There being little of musical consequence hereabouts for most of the past week,
it seemed like a good time to seek refreshment at the source. Word was out
that the Eastman School of Music, that singular adornment of Rochester, NY,
was holding a weekend-long American music festival, and that the program even
included music by California composers. That, plus the prospect of Upstate New
York apples, cider and foliage at this time of the year, became a siren call
too potent to ignore. Eastman, founded with the money and the blessing of the same George Eastman who
gave the world the Kodak camera and its film, is now 70 years old. It isn’t
the only school that could be described as a source, but it is one of the best
in the land, rivalled only by a couple of other East Coast schools and perhaps
— but at some distance — the music department at U.S.C. It operates under
the umbrella of the University of Rochester, but it is a separate institution
in most ways. Current enrollment is 700, of which about two-thirds are are
subsidized by scholarship funds. Even so, Eastman was, until recently, something of a joke among music schools.
You went there to study trombone, or bandmastership, or public-school music
education. The school had a bad reputation for its tendency to tell all
graduates that an Eastman diploma, waved in the air, would immediately open
all doors to hopeful performers. Thus, it became a school known for its
ability to sow seeds of disillusionment and heartbreak. Its present director,
a dynamic, fast-talking, supersalesman named Robert Freeman, has seen to it
that Eastman graduates now go out into the world with a firmer grip on
reality. He has also seen that they go out with a broader view of the musical panorama.
Eastman’s guiding spirit from its founding until about 20 years ago was the
composer Howard Hanson, in whom the spirit of arch conservatism resided full
time. (The story is that George Eastman had originally offered the job to Jan
Sibelius, who turned it down because the United States was in the throes of
Prohibition. Hanson was only the second choice, but he repaid Eastman’s
confidence by going on to compose music right out of the Sibelius
stylebook.) Anyhow, the Hanson ghost has now been thoroughly exorcised, and Eastman now
fields an impressive roster of composers who work in a wide variety of styles.
Joseph Schwantner and Christopher Rouse, two of this country’s leading
progressive spirits, are among the faculty luminaries; Samuel Adler, from a
somewhat older generation, heads the composition department. Rouse, by the way, has a symphony scheduled for the upcoming Los Angeles
Philharmonic season (January 30, 1992). During my weekend in Rochester I heard
one of his string quartets, strong and abrasive music nicely put together. The
performance, by the way, was by an amazingly talented young ensemble, the Ying
Quartet: four siblings named Ying, aged 21 to 27, born in Chicago and clearly
headed for a major career. The weekend’s music was programmed to honor Betty Freeman, the well-known
Beverly Hills music patron, who was on hand to exhibit her marvelous set of
photographs of major composers and to smile benevolently at being serenaded by
music she had commissioned. Most of the names,the composers Rand Steiger,
Ingram Marshall and Stephen Hartke, were unfamiliar to the Eastman audience.
California’s music, several people told me, still hasn’t made the trip
eastward in sufficient quantity. Only Berkeley’s John Adams flies high.
Eastman’s weekend of music, which also included some of the “Freeman Etudes”
composed for her by the ex-Californian John Cage, was of considerable help in
filling in the informational gap. I sat in on a class in which a group of
students jawboned some of the music they’d heard over the weekend, and the
comments were lively and informed; Eastman’s intellectual level struck me all
weekend as remarkably high. So was the performance level. The student new-music ensemble, Eastman Musica
Nova, works up tough, challenging programs like this once every three weeks.
Its conductor, Sydney Hodkinson, seems to have that rare gift for making
young, raw players want to perform on a level over their own heads. The
concerts were full of crackle, and they were also well attended. There is much
to envy on the Rochester musical scene. l-line
Local musical life starts in earnest this week: “Don Giovanni” opening
tomorrow night at the Music Center, the Philharmonic season starting on
Thursday, the marvelous Lucia Popp in a song recital at Ambassador this very
afternoon. By far the major event is the first local appearance of Evgeny
Kissin at the Music Center on Saturday night.
Kissin turns 20 this week. His many recordings, including a number taken from
live performances, herald him as a pianist of exceptional ability, and also
something of a throwback to a bygone manner of playing that most of us had
thought (with considerable regret) to have passed from the scene. It is
significant that Kissin has made his way totally without the usual crutch of a
competition win. That, in fact, may account for the remarkable amount of
freedom and individuality in his playing. One of the major blights on the competition circuit is the way performers take
on a deadly uniformity of interpretation, a style imagined as pleasing to the
typical competition judge. Kissin is the first pianist in a long time to which
the epithet “interesting” may be justly applied. Now he is launched on his
first American tour, after his spectacular one-shot New York appearance a year
ago. Pray that he can hold onto the extraordinary mix of freshness and
eloquence that ennobled that Carnegie Hall recital last year. line
The Mozart anniversary year has produced plenty of fine recordings but only a
handful of important books; that counts more as a blessing than a curse. One
extremely valuable book is “The Compleat Mozart,” (Norton, $29.95), compiled
by Neal Zaslaw with William Cowdery. The book is what its title suggests: a
gathering of analytical essays on every work from Mozart’s pen, written by a
number of major scholars who — unlike a few scholars one could name — are as
much captivated by the sound of the music they describe as by the surrounding
facts. The value of the book lies, above all, in its writers’ ability to define what
is unique (or, for that matter, what isn’t) in each work. Next to the complete
recording of the Mozart heritage, therefore, the book is the second-best way
to get close to the sublime genius whose catalog of miracles we currently

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