by Thomas Boss
Revered pianist Victor Rosenbaum gave himself an 80th birthday party cum farewell to New England Conservatory in Jordan Hall last Saturday; votaries completely packed the floor. During a part of Rosenbaum’s 55-year career at New England Conservatory, where he became Chair of the Piano Department, he simultaneously served as President of the Longy School in Cambridge.
Belying his age, Rosenbaum skipped on stage to thunderous acclaim before embarking on Brahms’s op. 118, no. 1 Intermezzo, which sounded a bit fraught by nerves, but Intermezzo in A Major op 118 no. 2—one of the most well-known and romantic pieces in the piano repertoire—came across with all of the complex emotions Brahms felt for the dedicatee Clara Schumann. Rosenbaum averred how it is “much loved for its unapologetic sentiment seeming to convey all of life’s yearnings, imbued with sadness and nostalgia.” His rendition achieved perfection; his colorations, the nuanced phrasing, understated pedaling, the crescendos and rubatos, conveyed an extraordinary palette of unabashed emotion.
Rosenbaum then shared that he recently attended a masterclass with Emmanuel Ax, where a student asked how to overcome nervousness. Ax replied that he still gets nervous for every concert, and Rosenbaum confessed that even he was nervous this evening.
He wrote Elegy-Impromptu in memory of composer-colleague Stephen Albert, who died in a car crash 30 years ago. Adding to this performance’s poignancy, it served double duty, the entire evening being dedicated to Victor’s brother Arthur, who died just days before this concert.
Rosenbaum warmed us with the sort of stories one shares with friends around the campfire. Art’s death had certainly added to the complex emotions he was about to share with us.
The Elegy conveyed mourning and loss, as if wandering through a desolate landscape, searching for hope. The middle section featured an intricate fugue that is contrapuntally uplifting.
Lewis Warren Jr. (a one-time student of Awadagin Pratt, the BSO soloist at subscription concerts this week) wrote his Ballade No. 2 after recovering from writer’s block. It’s a varied and changeable composition, beginning with reminiscences of Gregorian Chant, before becoming contemporary with jazzy elements and even pentatonic harmonies. A middle section contained a beautiful melody, and Ballade No. 2 ended with Debussy-inspired arpeggios and watery chords. The composer joined the pianist on stage and enjoyed some enthusiastic acclaim.
Rosenbaum sees the Vivace first movement of Beethoven’s Opus 109 as emanating from an improvisation and carries it straight into the Prestissimo second movement. The directions Beethoven indicated for the for the theme and variation third movement Gesangvoll mit innigster Empfindung (songful and full of deepest feelings) could be the watchword for Rosenbaum’s entire career. He brought us an understanding of the sonata in its entirety: cohesive and clear as to plan and destination. His superb control of the dynamics, exquisite pedal technique, artful phrasing and sublime rubatos suspended time for us.
In Schubert’s penultimate sonata, the A Major D 959, Rosenbaum revealed and reveled in his deep affinity for that composer, making palpable and treasurable the strong emotions that the master has passed down to us in so many works, and bringing freshness to the many repetitions of the themes. The Sonata begins with a playful Allegro in which one senses continuous ascension. The Andantino feels almost excruciating in its pain, which culminates in pianistic rage. The contrasting Scherzo progresses with effervescent sparkle except for one moment where, as Rosenbaum noted, a fragment from the second movement emerges like a nightmarish vision. The sonata ends with a heart-warming hopeful theme borrowed and reworked from Sonata (D 537). Toward the end come a series of long rests, which are hard to pull off, as players tend to rush them. With Rosenbaum’s exquisite timing, they send a chill down the spine.
Earning a lengthy standing ovation and many bouquets of flowers, Rosenbaum suffered an upstaging from an adorable child who noticed that the ribbon securing his bouquet had fallen off and who determinedly recrossed the stage to hand it to the artist, who graciously reattached to ribbon to the child’s satisfaction. For an encore Rosenbaum played the Andante Cantabile from the Mozart K 330. Following the concert a seemingly endless line of well-wishers hoped for one last conversation with Victor Rosenbaum before he departed from NEC. Of course a legion of former students, flowers in hand, including many well-known personages from the Boston classical music scene, such as pianists Alexander Korsantia, Michael Lewin, HaeSun Paik, conductor Max Hobart, and the NEC power couple Don and Vivien Weillerstein, awaited farewells that many wished would come many years later.