CULTURE & ARTS
AUFBAU 64:9 April 24, 1998 p. 13
Peter Serkin and Toru Takemitsu
[with Seiji Ozawa]
Two gifted musicians at the Boston Symphony
by Leonard Lehrman 601 words
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
A generation apart, they would seem nonetheless to be the perfect match: two fabulously gifted musicians, the composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-1966) and pianist Peter Serkin (b. 1947), both self-taught in their youth, who earned the approbation of the masters in their adolescence, and went on to glittering international careers.
Takemitsu took to music at age 16, when pneumonia forced him into a convalescence soothed by long hours' listening to the radio, and he decided to become a composer. Two years later he began formal studies. In 1959, Igor Stravinsky called the Tokyo-born composer's 1957 Requiem a masterpiece. Seven years later, Takemitsu created a group called Orchestral Space, in collaboration with Seiji Ozawa, currently (and for the past 24 years) music director of the Boston Symphony. By the end of his life, Takemitsu had created over 90 film scores and dozens of concert works, including no fewer than 7 for Peter Serkin.
The great classical pianist Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991), founder of the Marlboro Music Festival and unexcelled in Beethoven and Brahms, refused at first to teach his son Peter the piano. Then in 1959, the twelve-year-old surprised him by learning and performing the Haydn Concerto in D at Marlboro, and the father relented. The son's career would, however, take a very different tack: Though he too would savor the repertoire of Bach (especially the Goldberg Variations), Beethoven, and Brahms (as in the wonderful joint violin-piano recital with Pamela Frank at Tilles last December, featuring Brahms's complete works for that combination of instruments), he would specialize in the works of Webern, Wolpe, Wuorinen, and pieces written for him--by Berio, Goehr, Henze, Kirchner, Knussen, Lieberson and Takemitsu.
With Ozawa on the podium at Carnegie and Tilles last week, Serkin essayed the first piece of Takemitsu's he had heard, the 1967 "Asterism," which had been publicly premiered under Ozawa in 1969. Serkin remembers hearing it and meeting the composer in 1968, after what must have been a private performance(?). It is an impressive circa 20-minute timbral study, leading to a huge crescendo and a quiet after-thought. Coughs in the Tilles audience indicated less than full appreciation of the work, which seems to have been inserted in the program due to composer Peter Lieberson's not having completed his new Piano Concerto #2 on time for its "originally scheduled" performance at these concerts.
The second Takemitsu work on the program, which did not benefit by being placed directly after the first, had been commissioned for Peter Serkin. Of similar length and form, only more concerned with the quasi-thematic use of intervals (especially the major third and major seventh), and less with individual tone colors such as those of the two harps, celesta and percussion prominent in "Asterism," it is called "riverrun," inspired by James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Completed in 1984, it was premiered by Peter Serkin on January 10, 1985, five days before the Washington D.C. premiere of the similarly-inspired orchestral work with nearly the same title (RiverRun) by Stephen Albert (1941-1992), which won that composer the 1985 Pulitzer Prize. Odd how inspiration does sometimes seem to strike nearly simultaneously in different places.
Ozawa concluded the BSO program with the much more audience- pleasing Dvorak Seventh Symphony. Applause after the first movement not being appreciated, the conductor barely breathed between movements 2 & 3 and 3 & 4, invoking an astonishing dynamic range with the smallest of gestures in the lilting Laendler-like Scherzo, and hesitating with just the right Eastern European delicacy of nuance in the lyrical sections of the robust Allegro finale.
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