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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the June 16, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Rhapsody in Viva: Gershwin and Ravel

Robert Taub, pianist and director of performing arts in music at the Lawrenceville School, can’t resist passing on an anecdote as he talks about the three-day Ravel and Gershwin festival he has organized. Taub is a good story-teller, and he relishes telling about a 1930 encounter between Maurice Ravel and George Gershwin. He loads the tale with suspense and rhythmic speech. It’s a pleasure to listen. Afterwards, I think: good story-telling is a variant of the skill that performing artists use to keep listeners on the edge of their seats.

It seems that Gershwin admired Ravel greatly. When he was in Paris in 1930 he arranged to visit Ravel. Gershwin brought manuscripts of his music to the meeting. At what he thought was an opportune moment; he asked Ravel if he might study with him. Ravel was surprised and, after a time, asked Gershwin how much he made in royalties. When Gershwin told him that it was more than a million dollars, Ravel thought for a while. Finally, he said, “Then it is I who should be studying with you.”

There is only one spot in the three-day Ravel and Gershwin festival where anecdotes might come up: Saturday afternoon, June 19, at one of three informal events. Everything else sets its sights on the music. A jazz combo of four players performs in Behr Hall of Lawrenceville’s Clark Music Center on Thursday, June 17, at 8 p.m. A chamber music concert takes place at the Kirby Arts Center for Friday, June 18, at 8 p.m. — songs of Ravel and Debussy, Gershwin song transcriptions for violin and piano, and the Ravel Piano Trio make up the program. An orchestral concert in Behr Hall concludes the festival. Saturday, June 19 at 8 p.m. — orchestral pieces to be included are Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite” and Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring;” in addition, Taub solos in Ravel’s “Concerto for Left Hand and Orchestra” and in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

If there are any anecdotes, they will reside in a discussion Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in Behr Hall, when Taub and composer Jonathan Dawe share their perspectives about the influence of World War I on the arts. “We both love the period musically,” Taub says in a telephone interview from his Lawrenceville office. The two are longtime friends. Dawe wrote the piano concerto commissioned for Taub when the Wharton Performing Arts Center of Michigan State University in East Lansing celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Lawrenceville students studying under Taub play the Debussy String Quartet and sing Gershwin songs at 2:45 p.m. in Behr Hall. The hall is also the site of a pre-concert lecture at 4 p.m.

The public is invited to picnic on the spacious Lawrenceville grounds during the festival. In 1883 the school invited landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, already famous for New York City’s Central Park, to design a park-like campus. Olmsted planted 371 trees, several of which survive today.

Calling Ravel and Gershwin “among the composers most often played and enjoyed today,” Taub relies on their works in tandem for stimulation at the festival. “They’re two composers who were very much of their time, but from slightly different cultures, and with different musical personalities,” he says. “Each influenced the other. They wrote more than 65 years ago and society has moved on, but the emotions they captured are universal.”

While striving for variety in the festival, Taub also aims for coherence. “Gershwin had a great reverence for Ravel. And Ravel was interested in American jazz,” he says. “There’s a meeting in the middle, which we’re exploring in the festival.”

The festival’s compass is flexible enough to include Debussy and Copland. “We’re not being doctrinaire or dogmatic,” Taub says. “We’re exploring musical elements from the period of Ravel and Gershwin that were, perhaps, influenced by them.”

Taub singles out the Debussy String Quartet as a component of the festival. “It’s going to be performed by students,” he says. “Everyone knows the Ravel string quartet. It’s sensuous. But the Debussy Quartet is neglected. I thought it would be good for students to explore the Debussy and share what they found. Playing it is a coming of age encounter. It’s extremely adventuresome. Various string techniques are being explored. Compared to the classical string quartets of Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn, the Debussy quartet is tough, challenging, and invigorating.”

Another high profile piece in the festival is Ravel’s “Concerto for the Left Hand.”

“I love that piece,” Taub says. “Whenever I work on it I have an enormous sense of freedom and exhilaration. I don’t want the public to think that I injured my right hand. The Ravel Concerto for the left hand written in a very ingenious way. It spans the whole keyboard. In some places, the melodic line is at the top, and there’s a wonderful accompaniment below. Elsewhere the melodic line is in the tenor and there are supporting lines above and below. If you took away the visual component, you would think it was a piece for two hands. Some areas in the cadenza have very dense writing. The piece requires nimbleness, and great control of the keyboard everywhere. The balance between the parts is very important.”

Although the piece is for only one hand, it is not scored exclusively on one musical staff. For clarity, some portions are written on two staves, and some on three.

The Ravel-Gershwin events make up the second festival Taub has designed since coming to Lawrenceville less than two years ago. (U.S. 1, October 23, 2002). Serving as director of performing arts in music at the school since the fall of 2002, Taub has selected the name “Musica Viva” for the concerts he pulls together. His first festival was a two-day Beethoven celebration about a year ago. As an impresario Taub arranges additional concerts scattered throughout the school year.

Beethoven occupies a large part of Taub’s musical territory. As the first artist in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study from 1994 to 2002, he played Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas in nine installments over a period of three years (U.S. 1, March 1, 1995). Spin-offs of the concert series included recording the cycle for Vox, teaching a Beethoven course at the Princeton Adult School, writing a book about the sonatas, and replaying the cycle in various locations in the world. Taub continues to perform the Beethoven sonatas. As part of a five-year residency at England’s Kingston University, he has now reached the half-way point in an eight-concert perusal of the cycle at London’s Hampton Court Palace.

Still, his focus on Beethoven does not crowd out Taub’s interest in contemporary music. He keeps pieces by Babbitt and Stravinsky, Sessions, and Prokofiev, in his repertoire.

His discography includes music by romantic composers Scriabin, Schumann, and Liszt, in addition to Beethoven. He has also recorded the works of avant-garde composers Babbitt, Persichetti, and Sessions.

Taub’s career carries him around the world. Into its interstices he injects his delight in running. “It’s easy to pack a pair of running shoes wherever you go,” he says. “I’ve run on five continents. It’s a great way to get over jet lag.”

Taub is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Princeton, Class of 1977, where his senior thesis was a setting of poems by Heinrich Heine for seven instruments and soprano. “It’s on one of my shelves somewhere,” he says. “I composed it as a means of experimentation, working with the building blocks of music.” His dissertation for a Juilliard doctoral degree was an in-depth examination of a Beethoven autograph score of his “Ghost” piano trio, newly bequeathed to New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library. He contrasts the two required writing exercises with his book on Beethoven, published during his Institute for Advanced Study residency. “Playing the Beethoven Piano Sonatas,” Taub says, “was a labor of love.”

When he plays the 32 Beethoven sonatas, Taub follows a roughly chronological scheme, but varies their order, depending chiefly on the number of concerts available. “I and my colleagues keep coming back to the sonatas,” he says, “because there’s always something more to say. It’s possible to tell the story with greater freshness and spontaneity each time you come back.”

At Lawrenceville’s Ravel and Gershwin Festival Taub will tell some 20th century musical stories, and, if his approach has rubbed off on the performers he has recruited for the festival, they, too, will be musical story-tellers.

Musica Viva Lawrenceville School; Thursday to Saturday, June 17 to 19, at 8 p.m.; special events on Saturday, June 19, at 1 p.m., 2:45 p.m., and 4 p.m. $50 for the entire weekend; or $15 for each concert. Call 609-466-2766.

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