Andrew Rudin's 40-year retrospective

Grand old man of new music

Rudin: Jam session with Crumb and Tchaikovsky.
Rudin: Jam session with Crumb and Tchaikovsky.

Orchestra 2001 gave me one of my best musical memories in the spring of 1993 when it presented excerpts from an unproduced opera based on Chekhov's Three Sisters. Its composer, Andrew Rudin, tapped into what struck me as a very modern sensibility when he turned to Chekhov's gentle melancholy. The melodrama and outsize passions that characterize most grand opera may have suited 19th-century tastes, but Chekhov's characters inhabit a world that looks more familiar to most moderns.

Rudin's musical embellishments stayed inside Chekhov's emotional range, but they were just as moving as the outpourings of operas based on more florid material. The high point of that Orchestra 2001 concert was a moving, beautifully restrained mezzo-soprano aria with a very Russian text:

Can it mean nothing that the cranes fly south?
That children are born?
That the stars shine and the sun warms us?

Rudin's music for that aria accomplished everything that vocal music should do: It was beautiful in itself, and it added colors and nuances that enhanced the eloquence of the words.

Since then I've encountered several other works by Rudin, including pieces premiered by Orchestra 2001 and Dolce Suono, and they've all displayed the qualities that I first heard in that Three Sisters excerpt. The chamber works presented at the June 16 retrospective hosted by the University of the Arts added six more titles to that list. Rudin began composing professionally in the '60s and he has steadily accumulated an impressive body of work, in a world in which composers toil mostly out of public view.

Like Schumann and Ravel

Rudin began his career with electronic music, but his works on the University of the Arts program were all rooted in the standard chamber tradition. His sonata for violin and piano that ended the evening included moments that reminded me of Ravel. Rudin's 1975 Museum Pieces for piano deliberately looked backward and contained sections modeled after Schumann and Schubert.

Such a comparison may make it sound as if the composer is merely imitating older masters. But in Rudin's case, the comparison is purely descriptive— a shorthand way of communicating his music's overall effect. Rudin achieves the kind of impact Ravel and Schumann achieved, but he does it in his own way.

Crumb's technique, different imagination

The program's first piece was Celebrations, dedicated to two of Rudin's colleagues, composer George Crumb and Orchestra 2001 music director James Freeman. The score included Crumb's kind of impressionistic sound effects, but Rudin's sound effects didn't sound anything like Crumb's effects. He adapted Crumb's technique but ran it through a mind with a different kind of musical imagination.

Celebrations employed a trio that presents a composer with a playground crowded with creative opportunities. Two pianos, played by a New York piano duo called the Duo Stephanie and Saar, took on an arsenal of percussion instruments played by the Philadelphia Orchestra's Anthony Orlando.

You don't hear duets for two pianos very often, for the very practical reason that the presenters must supply two expensive grand pianos. But it's one of the liveliest forms in the repertoire. Piano duets offer composers all the possibilities created by two instruments with 88 keys, played by performers who can strike ten different notes simultaneously.

Throw in a percussion part, with all the instruments that a modern percussionist commands, and the possibilities approach infinity. With the two pianos interacting in the grand manner and the percussionist responding with snare drum solos and virtuoso displays on the marimba, Celebrations sometimes sounded like a jam session that teamed George Crumb with Tchaikovsky.

Marathon workout

Rudin sounded just as creative working with ultra-traditional combinations, like cello and piano, which were deployed in most of the works on the program. His long sonata for violin and piano put a fiery young violinist, Miranda Cuckson, through a marathon workout and closed the concert with a glowing finale.

Rudin reminds me of the Temple University composer Maurice Wright, who created a huge blip on my personal radar last season when Network for New Music premiered his multimedia Darwiniana. Both Wright and Rudin have been composing for decades; they're both noted for their work with electronic music; and both have proved that they can create winning works for standard instruments and conventional forms— as Wright demonstrated, for example, when Karl Middleton's Classical Symphony premiered his new violin concerto last season.

The new music world naturally tends to concentrate on newer composers. The last few years have seen a big upsurge in the number of new composers worth hearing— to the point that some performance organizations feel overwhelmed by the flood of scores they receive from composers hoping for a premiere. But the persistence of a pair of mature oaks is just as newsworthy as an explosion of saplings.♦

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