Thursday, September 26, 2013

Christina Jennings: Recording the Music of George Rochberg

Christina Jennings, Lura Johnson, and George Rochberg.
Part II


This summer I have been very busy preparing for my Fall recording session. This music, which is very dear to my heart, will be Volume I of music for flute by the American composer, George Rochberg. In addition to actually practicing this music- which has moments of extreme technical demand and lots of juicy choices to make about sound color and style- I am involved in the large scale transcription project of Rochberg’s Caprice Variations for solo violin. Each of these miniature movements are based on the Niccolo Paganini theme we flutists know from the etudes (Caprice 24, book 2). Each of Rochberg’s caprices is done in a different style- Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Bartok, and many of them quote moments from his own Concord Quartets (#4-6). These Quartets were pivotal compositions in the 1970s and 80s and were composed for my father’s string quartet. I grew up with this music through the string quartets, but also through my father’s performance of the Caprices. Here are some of his notes and also a link to his youtube version (Andrew Jennings Complete Caprice variations
1970 was a pivotal year in Mr. Rochberg’s life in many ways. He was working on two large-scale commissions, a solo piano work for Jerome Lowenthal which became the Carneval Music, and a new string quartet for the Concord Quartet debut recital. He was struggling in both works with  a multi-lingual musical vocabulary which drew as much on the musics of the past as those of the present without the use of overt quotation. From the vantage point of 2010 it is hard to understand (or remember) just how radical this idea was in 1970 (which is a measure of just how potent and successful his revolutionary work was to be.)  It was an enormously difficult challenge that was taking vast amounts of time to work out. At the same time his teen-aged daughter was on the crux of her own dilemma. A gifted dancer as well as a brilliant intellect, she had been apprenticed to the Buffalo Ballet  and was being groomed for a career in dance. The pressure on her to make the decision between scholarship and dance was enormous at such a young age and she asked her father for advice. Never one for half measures, George decided that he would attend every one of her performances of Nutcracker in Philadelphia in order to see just how she might fit into this lifestyle so he could better advise her.
He described to me returning home every evening exhausted (and he never could stand Tchaikowsky to start with) flopping down on his couch, where he did most of his composing, and only having enough energy to produce little sketches for the larger works. These sketches took the form of solo violin miniatures where he was working out certain ideas, and as he wrote he began to use as a “springboard” the twenty-fourth Caprice of Paganini. He was intrigued not only by its compelling simplicity but also by the way that same music was reflected in  many other composers. That musical germ allowed him to find a bridge to Bach, to Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms and on and on.
By the end of some fifty Nutcrackers George had a sizeable stack of short sketches which allowed him to finish both the Carvneval Music and the Quartet in time for their respective premieres. (By the way, his advice to Chessie was not to pursue ballet and she went on to a brilliant academic career that has included the award of a MacArthur grant.)
After the success of the Quartet, George became the composer of the moment, his music was being played all over and there were many calls on him for new works. His publisher, on a visit to his studio noticed the stack of manuscript sketches and when George told him what it was, suggested that he might like to turn them into something publishable. In 1973, after polishing and reworking the sketches, they were published as the Caprice Variations for Solo Violin.
The works were not conceived in any was as “pedagogical” studies as some have thought, rather they are more in the style of the great “miniatures” tradition of the piano literature (Chopin, Brahms, Liszt come to mind.)

Jennings-Johnson Duo
The transcription process has been a creative nirvana as I make choices about how to best capture the composer’s intentions and also bring some of my own thoughts alive. Because I grew up in a family of violinists and am now married to a violist, string writing and technique is familiar. I have been able to use flute extended techniques to bring out some of the colors of the violin, including multiphonics, flutter tongue, jet whistle, and whistle tones to name a few. This project has followed me on my summer Festival hopping: first at Sarasota Music Festival where I debuted a few of the new transcriptions on Sarasota Public Radio, then at Greenwood Music Camp (in Cummington, MA) where I finished up the actual transcriptions. My family and I are currently enjoying an island off the coast of Maine where, while they sail and kayak, I am cleaning-up the transcriptions and actually practicing them! CU alumnus Mathieu D’Ordine has been putting the transcriptions into Finale, so we’ve been sending back and forth lots of drafts.

I look forward to rehearing with my amazing collaborators: Lura Johnson ( and June Han (  and working with the incredible Grammy-nominated producer and engineer Judith Sherman (

Drafts of Caprice Variations used as scrap paper for 4 year olds!

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