Some musical collaborations come together at the speed of a glacier. Others are like being by struck by an arrow. The piano duo of Marvin Rosen and Jennifer Castellano belongs to the second group.
In an interview at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, where he teaches, Rosen explains. “I met Jennifer at a Town Hall concert by women composers in April, 2010. Her piece ‘Sketches’ was on the program. I thought it was a creative, rhythmic piece. I looked her up on Facebook and she sent stuff. We started chatting on the web about music and repertoire and decided to read through some pieces by Hovhaness.” Alan Hovhaness is the American composer whose music is a major component in Rosen’s professional life. Rosen has recorded two CDs of his music.
During the summer of 2012 Rosen and Castellano recorded their own CD, “Child in the Garden,” named after a Hovhaness work. It consists of 20th — and 21st — century works from Italy, Estonia, Latvia, and the United States.
At the time of the recording, the duo did not yet have a name. Andy Cardenas, audio engineer for the disc, suggested that they come up with something related to 20 fingers and the duo christened themselves Piano Duo Venti Dita (Venti dita is Italian for “20 fingers”). They commissioned Rosen’s wife, Beata Rzeszodko-Rosen, to do the artwork for the recording; Rzeszodko-Rosen’s illustration depicts her husband as a cat because of his devotion to that animal — he calls his blog Marvin the Cat — and Castellano as a couple of parrots because of her pair of pets.
The release party for the Venti Dita CD, “Child in the Garden: Contemporary Music for Piano 4 Hands,” takes place Sunday, May 19 at 3 p.m. in the Playhouse at Westminster Choir College and is free and open to the public. Rosen thinks of the event as a piano recital with food.
The release-recital-party includes selections from the recording along with four-hand pieces not on the recording, and solo pieces. Among the solo pieces is Castellano’s three-minute “Cool Cats” written for Rosen. “She has a knack for writing miniatures,” he notes. CDs will be sold for $12 each at the release party, and 25 percent of the total sales will be given to Westminster for scholarships.
Among those whose pieces both Rosen and Castellano include in their separate solo portions of the event is Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. “Einaudi is my big teaching success,” Rosen says. “All the students who play him love him. He plays samples from Einaudi’s “Nuvole Bianche” (White Clouds). Quiet chord progressions become hymn-like and morph into rhythmic patterns, which evolve into a persistent bass foundation with a melody floating on top. Then a texture of broken octaves transforms itself into a tune. Einaudi sows tension by providing no clues about when the music will shift shape or in which direction he will take the listener. Yet the piece makes for comfortable listening. “Einaudi can bring a lot of people together, people with different tastes in music,” Rosen says. “I consider him to be a universal composer.” None of his pieces appear on the new CD; Einaudi did not compose for piano four-hands.
Morton Feldman’s composition “Piano Four Hands” is the centerpiece of the recording, but is not to be performed at the release party. “Feldman’s piece takes almost 11 minutes and is like the meat in the middle of the CD,” Rosen says. “When you listen to the CD from beginning to the end, there’s a lot on the lighter side. The Feldman is aleatory.” In other words, the composer provides only guidelines, and the performer makes choices that comply with the composer’s outline. “There was one page of music and it took more than 10 minutes to realize it, the way we perform it,” Rosen says. “We think of it as music for meditation. We’re in a meditative state while we play it. It puts the audience into a trance. It’s very powerful without a load of notes. The audience has to contribute. The music enters inside of you. When you listen, you can almost hear your heart moving. It must be played in the right environment. We’re not playing this piece at the party.”
Asked to summarize the pluses and minuses of performing repertoire for two pianists at one piano, Rosen cites only pluses. “There’s a large undiscovered repertoire for four hands,” he says. “And there’s a lot of new repertoire. Four hands at one piano can make a big sound. Logistically, it’s easy to rehearse, and cheap. You only need one piano, and you can share music.”
Venti Dita rehearses at a midtown Manhattan studio every three to four weeks. “We found a cheap studio through the Internet,” Rosen says. “We meet at Grand Central Station and walk 10 minutes to the studio.” Rosen lives in Princeton; Castellano lives near Pleasantville, in Westchester County, New York.
Not thinking about editing his words, Rosen gives the impression that the duo has a single brain. “Our mind musically thinks the same,’ he says. “We’re usually on the same wavelength. We might have little differences of opinion. We cheerfully try the suggestions of the other person. We’re resilient and flexible.”
“I was surprised to find that Jennifer is legally blind and hearing impaired,” Rosen says. “It was not obvious at the Town Hall concert where I found her. She uses enlarged music. She wears a telescope-like device to see the music; it limits her visual field. She wears two hearing aids. She was born with these problems. Still, there is no problem when we’re working. There are no adjustments we have to make.” On her website, www.castellanonet.com, Castellano talks about overcoming the difficulties.
Castellano attended public schools. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in piano from Purchase, New York’s Manhattanville College and a master’s degree in composition from the State University of New York at Purchase.
Rosen was born in Englewood, New Jersey. He moved to Kendall Park when he was four or five, and to Princeton seven years later. The family was musical, but not professionally. “There was always music in the family, usually classical,” he says. His mother acted and sang. His father worked as an office manager in the textile industry.
Piano lessons started for Rosen when he was eight. He attended Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples’ Concerts. His interest in Hovhaness started when Rosen was in high school. “I was attracted by his deep spirituality,” he says. In college Rosen became interested in obscure, eclectic repertoire.
Rosen earned a bachelor’s degree in music and music education from Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey); a master’s degrees in musicology from the Manhattan School of Music; and in 1985 master’s and doctoral degrees in music education from Teachers’ College, Columbia. He has received the 2013 Distinguished Alumni Award from TCNJ.
“Attending Trenton State was the four happiest years of my life in an educational institution. The faculty were more like colleagues and friends than faculty. They were always there to help. They encouraged you to explore new music and never discouraged you from being yourself. Going to class was so much fun. I was very well prepared for the Manhattan School of Music and passed out of the Music History and Theory requirements there.”
Now a pedagogue himself at Westminster Choir College, he models himself after his mentors at TCNJ. “That’s how I work,” he says. “I teach for the honors music program in piano pedagogy, and I say to my students, ‘When you guys do a presentation, I want you to do something that will mean something to you.’ Education should encourage students to be excited about music. I got that at Trenton State.”
Rosen lives in Princeton with his Polish-born wife, Beata, who studied food microbiology in Poland. She came to the United States in her 20s and worked in business aspects of the Prudential Insurance Company.
Since 1997 Rosen has been the host of the weekly radio program “Classical Discoveries” on WPRB, which won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Radio Broadcast Award in 2005. The five-and-a-half hour show features rarely heard repertoire from all periods, with emphasis on the old and the new.
“I love renaissance and baroque music, in addition to modern music,” Rosen says. “Many present-day composers are attracted to renaissance music. Many of them go back to early instruments. There is incredible variety among contemporary composers. We are now in one of the greatest periods in music. People can experience music from all over the world on line — Azerbaijan, folk influences, jazz, and pop. There’s something for everybody in today’s music.”
The range of available music brings out Rosen’s humanitarian bent. “Music is the universal language,” he says. “It’s about connecting. It’s about listening to what people have to say, and letting it inspire you. We can learn from each other.”
His radio show reveals Rosen as a persuasive musical pioneer. “I don’t force myself to open my ears,” he says. “They close when I hear the same thing over and over. I find a lot of comments on my website saying ‘I never thought that contemporary music could be so attractive.’”
Child in the Garden release party, Playhouse at Westminster Choir College, Walnut Lane, Princeton. Sunday, May 19, 3 p.m. Free and open to the public. Refreshments served. For more information visit pianoduoventidita.wordpress.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.