Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Leonard Rose: America's Golden Age and Its First Cellist

My long-awaited copy of Steven Honigberg's biography of Leonard Rose (1918-1984) finally arrived. Thanks to my life-long cellist friend Danny Morganstern, who introduced me to Leonard Rose's recordings more than 30 years ago, I know a great deal about Leonard Rose. Perhaps "know" is not the best word, because as a person Rose was quite enigmatic. I learned to love Rose's playing, and I learned to admire him as a teacher and as a person of solid musical character, but there is much that could never understand about the man, even after reading transcriptions of the unpublished memoir material (that Rose dictated onto tapes shortly before his death).

The great challenge of writing a first biography is to gather accurate primary material, and put it in an order that makes sense to a reader in search of information. Honigberg uses material from Rose's dictated memoir, and offers ample and accurate first-person accounts that describe Rose as a person, a teacher, a cellist, a colleague, a spouse, and a father. Honigberg does a good job of describing the musical times Rose enjoyed during the middle decades of the 20th century, a time that can truly be called a "golden age" of American Music. Honigberg serves as a bearer and organizer of information, much of it about cellists, violinists, and conductors as well as about Rose himself. As a former student of Leonard Rose, Honigberg is, perhaps, a little too close to offer solutions to the riddles that the "record" provides. He leaves that task to the reader.

This biography has an extensive index and more than 100 pages of appendices and end notes, which makes the book a very useful reference work, but the real gem for me is a recording of cello concertos by Peter Menin (made in 1956) and Alan Shulman (made in 1950) that is tucked into the back cover. These were pieces written for Leonard Rose, and the recordings come from concert performances.

The Mennin Cello Concerto is difficult. It sounds difficult--like a fight between the cellist and the music. The cellist does win out, and he emerges heroic in the extremely exciting perpetual motion of the last movement, but his victory is hard won. I'm not surprised that this piece remained unplayed for so many years (Janos Starker finally made a published edition of it in 2003). I imagine that many of today's young cellists in search of challenging (really challenging) repertoire might find this to be exactly the kind of piece they can use to "wow" audiences.

The Shulman Concerto, written in 1948, is a completely different kettle of fish. It is a case of idealism on the part of the composer and the cellist, with each one trying to do the other justice by reaching just a little higher than either (both perfectionists) would normally reach. I have heard just about every recording made by Leonard Rose, and I have heard a good deal of Shulman's music. This concerto recording is, I believe, some of the best work by either the cellist or the composer. It is certainly one of the best cello concertos written in the 20th century. I hope that, once people hear it, the piece can take what I believe as its rightful place as the 20th-Century American Cello concerto. Shulman was a brilliant composer and a superb orchestrator, who truly knew how best to flatter the solo cello voice. Perhaps it was because he was a first rate cellist himself. The piece is, in many ways, "about" the cello, and the piece is, in many ways "about" Shulman, but most of all it is "about" music and all of its (tonal and modal) possibilities.

I had the tremendous honor of listening to this recording in 1979 with Alan Shulman at his home in Scarsdale, New York. I loved it then, but I was so young that I find it hard to believe I would have been able to hear beyond the very surface of the piece. Listening to it now, 30 years later, I understand a little bit more about what makes truly great music great, and what happens when a truly phenomenal instrumentalist puts forward the effort to project the greatness he or she knows is in a piece of new music. This is document that eloquently marks the meeting of two extraordinary musical minds and souls, and may prove to be Rose's greatest legacy.

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