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Composer Portraits Series: Frederic Rzewski

A fabulous string quartet plays works from a distinguished composer’s adolescence and from his eightieth birthday year.  

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Composer Frederic Rzewski


Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic

Certain regularly recurring events tend to have predictable elements. Miller Theatre Composer Portrait concerts generally consist of a single composer’s most representative or most recent works, played by accomplished contemporary à la page musicians and featuring a more-or-less informative on-stage interview with the composer. Extremely accomplished people’s big decade birthday celebrations, especially those marked by post-half century marks, tend to include admirers’ successful requests to hear some inspirational words from the birthday-person’s trove of wit and wisdom.

The last Composer Portrait concert of the 2107-2018 season focused on the music of Frederic Rzewski on the occasion of his eightieth birthday year and lived up to the best of Composer Portrait and birthday celebration traditions. In this concert, the first half consisted of Rzewski’s first quartet; the second half consisted of the on-stage discussion – an especially vivacious and free-wheeling conversation – and then Rzewski’s most recent string quartet.

The Del Sol String Quartet – Rick Shinozaki/violin, Benjamin Kreith/violin, Charlton Lee/viola (and interviewer), and Kathyrn Bates/cella – played the quartets with elegant and insightful discipline and infinitely subtle alertness to both the written score and the organic spontaneity of the moment. All four musicians, in addition, were keenly and sensitively attuned to the constant swings between seriousness and play, formality and surprise in Rzewski’s writing.

As a composer, Rzewski is no doubt best known for his astonishing 1975 piano work, The People United Will Never Be Defeated. It will take another century of listening and assessment to know for sure whether comparisons made between The People United on the one hand and Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations on the other will maintain their legitimacy. This Composer Portrait concert won’t solve the historical piano quandary: this evening excluded piano music, focusing instead on two string quartets, the first dating from the composer’s adolescence and the second from just this year. But this concert did provide an opportunity to consider important themes in Rzewski’s more than sixty years of music making.

The six-movement String Quartet – the only work in the first half of the concert – was written in 1955; Rzewski was seventeen. But the piece was not premiered until 2016. Composer, pianist and music educator David Plylar, in his capacity as concert producer and music specialist at the Library of Congress, became interested in this unperformed near-childhood work of the distinguished almost elderly contemporary composer and asked the Del Sol Quartet – champions of modern music – to perform it. Plylar produced the transcription.

The 2016 performance of the 1955 piece functioned as a premiere of the past, the unveiling of what Rzewski himself called “the fossil of (his) youth.” This 2018 performance at Miller Theatre offered both a good way to think about Rzewski’s non-piano writing and a perspective on Del Sol’s commitment to contemporary composers.

The 1955 quartet is on the long side; it would have benefitted from editing. In his program notes, Rzewski comments wryly on his own immaturities: he points out the technical errors born of lack of composing experience and expresses something like embarrassment about “all these ridiculous glissandi” (and he’s right). Rzewski reports that he remembers being immersed in the intense emotions of desperate love; he briefly discusses feeling influenced by Beethoven, Ravel, Bartok and Schoenberg, even when he can’t find particular identifiable traces later on.

But it’s a wonderful piece. Sequences of experiment are imbued with improbably mature confidence. It feels like a bildungsroman whose plot hasn’t yet been fully fleshed out or even imagined; it conveys an adult command of adolescent angst. Lyricism and urgency alternate and interconnect; emotional storminess resolves itself not in destructive combustion but in sunshine. Particular passages were particularly wonderful: Mazurka, the fourth movement, was graceful and flirtatious, opening  in easiness, then moving to tight, dense fierceness, culminating in a taut explosion and then concluding in impish syncopated sass.

The last two movements took the writing from examinations and interactions of individual instrumental voices to the development of lush, Romantic orchestral unities. This young man’s quartet – a declaration of artistic identity – was at once sweet and victorious, a sign of both things-to-come and achievement already accomplished.

Del Sol String Quartet (Photo credit: Matthew Washburn)

The programming of a 2018 Rzewski string quartet world premiere as the second piece of music in the concert continued the concert’s Rzewski-biography-study-theme. In the mid-concert conversation between Rzewski and Charlton Lee, Lee asked if Rzewski if, on hearing the 1955 string quartet, he could recognize some of the compositional DNA of his later writing. Rzewski’s answer, “I don’t know. I don’t even understand what I’m doing now,” though extremely charming, seemed evasive and disingenuous.

In fact, there were several direct connecting links between the 1955 work and the 2018 work. Rzewski presents in both a sense of reverence for the genre he has chosen: he simultaneously presupposes and explores what he considers the inherent nobility of the string quartet, building on its historicity and on its ability to sound alternately intimate and symphonic. In both works, although all four instruments are “equal,” Rzewski’s writing for the cello seems most densely subtle and expressive.

But Rzewski added major elements of aspects of his compositional commitments in other genres to his 2018 string quartet: most notably, Rzewski added the spoken word. The composer even highlights this element in the quartet’s title, Words.

Here – in his discussion of the addition of language in the program notes – Rzewski is maddening, even irritating. He claims that “The words … don’t mean anything. They are just words. They simply happened to be going through my head while I was writing the music. The Russian word okazalsya says it: it just turned out that way. They could also not be there. It doesn’t matter.”

Nonsense. Words always mean. They tell stories. They explain. They question. They propose and proposition. Words aren’t mere sound. Furthermore, when the composer tells musicians to speak, he’s requiring them to engage in an expanded series of creative acts. Playing-the-viola and playing-the-viola-while-speaking-a-text are fundamentally different projects.

When Rzewski asked Lee how the Del Sol musicians felt about speaking words while playing, Lee replied that it was “fun and challenging.” Rzewski observed, without irony or the dodginess of the program notes, “It’s human.”

Words, consisting of four-movements over the course of 40 minutes, is a tightly conceived piece; it is a formal string quartet, to which words bring elements of story-telling and reflection. It is not musical theater, but music with theatrical elements. The numbers of relationships giving the performance its shape increase: the population expands from the original three – composer, instrumentalist and listeners – to three plus writers and speakers. Musicians become actors, messengers and reporters. In addition, intellectual contexts are multiplied as words’ historical eras are explicitly imported to the present moment. Rzewski doesn’t create a new artistic genre, but he demands that musicians and audience alike engage in serious thinking about the contours and extensions of the classical music concert genre they find themselves currently inhabiting.

The music of Words is, in fact, lovely: it is lush and generous, harmonically and rhythmically experimental within fairly conservative boundaries of traditional playing techniques. Aside from words – taken from the Old Testament, Julian Beck, and Anton Chekhov – there are some props: Rewski’s duck-bill beret and a child’s moo-cow sound box add endearing moments of play and frivolity.  The third movement, Sorrow (omaggio a Giuseppe Chiari) is the most formal: it is an expansive, eloquent dirge, a mourning piece for Italian composer and artist Chiari (1926-2007).

Words is vigorous and elegant; wisdom and impertinence alternately spar and dance; structure and discursiveness coexist.

In the fourth movement, the violist asks, “Why does music make you feel good?”

Rzewski’s music makes us feel good because it both expands and embodies the project of being human: it turns engagement with the project of describing ourselves into acts of creation and celebration, experiences of affirmation. No wonder Rzewski concluded his program notes with a personal statement about his recent music-making. “It makes one want to live longer …”

Composer Portraits Series: Frederick Rzewski (April 19, 2018)

Miller Theatre at Columbia University School of the Arts

2960 Broadway at 116th Street, in Manhattan

For more information, visit

Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission

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