Big Wolpe


Stefan Wolpe was one of the 20th century’s authentic but, until recently, relatively uncelebrated pioneers among composers. His music remained for much of his life at the fringes of the performance repertory, but his centennial launched a New York-based series of concert revivals and symposia that’s been reminding performers and listeners just how original and fascinating his music is.

Born in Berlin in 1902, Wolpe had to flee the Nazis in 1933, studied briefly with Webern in Vienna, then moved to what was then Palestine, before winding up in New York, where he taught many important and grateful composers and devised music remarkable not only for its structural discipline but even more for its free ranging between immediate clarity (easily absorbing jazz, for instance) and brave, dense but meaningful complexity. His last years were plagued by Parkinson’s disease, which killed him in 1972, but he continued to compose and teach right to the end. When composer Carman Moore was a fellow critic for the Voice in the 1960s and ’70s, he raved in the office for weeks about Wolpe’s analysis of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata.

As for Wolpe’s own compositional intricacy, his richly layered 1956 Symphony has met with a neglect even more stupid than that accorded in this country to the nine of Roger Sessions. Not one of America’s several virtuoso orchestras is daring enough to play it. Yes, it’s hard to prepare; back in 1964, its premiere at the New York Philharmonic was cut from three movements to two for lack of rehearsal time, or maybe talent. The very brainy guest conductor of that part-premiere, Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg, later told me he had asked Wolpe to simplify a passage of scoring because no one would hear everything as written at that point. Wolpe’s reply? “God will hear it!”

Remaining Wolpe events this spring include a series of symposia, March 14 and 15, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue, 212-817-8591; and concerts, April 2, Merkin Hall, 129 West 67th Street, 212-501-3330; April 6, Tilles Center, 720 Northern Boulevard, Brookville, Long Island, 516-299-3100; April 10, Americas Society, 680 Park Avenue, 212-249-8950.


March 8

Miller Theater, Broadway at 116th Street, 212-854-7799

Elizabeth Farnum, the Sequitur ensemble, and others devote an evening to the sometimes gnomic, but always ear-grabbing, music of this Hungarian independent.


March 9

Avery Fisher Hall, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza, 212-875-5000

Colin Davis, still one of the world’s most insightful Berlioz conductors, peaks his and Lincoln Center’s New York celebration of the composer’s bicentennial with this powerful music-drama. A strong cast is backed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.


March 11, 15, 20, 24, and 27

Metropolitan Opera House, Columbus Avenue at 63rd Street, 212-362-6000

Berlioz’s colossal and often breathtakingly beautiful Troy-to-Carthage opera gets the ever-lovin’ works, thanks to conductor James Levine, director Francesca Zambello, and a powerhouse cast that changes from time to time.


March 20-May 17

Various Lincoln Center venues, 212-875-5937, and Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Avenue, 718-636-4100

The highest of the highlights will probably be his recent, kaleidoscopic Nativity oratorio, El Niño, March 20 and 22, at Howard Gilman Opera House. Esa-Pekka Salonen, a wild composer himself, conducts his Los Angeles Philharmonic, that town’s Master Chorale, and top-flight solo singers including Dawn Upshaw, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (the Met’s supreme Dido from Les Troyens), and Willard White. Peter Sellars stages the project.


March 20 and April 5

Avery Fisher Hall, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza, 212-875-5000

The legendary cellist returns here mainly as a conductor, with a bunch of brilliant soloists and music largely by such deceased friends as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, and Bernstein. A typical program is the series’ kickoff: Bernstein’s Slava (A Political Overture), the phenomenal Martha Argerich as soloist in Prokofiev’s bonfire-y Piano Concerto No. 3, and gems by Henri Dutilleux and Witold Lutoslawski. Incidentally, Slava, Rostropovich’s nickname, is Russian for “glory.” The kickoff events happen March 20-22 and 25-26.


March 22-23

Carnegie Hall, 57th Street and Seventh Avenue, 212-247-7800

Pierre Boulez conducts the specialist orchestra he founded at IRCAM in two programs of his own world-challenging music. Of particular interest is the latest expansion of Répons, a heady collision of live and computerized electronic symphonics.


March 28

Symphony Space, Broadway and 95th Street, 212-864-5400

Who cares what the calendar says? His music gets younger as he gets older. The lively Ying Quartet plays the New York premiere of his Fifth String Quartet, and the composer is at the piano for his Mourning Scene and six Paul Goodman songs, sung by Scott Murphee. The Yings also play Ravel’s Quartet.


April 9-10, 12

Avery Fisher Hall, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza, 212-875-5000

Colin Davis moves his Berlioz campaign to the New York Philharmonic with this fizz-witty and lovely comic opera based on Much Ado About Nothing. The sometimes controversial Edward Berkeley directs a world-class cast.


April 20, 22, 24, and 26

New York State Theater, Columbus Avenue at 63rd Street, 212-870-5570

New York City Opera offers a new production of Britten’s angry tragedy. The strong cast includes Mel Ulrich as the rapist, Monica Groop as the rapee, Sanford Sylvan as her husband, and Orla Boylan and Anthony Dean Griffey as the tormented dual chorus.


April 22

Miller Theater, Broadway at 116th Street, 212-854-7799

Charles Wuorinen, one of Stefan Wolpe’s most brilliant and productive students, wrote these three Dante-based compositions for Peter Martins and the New York City Ballet. Here they are in chamber reductions played by Ensemble 21 and the wonderful pianists Marilyn Nonken and Stephen Gosling.