Composer Moshe Budmor is about to turn 90 and is very surprised. “I never thought I would live that long,” he says at his Princeton home. The astounded Budmor celebrates that 90th birthday with a program of his pieces performed publicly for the first time on Saturday, June 15, at 7:30 p.m. at Bristol Chapel on the campus of Westminster Choir College of Rider University.
Budmor — known to many for his 23 years of teaching music at the former Trenton State College — is a composer who writes in what he calls a contemporary yet accessible style. Calling his work “quite eclectic,” he adds, “I probably have written more vocal, especially choral, music, often to an Old Testament text, than anything else. But I have written also much instrumental music, mainly for small chamber ensembles for a variety, sometime unusual combinations, such as duets for oboe and viola and a great deal of music for recorders. I estimate that I have written about 200 compositions but probably only between 30 to 40 major works that last a half hour or longer, and only five pieces for larger orchestra. Most of my music has been performed at least once, most of it in the U.S., but also in Israel and Germany.”
The concert will demonstrate that creativity and include pieces for solo piano; two pianos; soprano, flute, and guitar; violin and piano; cello and piano; and baritone, piano, and trumpet. Performers are Kathleen Connolly, Inessa Gleyzerova, and Galina Prilutskaya, piano; Ruotao Mao and Hanfang Zheng, violin; Ana Tsinadze, viola; Mikyung Lee, cello; Jill Crawford, flute; Robert McNally, trumpet; Jessie Friedman, guitar; Allie Faulkner, soprano; and Sean McCarter, baritone.
Though a prodigious composer, Budmor hit a low point in productivity slightly more than two years ago when his wife of 18 tears, pianist Lea Lerner, died. Dalcroze trained, Lerner incorporated that method’s ideas regarding rhythmic movement and physicality into her music making. Happy to access her husband’s piano pieces, she mastered their technical difficulties and played them lovingly. Budmor’s first wife of 39 years, the late Katya Delakova, was a choreographer and dancer who collaborated with her husband.
“After Lea died I was sort of paralyzed,” Budmor says, “but I had a poem that my friend, John Ricklefs, wrote the night Lea died. I had it in my head. Finally, I used it in a song for voice and piano that was performed at the memorial for Lea. Once I wrote that piece, suddenly, I wrote one piece after another.” He makes a gesture with his arms that encompasses a huge territory.
“I wrote about 20 pieces in two years! I ask myself, ‘Where does this come from?’ I know that it took a lot of effort to write the piece, but once it’s done, I don’t understand how it came together.” His wonder and acceptance of his ability to compose are guides to his professional accomplishments as well as evidence that he is monumentally unpretentious.
“Ideas don’t come to me before I write,” Budmor says. “They come to me while I compose. They come by doing. That applies also when I write an essay. Sometimes I just sit down and say, ‘Now I want to write a piece,’ and ideas come. It’s like a faucet. You open the faucet and the water comes out. That doesn’t mean it will always come out.”
Occasionally, Budmor knowingly uses what he calls an “uninspired approach” for a composition. He cites a couple of pieces scheduled for the birthday concert. One is written for a friend whom he calls “Faige’le.” Drawing on the letters in her name, he chose the pitches “F,” “G,” “A,” and “E” as a theme. “This is not a theme that came from inspiration,” he says. “What interests me is what grew out of this uninspired approach. That [he underlines the word with his voice] is partly inspiration.” Another piece written for his friend Dena uses the same model. The pitches corresponding to the letters “D,” “E,” and “A” make up the theme.
“I never compose at an instrument,” Budmor says. “Sometimes, I do a few things at the piano. I improvise and see what I like. I play some chord progressions.” Yet for composing Budmor uses a computer sparingly. “I tend to jot things down first with a pencil, and then use a computer,” he says. “If I have something clearly in my head, I go directly to the computer.” His preferred music writing program is “Sibelius.”
However, “the computer is so stupid,” Budmor says. “It doesn’t detect note values accurately. It needs a lot of editing.” He prefers an approach that allows him more latitude than the left-brain sterility of a machine. He likes the latitude of a human dimension in composing, and he enjoys wondering about the nature of composing.
About the “The Mystic Trumpeter,” based on Walt Whitman’s cycle of eight poems about the many manifestations of the trumpet, four of which are programmed on the birthday concert, he says, “I selected four (sections) that I liked best for the concert. In one Whitman sees medieval lords and ladies, as well as people carrying crosses. One invokes war; one, love; one, joy. The text infuses the music. If I write music to a text, the text is all-important. I would call it a translation into the language of music from the language of words. The composition transforms the poem. Hopefully, it deepens the sense of a poem, or its mood, or its meaning; I don’t know which.”
Budmor’s “Mystic Trumpeter” is scored for trumpet, baritone, and piano. “There is no main performer,” he says. “In almost all of my music there is no main instrument. All the voices are important except in violin and piano pieces, where the violin is more important. I don’t remember choosing. It just happened that way.”
“My conducting benefited from the fact that I played violin and viola in an orchestra many years. I can play every instrument a little bit. That helps a conductor, and helps a composer.”
“I love writing for string quartet, for voice, and for chorus. It’s hard to find people who can play the string quartets. Those willing to practice difficult music may not have a market for playing it. So the string quartets go into the drawer. My first string quartet was picked up by a young quartet of women in Germany; it became part of their repertoire. Unfortunately, the quartet broke up.” A never-performed string quartet written in 2000 is part of the birthday concert.
“I try to be practical and write things that will be performed,” Budmor says. “My colleagues and students at Trenton State have been willing to perform my pieces.” At the college, now the College of New Jersey, he served 12 years as conductor for the Concert Choir, and for 10 years as director of its Collegium Musicum.
Born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1923, Budmor has led a life rife with unexpected happenings, and Jack Fishman, a 1967 Trenton State graduate, stands ready to tell the story. “He suddenly appeared last summer,” Budmor says. “He said that I was the best teacher he ever had, and that he became a composer because of me. He wants to write my biography.” Fishman lives in New Mexico. “We Skype,” says Budmor. “He’s coming to the concert.”
Budmor’s father, a Zionist, visited Palestine the year the composer was born, and decided to move the family to Palestine. But he thought he should set aside a nest egg before leaving Germany. “He had a Ph.D. in economics and became the CEO of a furniture company,” Budmor says. “After he committed suicide in 1932, my mother wanted to follow his wishes. She went to Palestine with me and my two sisters. The family thought she was crazy; but, after Hitler came to power, they followed. My mother died in 1936, four years after we left Germany. We children were brought up by different friends of the family.”
Budmor played recorder at age four and wrote his first composition, two short songs, soon after arriving in Palestine. “I was in third grade. I composed the melody, and a schoolmate added words,” he explains. Budmor sings the songs in Hebrew. They are brief, tasteful, and innocent, yet they have musical tension. The first is called “Come little girl, let’s dance in a circle.” The second celebrates Shavuot, the Jewish festival of the first fruits. “All the kids sang the songs in school,” he says.
Budmor’s journey to the United States began with a two-year stay at Juilliard to study conducting in 1950. He returned and settled in New York City in 1958 with his Austrian-born American wife, Delakova, who ran a school and performing arts group in Israel.
In 1967, at age 44, more than a decade after studying conducting at New York City’s Juilliard School, Budmor earned a doctorate from Columbia University’s Teachers’ College. His doctoral composition was an oratorio, “Moses, Song of the Sea,” for which he used the same text that George Friedrich Handel employed in the second part of his “Israel in Egypt.”
Budmor’s “Moses” was scored for chorus, three vocal soloists, brass, and percussion. The piece was performed at New York’s Town Hall. “I was already teaching,” he says. “I brought a chorus from Trenton State College that did a Gabrielli piece for voices and brass to fill out the concert.”
As Budmor sees it, composing is something that happens to him. He is as surprised as anybody else at the result. “I don’t think about the creative process a lot,” he says. “It’s some kind of a gift, a miracle. It might end at any minute. I’m happy that it is there. I know one thing: You keep the gift alive by doing it. If you stop, it will stop.”
Moshe Budmor 90th Birthday Concert, Bristol Chapel, Westminster Choir College of Rider University, 101 Walnut Lane, Princeton, Saturday, June 15,7:30 p.m. Free. firstname.lastname@example.org 609-921-7334.