Retired music professor compiles concertos for CD release

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The Bowdoin Orient
Hannah Hoyt
October 16, 2009

After a 43 year stint at the College, former Robert K. Beckwith Professor of Music Eliott Schwartz has one more accomplishment to add to his list: the recent release of an album featuring six chamber concertos of his own composition.

The album is titled Elliot Schwartz: Chamber Concertos and will be released through the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) label this month.

Schwartz, an internationally regarded composer, retired from Bowdoin's faculty in 2007, with 12 of his 43 years in the music department spent as department chair.

His impressive career as a composer and academic has taken him to residencies at universities such as Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge, as well as appearances as a guest composer in cities throughout Europe and the United States. Orchestras across the country have performed his works, and he is the recipient of awards from the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In celebration of his 70th birthday in 2006, Oxford University, London's Royal Academy of Music, the University of Minnesota, Butler University, the American Composers Alliance and the Library of Congress held concerts and lectures on his works.

The idea of recording all of Schwartz's chamber concertos on a single album emerged in conversations between Gil Rose, BMOP's artistic director and conductor, and Schwartz in the mid-1990s. Rose established BMOP in 1996 to explore 20th and 21st-century modern incarnations of classical music and directly support composers.

The BMOP orchestra is devoted to performing new music and seeks to connect contemporary music with society by supporting composers, such as Schwartz, who create new and unique works. In an effort to make its music more widely accessible, BMOP established a record label in 2008.

Through BMOP's record label and under the direction of Gil Rose, BMOP's musicians recorded three of Schwartz's concertos live at Jordan Hall in Boston. Schwartz, Rose and recording engineer Joel Gordon then edited the live recordings with the takes from a second recording session, also in Jordan Hall, to create the final versions that appear on the album.

A similar process of multiple recording sessions was used to record the remaining three concertos.

Three of the concertos—I, II and IV—remain unchanged from their original compositions, while Concertos III and V were shortened and restructured to fit on the 75-minute CD. To round out the album, Schwartz and Rose agreed on the composition of a sixth and final concerto, featuring a solo violin.

Concerto VI, titled "Mr. Jefferson," debuted in Bowdoin's Studzinski Hall in 2007. However, Professor Schwartz said the concerto "sounded too thick and dense in the Bowdoin version, so I lightened the texture."

"When it was performed in Boston the following year, it was virtually a new piece," he added.

Schwartz's music is characterized by its diversity of influences and complex layering—or 'collage'—of different musical styles. In this album, six distinct, yet still consistent, concertos composed over a 30-year span are presented together to create a new interpretation of the traditional concerto principle.

Describing the album, Schwartz said, "these six works can be thought of as different strategies for dealing with the 'concerto' principle—six variations, not on a theme, but on a genre, [and] can be heard as a fusion of solo concerto and concerto grosso."

Schwartz said he draws on a variety of influences from traditional composers, such as Tchaikovsky and Sibelius in Concerto I to the life of Thomas Jefferson in Concerto VI. In his "Mr. Jefferson" concerto, Schwartz divides the work into five movements, each celebrating a unique aspect of Jefferson's life—as an inventor, violinist, gardener, lover, and finally, as the subject of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art's Gilbert Stuart portrait. Schwartz said he incorporates influences as broad ranging as Revolutionary War songs and the musical spelling of Jefferson's name, "especially the EFFE" to create a concerto, which is multi-dimensional and representative of "Jeffersonian symmetry."

In addition to his synthesis of seemingly disparate ideas and musical elements, Schwartz's work is unusual in the way in which he incorporates visual and theatrical elements into the traditional concerto listening experience. In Concertos I and IV, his performers leave their seats, shift positions and play new instruments, challenging the conventions of traditional music as an exclusively auditory experience.

On the challenge of translating the visual elements to the solely "sound" format, Schwartz says, "the best compromise is to have the listener hear the CD while imaging the extra-musical activity. That's why I hope listeners will read the essays in the CD booklet, they'll help with the imagination."

Schwartz's album and other BMOP music is available for listening on the BMOP Web site

© 2009 Hannah Hoyt