Composer Bruce Adolphe has created music for Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Joshua Bell, among other prominent musicians; has had nine of his works premiered at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; heard his music performed at the Kennedy Center and by more than 60 symphony orchestras worldwide; and saw his latest project — composing the musical score for the documentary film “Einstein’s Light” — premiere this past January in Paris for the opening ceremony of UNESCO’s International Year of Light (IYL).
But on Saturday, March 21, Adolphe comes to Princeton to pursue another of his passions: music education. Donning a silk hat and with magnifying glass in hand, he’ll be spotted intently pacing across the stage of Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium as the children’s entertainer Inspector Pulse in “Meet the Music: Inspector Pulse Pops a String.”
Adolphe has been performing Meet the Music events for 23 years for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, where he is resident lecturer and director of family concerts. This is the second year he will bring the program to Princeton University Concerts.
Here is how Adolphe describes the scene for Inspector Pulse’s arrival in Princeton: “With only one note, in the first instant that a bow touches a string, or a finger plucks a string, there is already the possibility of expressivity. Inspector Pulse is trying to learn everything he can about string instruments in this show, including how string players bring feeling into their playing. Imagine a sad note, an angry note, a shy note. The audience will figure it out with the inspector.”
The musical detective, or “private ear,” investigates the workings of a piano and finds, much to his surprise, that it has strings. He goes on to explore other string instruments and is given violin and cello lessons by the Amphion String Quartet, also members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. An ample question and answer period follows, as well as a “musical petting zoo,” an opportunity for children to see and touch the instruments.
Adolphe’s passions for composing and for teaching seem to have developed early and simultaneously.
His parents were public school teachers and professional folk dancers and folk dance instructors. His childhood home in West Hempstead, New York, was filled with the sounds of folk music from across the globe on 45 rpm records his parents had collected.
He began taking piano lessons when he started grade school. “My first piano teacher at age six said I was not musical, so when I was seven my parents found another teacher,” Adolphe says. Soon he was beginning to improvise his own music on the piano.
At age 10 he decided to learn to play “Peter and the Wolf” and acquired the sheet music. He performed the music and narration for his fifth-grade teacher, who was so impressed that she arranged for him to repeat his performance at other Long Island schools.
He also recalls early influences from television. “Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts were an influence on me and other young musicians of my generation,” Adolphe says. “He made composing and conducting seem possible.”
The programs presented by that New York Philharmonic conductor were broadcast on CBS from 1958 to 1972. Bernstein — the composer of the Broadway hit “West Side Story” — explained musical concepts in everyday language, illustrated by musical passages played by the orchestra.
Adolphe was also a fan of the Danish comedic pianist Victor Borge and says he has incorporated some of the same type of “keyboard comedy” into his portrayal of Inspector Pulse.
At age 14, Adolphe was admitted to the pre-college program at the Juilliard School, and he earned undergraduate and graduate music degrees from Juilliard during the 1970s. While still a graduate student, he began substituting for one of his teachers and taught at Juilliard from 1974 to 1992.
From 1984 to 1985 he was composer-in-residence at the 92nd Street Y and created interactive musical works for its school concert series. Working with the New York Chamber Symphony, which was the Y’s resident ensemble, he brought his concert program to schools on New York’s Upper East Side, with audiences of up to 900 kids at a time. Working from a curriculum which Adolphe wrote, teachers and students spent class time preparing for the singing, shouting, or clapping parts that would be integral to the concert performance.
One piece he composed was called “Ta-Whoop” and was so popular with the kids that they would greet each other, and Adolphe, with a resounding “Ta-Whoop!” when they passed in the hallways, Adolphe says. He was excited by how important his show had been to them and looked for other opportunities to bring music to young audiences.
Adolphe and his wife, pianist Marija Stroke, live in New York City with their daughter Katja, age 16, who her father says is a “serious violinist” interested in physics. With a father who is an educator, Katja began her musical training early but in a playful way. “When she was four, I began having musical conversations with her where I would ‘say’ something on the piano and she would answer on the violin, which taught her to improvise,” Adolphe says. She currently plays with the New York Youth Symphony.
His musical conversations can also be heard elsewhere. For 14 years Adolphe has been performing the “Piano Puzzlers” weekly on public radio show “Performance Today,” hosted by Fred Child. On the program Adolphe plays popular tunes in the style of a famous composer and people try to guess both the song and the composer.
As noted his latest project was writing the score for Nickolas Barris’ documentary “Einstein’s Light.” Although the film will be released this summer, its premiere at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris featured violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Marija Stroke playing excerpts from the score as live accompaniment.
The film and IYL 2015 coincide with the 100th year since Albert Einstein wrote down his general theory of relativity and inaugurates an international campaign to bring new, sustainable, light-based technologies to developing countries.
Adolphe’s “Einstein’s Light” score features the violin, as Einstein claimed that playing the violin helped him contemplate abstract concepts in physics. As Einstein was also known to favor the music of Mozart and Bach, Adolphe has included fragments and quotations from those composers in his score and plans to present a family concert about Einstein and Mozart at Princeton University.
Also, in the realm of music and thought, Adolphe was recently appointed composer-in-residence at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC in Los Angeles, where he works with neuroscientists Antonio Damasio, Hanna Damasio, and Assal Habibi. He is a musical consultant to their research in identifying parts of the brain that are used for music as well as possible treatments for dementia, he says.
He had previously collaborated with Antonio Damasio on a work titled “Self Comes to Mind,” composing music for cello and two percussionists to accompany Antonio’s poetic text on the evolution of consciousness. It was performed for the first time in 2009 at the American Museum of Natural History, accompanied by Hanna Damasio’s colorful brain scan images.
Between his many projects, Adolphe still finds time to seek new ways to express his creativity and to spark and nurture the creative impulse in young people. He sees his multi-faceted career as having three focuses: composing, family concerts, and his public radio show. “With all three, I have all the generations covered,” he says.
Meet the Music: Inspector Pulse Pops a String, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Saturday, March 21, 1 p.m. $10 for adult, $5 for children ages 6 and older. www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org or 609-258-9220.
For more information on Bruce Adolphe, visit www.bruceadolphe.com.