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.”


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

David Starobin

Liang Wang

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