plan for a next recording?

LB: We have an agreement in principle with Artek about another CD in the near future, although the program hasn’t been decided. Maybe Schubert—maybe some contemporary Bulgarian composers.

WS: Bulgarian composers—that sounds interesting!

Do you have any plans for concert performances in the States?

LB: Well, in October of 2010 I will be giving two programs in honor of the Samuel Barber centennial: one at the Mannes School in New York, the other at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

WS: There has been very little acknowledgment of Barber’s 100th birthday—in New York, at any rate—beyond endless performances of the Adagio for Strings. Your programs should be a breath of fresh air. I look forward to them, and I hope that all our readers located near those venues will check into your performances.

It’s been a pleasure speaking with you, and I will follow further developments in your career with great interest.

LISTENING TO NEW MUSIC: Michael Torke and David Zinman Share Their Points of View

LISTENING TO NEW MUSIC: Michael Torke and David Zinman Share Their Points of View

As the final years of the 20th century approach, many serious composers are confronting and accepting the responsibility for attracting, holding, and satisfying their listening audiences. This represents something of a change from the 1950s, 60s, and most of the 70s, when many composers aimed at shocking listeners with their originality, while others sought refuge in the ivory tower of the academic world. There they produced music through abstract mathematical processes, in an attempt to identify themselves with the objectivity of the “hard” sciences, instead of with the subjectivity and intuition traditionally associated with artistic expression. Although the “trend toward accessibility has been in the air for more than a decade, my experience as a lecturer and teacher, crusading on behalf of the large body of more “user-friendly” approaches in 20th-century composition, has indicated to me that most listeners still tend to avoid new music, often asserting that they simply don’t know how to approach it. I recently had the opportunity to discuss this problem with Michael Torke, a 30-year old composer from Wisconsin whose music is being received enthusiastically by audiences around the country, and David Zinman, the personable conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who recently presented a “mini-festival” of Torke’s music.

Simmons: Michael, do you have the audience in mind when you’re writing a piece of music?

Torke: Well, one thing I keep in mind is that nobody needs to come and hear my music. And if no one comes, then what have you got? You know, I think composers’ goals are different today from what they were right after World War II. At that time there was a feeling that unless their music was connected to complicated scientific and mathematical advancements, it was worthless. But that was a misconception — music isn’t like that. I think listeners were negatively conditioned by that period. Now composers are coming off their high horses and writing music that the ear can assimilate much more easily than what they were writing 30 or 40 years ago. They’re rediscovering how music really works — writing idiomatically for players and building a relationship with the audience.

Simmons: So what about listeners who may be a little timid, a little less sophisticated, but are willing to give it a try? How do you suggest that they approach the music of today?

Torke: Well, I think they should try to be as clear as possible about what the composer’s intention is.

Zinman: Yes, I think composers usually leave signs for people to grab on to. HTorke: You know, if a friend of yours said, “I read this great new book — you should read it,” how would you react? Most likely with a positive frame of mind, because the recommendation came from a friend. The idea is, just because a piece of music is new, doesn’t mean it’s going to be frightening. It’s funny, advertising in this country is usually based on the idea that newness sells.

Simmons: Aaron Copland made the point many years ago that music is practically the only art in which the main focus is on works of the past. I mean, people like to see the latest movies, read the latest books, see the latest shows. — they want to experience what’s going on around them. Certainly that’s true for pop music. It’s usually specialists or scholars who study older literature and films. David, what do you have to say to the average concertgoer who might have a negative attitude about hearing new or unfamiliar music?

Zinman: The most important thing is to go in with an open mind, not a negative attitude.

Torke: Some preparation helps too. A good audience is an educated audience.

Simmons: How about you, David? How do you listen to a new piece of music? HZinman: Well, I try to listen without a score first, to get an overall impression of what it’s all about. I really believe that repeated listenings are the most important thing. One hearing is just not enough, unless you’re totally turned off by it. If the piece begins to grow on me, then I’ll go to the score. My experience with new music is that first you perceive a general idea, a mood, along with certain details that stick in your mind.

Simmons: So you try to give the composer the benefit of the doubt. HZlnman: Well, I think you have to assume that if a composer goes to the trouble of writing a new piece, he’s not just spraying notes on a page.

Simmons: But I think that the average music lover feels that once he buys his ticket, he — or she — doesn’t owe anybody anything and is entitled to expect a good time.

Zinman: Well, it depends what you mean by “a good time.”

Simmons: I mean an enjoyable experience.

Zinman: Look, I don’t think music has to be soothing or enjoyable. I mean, you’re dealing with art here. Some new music is enjoyable and some isn’t. Also, you have to figure, performers aren’t going to play something for no reason. You have to give the performer a little credit for taste.

Simmons: But I think that often performers and conductors play a lot of new music that they don’t like any more than the audience does. Instead of everybody just sharing this unpleasant obligation, I’d like to see soloists and conductors taking the responsibility for selecting new music that will mean something to the audience. Let the audience demand a meaningful experience and let them judge a soloist or conductor on his ability to provide that.

Torke: That sounds like a good idea. But another thing to remember is that just because you don’t like a piece of music doesn’t mean that that piece has failed. It may not be to your liking, but it may be worthy of respect.

Simmons: But how are you supposed to know?

Torke: That’s where education comes in. You have to have the flexibility and humility to realize that your reaction isn’t the final say on whether a piece works or not. You don’t have to like it. But the excitement of witnessing a world premiere can be a fun experience in its own right. I think that more people will feel this way when America starts to take more pride in its own composers.


Walter Simmons is a musicologist and critic who specializes in 20th-century music. He is a contributor to The New Grove and a recipient of the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for Music Criticism.

Interview with Arnold Rosner

During the past decade, listeners have been encountering the music of Arnold Rosner with increasing frequency. Although it is direct and accessible, Rosner’s work exhibits a strong personal profile, which may account for the favorable critical response it has engendered. Rosner was born in New York City in 1945, and received his Ph.D. in 1972 from the University of Buffalo, the first doctorate in music to be granted by the State University of New York. Passing through tile halls of musical academia during the height of serialist domination, Rosner emerged with his tonal, consonant, metrically straightforward language untouched by the coercive pressures of the prevailing establishment.

Despite his conservative idiom, Rosner’s music shows little affinity with either the neoromanticism of the Hanson/Barber school or the neoclassicism of the Copland/Piston school. Indeed, his style reveals virtually no trace of the chromaticism of Wagner and Strauss (although there is much to suggest the chromaticism of Gesualdo), the soaring lyricism of Puccini, the expanded harmony and opulent textures of Debussy, or of the irregular rhythms and spiky pandiatonicism of Stravinsky–all major influences on the American traditionalists. Instead, Rosner embraces the sounds of medieval cadences, open fifths, ecclesiastical and middle-Eastern modality, Renaissance polyphony, Elizabethan dances, vigorous neo-Baroque counterpoint, and spacious triadic harmony in the manner of Vaughan Williams.

At the age of forty-live, Rosner has ninety works to his credit, including The Chronicle of Nine, a full-length opera based on the story of Lady Jane Grey, a large requiem, six symphonies, three a cappella masses, and numerous other orchestral and chamber works. He is currently on the faculty of Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York, and, interestingly enough, teaches and directs games at a Brooklyn bridge club. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Arnold Rusher about his early development as a composer, the difficulties he has faced trying to establish himself during a period largely unsympathetic to tile kind of music he felt impelled to write, and, also, how he conceptualizes his own artistic goals and identity.

WS: Listeners who have noted the absence of either a sense of chronological identity or a sense of national identity in your music may be somewhat surprised to learn that you were born and raised in New York City.

AR: Yes, there’s certainly no sense of Americana in any music. But I had a typical New York upbringing, went to the public school, and worked in my father’s candy store-nothing particularly exotic or mysterious.

WS: Were your parents musical?

AR: No.

WS: So how did you get hooked into music?

AR: Well, the first music I heard was whatever was on the classical radio stations, with milk and cookies in the afternoon–that sort of thing. I was a snob about popular music-1 wanted no part of it, or folk music either. My father liked jazz acid show music, so of course I wouldn’t like that. (I’ve lately mellowed considerably, however.)

WS: Did you study an instrument?

AR: I took piano lessons from the age of nine. But almost immediately I tried to make up my own things, and 1 never practiced very much I had stopped lessons by the tine I was thirteen or fourteen.

WS: So you were composing pretty much from the start.

AR: It just seemed sort of natural. I remember, during the second week of piano lessons, I discovered the fantastic sound of major-minor effects (e.g., E-C-Eb-C). I showed my piano teacher and she reacted as if they were something illicit or immoral. Of course that gave me all the more reason to fool around with them, and I’m still using them in my pieces. So I used to listen to the radio a lot-mostly standard repertoire-and 1 liked what l heard. But nothing really knocked me out until–I was nine or ten–I went to the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History. I wish I had met whoever it was that picked out the music: I don’t remember the context, but they were using (I later learned) Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia, and that just knocked me right out. Then, soon after, I went to my first Carnegie Hall concert, to hear a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Eighth. Brahms’s Fourth was also on the program. The Vaughan Williams really got to me but the Brahms had me absolutely in tears.

WS: Yes, I can hear the influence of Vaughan Williams in your music–and also of Alan Hovhaness. There’s a certain sense of the ancient ecclesiastical that one hears in that music as well as in yours.

AR: Yes, 1 liked Hovhaness the first time 1 ever heard anything of his–I think it was a Stokowski television performance of Mysterious Mountain. 1 was twelve at the time, and I remember it utterly knocked me out. I never liked music that didn’t seem deep or intense, but I liked intense music, no matter what emotion it was being intense about. So it wasn’t just the religious-sounding pieces that got me rolling—a lot of standard stuff also: the Brahms symphonies, the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. By the way, it wasn’t until years later that 1 discovered actual Renaissance music.

WS: Did you study composition in any serious way when you were a kid?

AR: Somewhere along the line nay parents got me a few lessons with someone. But that was it. I didn’t take composition lessons again until graduate school. Then I had one year with Leo Smit, another year with Allan Sapp, and another with Lejaren Miller. This was at the University of Buffalo.

WS: I understand that your bachelor’s degree was in mathematics.

AR: Yes, but that was a lark right from the beginning. By the time I got to college, I had written about twenty pieces already, and I knew that’s what 1 really wanted to do. But 1 was doubtful that academic musical training was going to do anything for me. In the end, my suspicions were well founded: It did absolutely nothing for me-nothing that was pleasant, anyway.

WS: What was it like for you, forging your identity as a composer during the 1960s, when post-Webernian serialisrn was the “official” compositional style in university music departments? Did you come in contact with that?

AR: Oh yes, I came in contact with it. You see, somehow or other, I pretty much had my own language, with its own technical aspect and its own spiritual or expressive aspect, and that was the kind of music I was going to write. When I got to graduate school, I learned that I was expected to “progress” from what I was doing either to serialism or to some other type of experimental music. (In those days, simply to mention the name of Shostakovich would elicit snickers and sarcastic remarks.) Well, all I can say is, the scars are still there. The academic world is still full of those prejudices, even if serialism has played itself out in the concert and recording world. Remember, many of those same professors are now senior faculty members at colleges around the country. Some of them may have mellowed-if not in their own music, then in what they tolerate from others. Others not. I waited a long time for serialism to die out. And now the trend that replaces it–minimalism–is, in my opinion, a questionable improvement, and I sort of felt bypassed in the shift.
WS: So during the 1960s and 70s, you had quite a difficult time getting your work performed.

AR: Not difficult–impossible. It was partly a matter of the climate of the times, partly contacts and networking and stuff like that that one doesn’t want to admit to or have to think about.

WS: Do you see yourself as having an affinity with any of today’s trends in composition?

AR: Well, 1 try not to pay too much attention, although my friends make sure l keep well aware of today’s trends. There seems to be something of a new tolerance for music that has actual melody and harmonic progression. Composers who write pieces like that are getting more play than I was getting in the 60s and 70s. But most of their music strikes me as simplistic. I think there are some composers in Europe–Holmboe, Kokkonen, people like that–who managed to develop what I would call an artistically sound attitude. There are always some composers out there writing the good stuff, but I don’t know if this constitutes a trend. One of the problems today is that people want fast thrills: They want things–not just music–that are overtly shocking, or that digest easily. The best music doesn’t do this. You know, solid, conservative music isn’t as easy to understand as many people think. For instance, I don’t know how many listeners–or critics–can really distinguish middle-period Tippett from middle-period Britten, or can tell the difference, say, between Harris, Barber, and early Sessions. Unless you can really differentiate their styles, you don’t truly understand the music. It’s a lot more than just hearing the fact that they all use standard orchestration, that sort of thing.

WS: That’s certainly a point I’ve often made. But I think we may be getting closer to that music now, with efforts like Gerard Schwarz’s project to record all the symphonies of Hanson, Diamond, and Piston.

AR: There’s another three–how many listeners can tell them apart?

WS: That’s what Schwartz is trying to do. I think his point is: Here are three fine, distinctive composers. Let’s start learning their music.

AR: Yes, there are a few champions out there like that–Leonard Slatkin’s another–but we still have a long way to go. Of course, there’s David Amos, who is based in San Diego, but has conducted orchestras in Europe and in Israel. He’s recorded several of my works, including one with the Philharmonia Orchestra that should be out pretty soon: Responses. Hosanna, and Fugue, for string orchestra and harp, along with pieces by Hovhaness and Dello Joio. He’s also been conducting Creston, Morton Gould, and others. Then there’s the harpsichordist and organist Barbara Harbach, working out of Buffalo, New York, who’s recorded two of my pieces for Gasparo. I think she’s as great a performer as there is in this world, and certainly as great when it comes to really understanding each composer as an individual, and bringing nuances out of the harpsichord that I didn’t even know were possible.

WS: Yes, I’ve heard some impressive performances from her.

AR: I should also mention Max Schubel of Opus One Records, who has probably helped to put more American composers on the map than Grove’s Dictionary.

WS: I guess those pieces that Schubel released–the horn sonata and the cello sonata–are what started to draw attention to your work.

AR: The horn sonata actually led to the contact with Barbara Harbach and the harpsichord pieces, and so forth. 1 always say, you know you’ve arrived when they’re reviewing competitive versions of your piece. That hasn’t happened for me yet. But you know you’re starting to arrive when one of your pieces is recorded and someone totally and utterly unknown to you reads a review or hears it on the radio and flips over it and then writes to you and asks what else you have.

WS: At this point, it appears that most of the activity surrounding your music involves recordings.

AR: Well, I haven’t had that many top-of-the-line professional performances, although I’ve had any number of performances a notch lower with regard to audience size, reputation of the players, or critical exposure. Actually, of the ninety works I’ve written, I’ve now heard sixty or so played.

WS: I wrote in a recent review that what distinguishes your music from a great deal of other music that involves latter-day reworkings of ancient styles is that while for most of those pieces–like the Respighi Ancient Dances and Airs–the stylistic juxtaposition is the whole point of the music, for you, this hybrid language is a given, a point of departure, from which you build a rich and varied expressive range.

AR: I read your reviews and I much appreciated your point of view. However, my slant on it is a little different: In the first place, the ancient music character can be a little bit overemphasized; some pieces have a lot of it, others have only a little, and some have none at all. Furthermore, what I’m really using from early music is an attitude of seriousness and perhaps spirituality, a reliance on consonant rather than dissonant harmony most of the time, and an avoidance of the conventions of tonality, in the eighteenth-century sense. These features exist apart from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century practice; in my opinion; they’re simply one way to write good music. Hardly ever am I trying to write antique pictures even though some of the pieces may come close.  Some critics have described me as an anachronism, or my music as anachronistic, and I take some umbrage at that.  Is there something anachronistic about using ternary form, which goes back thousands of years? Is there something anachronistic about using a notational system that goes back a thousand years? Or in using variation forms? The difference is that Renaissance-style modal harmony–consonant harmony without tonal connections–went into eclipse for a while. Standard notation, ternary form, standard orchestration, and so forth never went into eclipse. It’s been in continuous use, so it’s never been considered obsolete. But some of the model style got to be considered obsolete; therefore somebody who tries to use it again is considered an antiquarian. If you want the Rosner version of music history, eighteenth-century tonality would have been O.K.as an alternativeway to write music, as it was for, say, Schuetz and Purcell or Frescobaldi. But once it became the way to write music, we took a step backward, with regard to elegance of harmony and counterpoint and expressive range. All I’m using is a vocabulary that was eclipsed when the exaggerated and somewhat misguided tonal system took over.

WS: You have written a number of works based in the Christian religious tradition–masses, a Magnificat, and so forth. But you are Jewish, are you not?

AR: That’s true. But I think there’s no denying that the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions contributed richly to the secular classical music mainstream in a way that, for various reasons, the Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic traditions did not, though they did create fascinating ethnic traditions. I am by birth Jewish and by identity a believer and I have written Jewish liturgical pieces–the “Kaddish” from my Requiem, a Sacred Service, not to mention non-liturgical Jewish pieces like the short piano piece, And He Sent Forth a Dove, and From the Diaries of Adam Czerniakow, a piece for narrator and orchestra about the Warsaw ghetto. But there just hasn’t been a secular Jewish tradition in classical music upon which to build. And from a personal standpoint, for whatever reason, I have gotten much more resistance to my Jewish pieces from Jews than I have from Christians regarding my Christian pieces. Anyway, what I am really interested in is a spiritual attitude, and I have turned to several religious traditions in order to evoke a sense of spirituality. I guess what I am trying to do is to reach out from one human being to another and express as many emotions as I can as intensely as I can, in a vocabulary that I think works and is listenable.