Bridging centuries Guitarist David Starobin
david Starobin has been cultivating a following among Santa Fe’s guitar enthusiasts in recent seasons. In 2010, he appeared with the Santa Fe Symphony as the soloist in Manuel Ponce’s Concierto del sur. Last year the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival brought him in to give a solo recital after a two-decade absence from its roster, and this year he appears on three of that organization’s programs at the Lensic Performing Arts Center: on Wednesday, Aug. 17, and Thursday, Aug. 18, as well as on Aug. 20. In the course of those appearances, he will team up with colleagues — on Aug. 20 — for one of his instrument’s most notable Classical-era masterworks, Boccherini’s D-major Quintet for Guitar and Strings (G.448, nicknamed the “Fandango Quintet” in deference to the Spanish flair of its finale), and — on Aug. 17 — for a more modest work from not long after, Mauro Giuliani’s A-major Variations for Violin and Guitar (of 1811), in which he will be assisted by Benny Kim.
This season, however, his appearances suggest the broader musical world he inhabits. Since 1993, he has taught at the Manhattan School of Music, and since 2011, he has also served on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he holds an endowed chair in guitar studies. In the Aug. 18 concert, we find him collaborating with Susan Shafer, a Philadelphia-based soprano-on-the-rise who recently earned degrees in voice and opera from ... the Curtis Institute. “Two-and-a-half years ago,” said Starobin, “I conducted a piece at Curtis by my friend William Bland for four guitars and soprano. I went to the vocal department and asked who they had who could sing it, because it was a rather difficult part. She was terrific to work with, and I have been looking forward to a reunion when we work together again in Santa Fe.” Shafer and Starobin will offer two sets of songs. The first, by the German Romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber, includes works originally crafted with a guitar accompaniment, reflecting the instrument’s popularity in salons in the opening decades of the 19th century. The other group comprises three pieces by Thomas Campion, a poet, composer, and practicing physician of Shakespeare’s time, which was a golden age for plucked string instruments. Campion had the gift of writing memorable melodies, and some of his songs stay with a listener after just a single hearing. That is likely to prove the case with the middle item in Shafer and Starobin’s group: “Never Weather-Beaten Sail,” a depleted soul’s yearning for surcease, an anthem for the exhausted.
Starobin may sometimes qualify for the ranks of the exhausted, but he tends to shrug and forge ahead all the same along one of the many paths he pursues. He is particularly associated with contemporary music, and by now he has shepherded into being some 350 new works from a Who’s Who of the significant composers of the past four decades. But for his efforts, the modern literature of solo and chamber works for guitar would be a shadow of what it is. Many of these pieces, though by no means all of them, he has recorded for Bridge Records. He founded the label in 1981 and was soon joined in the business by his wife, Becky, who has been the company’s president since 2007. They met when they were students at the Peabody Institute — she was a violin major — and from the get-go they shared a passion for new music. Today, he continues as the label’s director of artists and repertoire, in which capacity he personally oversees the physical recording and overall production of many of the firm’s releases.
Bridge Records provided a recorded outlet for Starobin’s own music-making, but its vision was
This summer marks the 30th anniversary of our meeting Poul [Ruders], at Tanglewood. Oliver Knussen conducted Poul’s massive tone poem Manhattan Abstraction. It was one of those electrifying, unforgettable moments in my musical life. I went backstage to track down Poul and to commission a concerto from him — which changed my life. — David Starobin
broader. “We felt the need to create a wide-ranging forum for repertoire and performance,” said Starobin, “a home for the exceptionally interesting and challenging personality — performer and composer alike.” Bridge Records has issued nearly 500 releases in the course of its 35 years, including many premiere recordings of pieces by notables whose works may fairly be described as challenging, such as Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, Mario Davidovsky, and Tod Machover. (I have written liner notes for a handful of these releases, just to be clear.) When the Starobins become committed to a composer, they can prove tenacious. The results include, among many possible examples, the company’s five volumes of exigent works by Ursula Mamlok, who died three months ago at the age of ninety-three. You never heard of her? The Starobins think you should. They also think you should hear all the music of George Crumb; they have issued 17 all-Crumb CDs and will be adding to that as long as the master keeps composing. The newest of them, issued last year, received a Grammy nomination, one of 30 the label has earned through the years. Three of those nominations turned into full-fledged Grammy awards. The label also offers repertoire of a more standard sort, and it developed a particular niche releasing recordings captured live at Library of Congress concerts in the 1940s and ’50s by performers who have especially moved them, including one in which soprano Leontyne Price is accompanied by Samuel Barber, and a whole series of performances by the Budapest String Quartet. Even at a time when we hear that the CD is an artifact of the past, music critics receive a package from Bridge nearly every month bearing jewel boxes of largely unfamiliar music. At the same time, the label is adapting to a listening world that is increasingly fueled by the internet. That is largely the responsibility of the Starobins’ son, Rob, now the company’s vice president; he attends to digital platforms and stokes the network of social media.
The Starobins quickly came to appreciate that they might be able to provide business support for some of the composers they were working with, a number of whom had limited expertise in arranging the nonmusical details of their careers. In the mid-1980s they established Bridge Management, which helps supervise the careers of a few performers and, more to the point, several composers, including Crumb, Paul Lansky, Fred Lerdahl, and Poul Ruders. “It was a natural outgrowth of the record company to take on managing people we did a lot of work with,” said Becky, who is also president of that division. “We’re constantly working toward performances for them, and we are also responsible for a number of commissions — for building the repertoire — because otherwise these pieces wouldn’t happen.”
So it is that the Chamber Music Festival’s Aug. 17 concert includes the world premiere of Occam’s Razor, a suite of eight miniatures for oboe and guitar it commissioned from Ruders (following nuts-and-bolts negotiations with Bridge Management), and which will be played here by Liang Wang, the principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic, and … yes, David Starobin. Ruders is among the most widely performed of modern Danish composers. Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima acted like a jolt of vitamins on the young Ruders, as it did with so many composers who came of age in the 1960s. But he proved open-eared to other styles, with some of his works reflecting the ideas of the minimalists, others exploring how to incorporate the sounds of earlier centuries into modern musical expression.
The title of his new piece refers to a principle, attributed to the 14th-century logician William of Ockham, suggesting that when competing hypotheses may be used to solve a problem, philosophers should choose the one that requires the fewest assumptions. “For me,” Ruders explained, “economy and simplicity are cardinal virtues in composition, and the overall title of this small compilation of pieces is ‘lifted’ from the very last movement of the piece, bearing the title ‘Occam’s Razor.’ There are only four notes in play, and it must be the simplest music I’ve ever written and am ever likely to write.”
Ruders is a longstanding fixture in the Bridge network. When we caught up with the Starobins by phone last week, they were with him at the Bravo! Vail festival in Colorado, for the premiere of a work he recently composed for piano quartet. “This summer marks the 30th anniversary of our meeting Poul, at Tanglewood,” said David. “Oliver Knussen conducted Poul’s massive tone poem Manhattan Abstraction. It was one of those electrifying, unforgettable moments in my musical life. I went backstage to track down Poul and to commission a concerto from him — which changed my life.”
Ruders is widely acknowledged for his symphonic works, but he also gained note through his highly successful opera The
Handmaid’s Tale, based on the frightening novel by Margaret Atwood. It was premiered by the Danish Royal Opera in Copenhagen in 2000 and since then has been mounted by the English National Opera in London, the Minnesota Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. “Meeting Poul was a transformative event for both Becky and me,” said David. “I remember her contacting Margaret Atwood to see if that great lady would allow The Handmaid’s Tale to be made into an opera. And I remember so clearly the process of working out commissions for his Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies. This week we’ve been putting touches on the recording of his Fifth Symphony, which is a piece I have fallen in love with.”
WHEN YOU HAVE TWO COMPETING THEORIES THAT MAKE EXACTLY THE SAME PREDICTIONS, THE SIMPLER ONE IS THE BETTER - 14TH CENTURY LOGICIAN AND FRANCISIAN FRIAR WILLOIAM OCKHAM
Further Ruders operas followed The Handmaid’s Tale in relatively quick succession: Kafka’s Trial (premiered in 2005), Selma Jezková (based on Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark, premiered in 2010), and The
Thirteenth Child (complete, and with plans for the premiere now being explored). The last of these is based on a story by the Brothers Grimm, and the opera’s libretto was penned by … can you guess? … Becky and David Starobin. The story involves feuding Scandinavian realms and a king so paranoid about being overthrown that he orders his 12 sons murdered. His wife sends them into hiding instead, keeping a newborn daughter to be the heir apparent. The two-act opera traces the course of the royal family over many years, including plot-changing touches of what we might consider magical realism.
“In many ways, I think of this as the culmination of 30 years’ collaboration with Poul,” said David. “Writing this opera spanned four years, from the beginning of the libretto to the completion of the orchestration. Becky and I were not experienced librettists; for us, this was the first time around. But we had all this knowledge about his previous operas and of the sounds he likes to make. As we wrote the libretto, we imagined where he might go with the images we were writing — and, in fact, much of the imagery we wrote he picked up on.” The Aug. 18 concert includes the first public airing of music from The Thirteenth Child, an aria in which the daughter vows to carry out her mother’s deathbed wish; revealing that the princess has 12 brothers, the mother has begged her to track down and reunite all the siblings. When the opera is staged, it will be with full orchestra. For this foretaste, however, it will be given with reduced chamber forces, soprano Shafer being assisted by David and the Dover Quartet, a foursome that was also a product of the Curtis Institute.
The recording of the new opera (for Bridge Records, naturally) begins shortly. The orchestra parts will be recorded in Denmark — in September for the first act, in April for the second. David then heads to Michigan to record the choral portions, and only after all that is finished will sessions be scheduled for the solo parts. Laying down independent tracks is the norm in pop music, but it may sound like a piecemeal way to make a classical recording. “It’s done more commonly than is acknowledged,” David insisted, pointing out the great logistical advantage of not having to gather all the performers in the same place at the same time. He said that for some works, it may be the only way a piece can be recorded. The most striking example from the Bridge catalog is Crumb’s Star-Child, a large and complicated composition from 1977 that requires multiple ensembles and four conductors in performance. “Pierre Boulez conducted the work’s premiere,” said David (meaning he was the lead conductor of the four), “and he declared that it would be an impossible piece to record. He was right, in a sense. I don’t think you could do it in standard recording sessions, because the levels for the various performers keep changing. But we recorded the orchestra parts in Warsaw, each layer of the orchestra separately, and then fused them all together — and the CD won a Grammy.”
Certainly the network defined by the Starobins, Bridge Records, and Bridge Management is tight-knit. On the other hand, it is not exclusionary; the record label issues much more music by composers the Starobins don’t manage than by composers they do. David views it as “a throwback to an earlier model, when managements and record companies were closely allied. Recording companies today tend to focus on performers, but ours has always been composer-driven. The personalities that have determined the direction of our company and our careers have been creative personalities.”
From left, David Starobin, Poul Ruders, and Becky Starobin