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Pianist Victor Rosenbaum: Another Milestone


The Longwood Symphony Orchestra, famously comprising musicians from the Boston medical community who play concerts to help raise money for health-related charities (this time to benefit Violence Transformed, a non-profit dedicated to documenting and celebrating the many ways in which our diverse communities harness art’s potential to effect social change), returns to New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Sunday, December 5th at 3:00 PM with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and Piano Concerto No. 3 featuring pianist Victor Rosenbaum, “a fixture of the Boston musical community for more than 50 years, as performer, teacher, and college president,” who will observe his 80th birthday in December.

The New York Times put it succinctly after his performance at Tully Hall: Rosenbaum “…could not have been better.” And a headline in the Boston Globe summed up the appeal of Rosenbaum’s playing: “Fervor and Gentleness Combined.” Click HERE for his complete bio. A brief interview follows:

FLE: You are performing Beethoven’s 3rd concerto with the Longwood Symphony, a “doctors’ orchestra” that makes every performance a benefit for some needy group in a health-related field. Why did they invite you for this particular honor with this particular concerto?

VR: The decision did not have anything to do with the mission of the orchestra, but was made on musical grounds alone. Ronald Feldman, the conductor wanted to do a program of Beethoven — the 2nd Symphony and the 3rd concerto, which both had their first performances on the same program in 1803. I guess he knows me as a Beethoven player, so he invited me to play the concerto.

Working with LSO Ronald Feldman must be a pleasure.

I played the piece with him conducting the Berkshire Symphony Orchestra in October, and it was a sheer pleasure!

Are there any differences in playing a concerto with a volunteer orchestra and, say, the BSO? Any advantages to the former?

I haven’t played with this orchestra yet, as the first rehearsal is still a few days off as we speak. But I have heard them on a number of occasions, and they are really good. You wouldn’t know that they are so called “amateurs.” Some have pretty impressive musical pedigrees! There is something wonderful about the spirit and energy that players who are doing it just out of love bring to the process. 

Are you reinforcing the tuttis?

I am not playing along with the tuttis, except maybe for the last two chords of the piece.

Beethoven’s cadenza?

Yes! I know that there are people, including one prominent Boston-based musician, who advocate improvising your own cadenzas to bring back the surprise element; but, while many of Mozart concerto cadenzas were probably improvised on the spot (except of a few that Mozart wrote out, and I have composed my own cadenzas for Mozart concertos), by the time of the Beethoven concertos, the cadenza is elevated to an important and integral part of the piece and Beethoven took pains to compose extensively and specifically. I choose to defer to Beethoven; what he composed is much better than anything I could come up with.

You also have a series benefiting the Cambridge based Mass Peace Action, and it’s a benefit series for that organization called “Music for Peace.” Is it still OK to play music for its own sake?

When I am playing, whether it is for a benefit concert or with LSO which supports community groups, I am playing music for its own sake. The music is all that matters when I prepare and when I perform. If the occasion also does some good for the community or society, so much the better. But really, doesn’t every performance “do good” in that it lifts the spirit, encourages contemplation, speaking to the best of humankind?

And you also seem to value contributing one-on-one to students. Is that continuing? And what are you looking for in students and why do they choose you?

I love teaching, and yes, that is continuing. I have some wonderful young (pre-college) students now, and others seek me out for various reasons. I guess you’d have to ask them why they choose me; but I think I am known for playing certain music fairly well, and for being a supportive and nurturing teacher (but also a very strict and demanding one).

Do you enjoy being an administrator at conservatories?

The questions should be asked in the past tense. I did very much enjoy being chairman of the NEC piano department for many years and am happy to see that all the things that I instituted as chair are still very much active aspects of the department. And I loved being the President of Longy School of Music, during a period of enormous growth and change (in which, among other things, the school became degree-granting, while the community division continued to flourish). As I have said, I loved being Director and now I love not being Director. It is satisfying to be the catalyst or agent for change and growth, but it can also be draining and very time-consuming. The 16 years at Longy were very satisfying, but I was glad to have my life back.

Do you have a sense of humor in music? Can you mimic performers you hate?

Well, I am not Victor Borge, although he and I share both names (he was born Borg Rosenbaum!), but I have been known to fool around at the piano in a way that can be entertaining. I write songs (like birthday songs for my daughters when they were little) and I make up songs on the spot to phone numbers! But there is plenty of humor (some of it even bawdy) in the classical repertoire. The last movement of the concerto I’m performing on the 5th is certainly good-natured and, at times, a bit eccentric — if not laugh-out-loud funny.

And, by the way, I can’t think of any performers I “hate.” I’m not the hating kind. I try to find something to like in almost everybody. But what I do hate about performers is grimacing and over-the-top facial gesticulations that seem to say how much they feel the music (but actually push people away from having their own feelings while listening). I guess I could easily mimic those sorts if I wanted to. 

photos by Benjamin Cheung

One famous pianist said on these pages, “Life is too short for Rachmaninoff and bad wine.” What repertoire do you absolutely hate?

Again, there is no repertoire I hate, and certainly I think Rachmaninoff is in the inspired genius category; his music is always instantly recognizable, and isn’t that kind of unique voice a sign of a singular creative genius? (Even Haydn and Mozart can sometimes be confused, but never Rachmaninoff and Chopin — even though both write lushly expressive and romantic melodic music). But there is a lot of music that I feel others can probably play better than I could, or to put it another way: music that I’d have to spend more time to learn than I think it would be worth — considering that others play it better. (I’m thinking of the virtuoso Liszt repertoire and much of the Russian music.) And there is so much music I love more.

I just listened to your absolutely splendid recording of Brahms’s death-defying and death-embracing opuses 117, 118, and 119 for Bridge records [buy it HERE]. Are you having valedictory feelings at this point in your life?

Well, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about dying, but at almost 80 one imagines that it could happen anytime (and likely in the next 10 years). However, I feel the best approach to life is to keep living it actively and fully. And that’s what I hope to do.

What recordings and performances can readers look forward to?

I learned some pieces during the pandemic that I’d like to record: Schumann’s Kreisleriana, Schubert G Major Sonata, Beethoven Opus 101, the early set of Schubert Impromptus. But I’m also enjoying returning to Chopin for the first time in a while. Wow, that stuff is surely beautiful!

I have some recitals coming up here and there, but hope to put off an 80th-birthday recital in Boston until the fall or until such time as I don’t have to perform masked. But will that time ever come?

With Jordan Hall operating at half capacity, would-be attendees should buy tickets early HERE.

Readers may profit from reading Robert Schulslaper’s excellent Fanfare interview with Rosenbaum  HERE.

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