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Composer Rzewski Performs Three Personal, Searching Pieces

Frederic Rzewaki at Paine Hall

By Carl J. Voss

The composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski '58 returned to his alma mater Sunday evening for a solo recital in Paine Hall. Rzewski performed three piano pieces he has written in the last two years, demonstrating both a rich creative arsenal and uncompromising keyboard virtuosity.

A native of Westfield, Massachusetts, Rzewski graduated from Phillips Academy Andover in 1954 and came to Harvard. He studied here under Walter Piston but was also greatly influenced by Christian Wolff, at that time a graduate student in the classics department. Wolff introduced Rzewski to the avant-garde chance techniques of John Cage and Morton Feldman as well as those of Wolff himself, and Rzewski eventually became as famous for performing the works of these composers as for his own music. Upon graduating from Harvard, Rzewski spent two years at Princeton before going to Europe on Fulbright and Ford Foundation grants to study with Luigi Dallapiccola and Elliott Carter. In Rome, he helped to found Musica Elettronica Viva, a group dedicated to live and improvised electronic music.

Growing up during the McCarthyist years, Rzewski developed an early loathing for capitalist society that continued to define his political views for years to come. In the '60s and '70s Rzewski's Marxism was so fundamental to him that he hardly wrote a piece without a populist affirmation of some kind. And having early in his career sensed an incompatibility between his political views and any austerity of style, Rzewski gradually adopted a quasi-19th-century romantic idiom with the intention "to establish communication [with], rather than to alienate an audience." His most famous work is a brilliant hour-long set of diverse variations for piano on a Chilean leftist anthem, "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" (1975). In the late '70s and early '80s Rzewski turned to American folk song and jazz for musical material and to environmentalism for political motivation. In 1987-88 he composed the oratorio "The Triumph of Death," based on a play by Peter Weiss depicting the trial of Nazi war criminals.

The works heard Sunday, however, would seem to represent a retreat for Rzewski into purely personal and aesthetic realms, though not a mellowing of his characteristically passionate musical language. None of the three pieces on the program had a discernable social purpose in tow, but Rzewski did make a point of eschewing the traditional tuxedo in favor of a casual shirt and pants.

"Andante Con Moto" (1992) began the evening. It is a series of 14 variations on the slow movement of Beethoven's "Appassionata" sonata, with an optional opportunity for an improvised cadenza before the final variation. The theme itself is not stated anywhere in the piece, and one catches only a few glimpses of it throughout--an occasional dominant seventh chord, or the five-note descending scale that concludes each half of the Beethoven movement. Rather than indulging in much direct quotation, Rzewski's variations preserve certain abstract qualities of the original. Beethoven's registral disjuncture, for example, is taken to extremes, and the thick, closed chords of the theme, which derive much tension from the interval of the second, are the source for the predominance of that interval in Rzewski's cluster accompaniments.

After 13 variations evoking in turn Bach, George Winston and Liszt, Rzewski plunged from a protracted Beethovenian trill into a truly staggering display of improvised fire-works for his cadenza. In a few minutes Rzewski demonstrated his command of Harlem stride bass, cartoonish sound effects, and Chopinesque fabric melody, while referring back to Beethoven just often enough to excuse his departures. The conclusion was a gradual rise from the lowest D-flat (tonic for the Beethoven) to the highest note on the keyboard, which was repeated more and more softly and less and less frequently until after a long rest it was slammed once more, fortissimo, and the piece was over.

"De Profundis" (1991), which Rzewski performed next, is a setting of eight paragraphs from a letter written in prison by Oscar Wilde; the pianist reads aloud and plays simultaneously. The text is an earnest and profound metaphysical meditation which Rzewski subjected to an affected, overinflected reading and interspersed with voiced breathing and noises of laughter and singing that bordered on the maniacal. Rzewski accompanied one passage by slapping himself and drumming his fingers on the closed piano lid, another (about the imperfections of governments) with the squeaking of a toy horn. In these instances the effect was derisive, whatever the intention, but much of the work was compelling, and all of it provocative.

After intermission came the "Sonata" (1991). The first movement of this work incorporates six popular songs from various eras: "Ring Around the Rosy," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "L Homme Arme," "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye," "Give Peace A Chance" and "Three Blind Mice." This pluralism offered much potential for humor and for keeping listeners in constant anticipation, but it finally resulted in a disturbing lack of coherence. Rzewski has a tendency to encapsulate when he composes, not maintaining any particular texture, motive, or even mood long enough to establish it firmly. When he is not working within a structure that inherently supplies unity--such as his favored variation form--the thread of his musical argument can become obscured or lost. The second and third movements were variations on "laps" and "L'Homme Arme," respectively, and the latter was particularly bewildering in its surface complexity and wildness.

Frederic Rzewski has one of the most uninhibitedly creative musical minds around, and he is a spectacular pianist. The three pieces heard Sunday were more than sufficient indication of this, providing their audience with an experience not likely to be soon forgotten.

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