Friday, April 9, 2010

Music feature: FAU concert to feature works by 'Piano Puzzler' maestro Adolphe

Bruce Adolphe.

By Greg Stepanich

When Bruce Adolphe is in the middle of writing a batch of Piano Puzzlers for American Public Media’s Performance Today, he’s always listening for ideas.

One came along while the composer and his daughter Katja were watching a Fred Astaire film in which the song-and-dance legend was performing Irving Berlin’s Cheek to Cheek. Suddenly, Adolphe realized that part of the Berlin song had the same chord progression as a passage from the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata.

“I ran out of the room and wrote down a few things so I would remember that I wanted to do that,” he said. “That one came easily.”

But aside from the Puzzlers, the clever meldings of popular tune and classical music (On Top of Old Smokey in the style of Igor Stravinsky, for instance) that have intrigued radio listeners and contestants for five years, Adolphe is a well-established composer of his own music. He also is an educator and concert organizer, and this week he’s in residence as the current Dorothy F. Schmidt scholar at Florida Atlantic University.

This Saturday night, he’ll be present for an entire concert of his works at FAU’s University Theatre in Boca Raton that will include the world premiere of Wakeup Call, a piece for one piano, four hands, that was commissioned by the school.

Adolphe, 54, said the inspiration for Wakeup Call came from previous week of work at FAU last September, when it took him a while to get adjusted to his surroundings and he kept waking up in his Boca Raton hotel room not quite knowing where he was.

“It’s not a narrative about being asleep and waking up. It’s all the different kinds of rhythms and sounds that were suggested to me by being sleepy, by being suddenly awake, having alarms go off,” he said. “And then I just structured a piece using all those things.”

That includes soft music suddenly interrupted by other sounds and fragments of tunes that might be heard on a cellphone going off while you’re waking up.

“It’s a really fun piece. It’s not a typical four-hand piece in that it’s not about the keyboard,” Adolphe said. “It’s really about this.”

Also on the program Saturday night are Thought Song, an early work for clarinet and piano (featuring clarinetist Paul Green and pianist Edward Turgeon); the song cycle A Thousand Years of Love, based on verse by poets such as Rumi (sung by Sandra McClain, soprano, with pianist Tim Peterson); parts of the orchestral piece Tyrannosaurus Sue (played by the FAU Symphony under Laura Joella); and Tough Turkey in the Big City, a Thanksgiving-themed sextet for chamber players.

A native of West Hempstead, Long Island, Adolphe studied at the Juilliard School, where he worked with composer Milton Babbitt, one of the deans of avant-garde music of an earlier generation. He has served for years as the resident lecturer and director of family programs at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and operates The Learning Maestros, a company that offers family-related music and scripts to help build educational concerts.

His long, extensive worklist includes many pieces for children, as well as operas on Jewish themes (Mikhoels the Wise, The False Messiah: The Story of Shabtai Zvi), four string quartets and other chamber works, vocal music and concerti, including one for violin.

Two years ago, he joined the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California as its composer-in-residence, a move that stems from his friendship of more than 15 years with the Portuguese neuroscientist and writer António Damásio (Descartes’ Error, Looking for Spinoza), who founded the institute along with his wife, Hanna.

Adolphe found himself inspired by Damásio’s work when he heard the scientist speak at an Aspen Institute conference on creativity at which Adolphe was also scheduled to speak, and for which he had prepared “an elaborate talk, just on composing.”

But before that, Damásio gave a talk about the material in Descartes’ Error, which had not yet been published, and Adolphe was in the audience.

“I was absolutely blown away by his discussion of memory, and how memory affects emotion and reason. And he talked about creativity a lot, which was the topic of the conference, but a lot of people didn’t. They talked about their work, but they didn’t necessarily talk about creativity with a capital C,” Adolphe said.

“And he really did. Everything he said rang true, and really got me thinking. So I went back to my hotel room and I rewrote my talk entirely,” he said.

Perhaps inevitably, the resulting friendship with Damásio resulted in music based on the neuroscientist’s concepts and named after them: Body Loops, a piano concerto, and Memories of a Possible Future, a piano quintet. That led to a collaboration with Damásio called Self Comes to Mind, a chamber work for solo cello and two percussionists based on a text Damásio wrote specifically for the piece.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a longtime friend of Adolphe, gave the premiere last May at Lincoln Center.

It’s the Puzzlers by which he is probably best known to audiences, and those were suggested to him by Anya Grundmann, executive producer for music at National Public Radio, he said. She heard a lecture Adolphe gave in which he combined the work of two classical composers as part of a demonstration, and called the composer asking if he could do the same thing with a pop tune for a radio feature.

Thus were born the Puzzlers, and Adolphe said he writes them during intense two-week periods in which he composes about 20 of them, a practice he finds more congenial than writing one a week. He said the practice has taught him a lot about the art of the composers, both classical and pop, that he imitates.

“One thing I noticed with every composer is that every aspect of what they do has its own set of details that you can’t ignore or you break the thread. Yes, you can do Beethoven by referring to a piece of his or doing some dramatic chords, but it’s never just that,” he said. “The details of the voice leading, the length of a phrase, how long something goes on before it modulates: All of these things, if you don’t pay attention to one of them, it doesn’t sound right.”

“The power of the personalities of the really great composers is extraordinary. In just a few phrases, you can tell whether it’s the real thing or not,” he said.

Last month, Adolphe’s newest work, Dell’Arte e Delle Cipolle: Omaggio a Bronzino (Of Art and Onions: Homage to Bronzino), a piece for choir and small ensemble inspired by the works of the 16th-century Italian painter Bronzino, was premiered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has a European premiere scheduled for October.

He’s also working on a commission from the Brentano String Quartet, which has asked him and six other composers including Charles Wuorinen and Sofia Gubaidulina to write a piece based on an unfinished fragment by a great composer of the past. Adolphe’s assignment is a fragment for string quartet by Schubert.

Adolphe lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his wife, pianist Marija Stroke, and their daughter Katja, as well as their singing parrot, PollyRhythm. It’s a busy , productive life, one built by his facility and work ethic, both of which have helped him understand how to be a composer.

"I think it’s mostly by continuing to write, and hearing performances, and being excited by something or being embarrassed by something that sounds too much like somebody else, and just keeping going and not being discouraged by any of that,” Adolphe said. “It’s a slow process, but I think the important thing is not to be obsessed with that problem, because it stops you from working.”

A concert of music by Bruce Adolphe is set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the University Theatre on the grounds of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. Admission is free, though a donation of $10 is suggested. Call 297-3820 for more information.

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