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The secret to the label's success seems to be its steadfast concentration
on filling its niches superbly. From the outset, Bridge was a haven
for contemporary music, and specifically for the "smart" end of
the modern-music spectrum. Where a few mainstream labels nervously
released edgy new works that might snag some interest from pop-oriented
listeners, Bridge cast its lot with composers the Starobins believed
offered the most enduring value. Their business plan was pragmatic.
They appreciated that they would not grow wealthy producing recordings
of Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, or Poul Ruders; but they also
believed that a market for such music did exist and that, if they
kept their operation small and their aspirations realistic, they
could make enough money to keep the firm afloat while deriving deep
satisfaction from doing something they cared about.
I may say so," Becky Starobin suggests, "I think that our ambition
with Bridge shows some of the same missionary zeal that led to the
founding of Oberlin College. We're going out there to convert people
to this music. In fact, it's more than just a missionary spirit.
It's a belief that dedication and caring can make the world a better
place. To old hippies like David and me, that goes to the heart
of what we do, and it also goes to the heart of what we think about
Oberlin. That all these Oberlin people have gotten mixed up in our
own operation seems perfectly natural. Believe me, we've worked
with musicians from all the conservatories over the years, and Oberlin
has a different feeling from any of the others."
fact, Becky once aspired to be an Obie herself, and applied as a
violinist when she was still a high-school sophomore in Texas. Although
she ended up enrolling at Peabody, she has always carried a special
appreciation for Oberlin. "My dad was disappointed that I didn't
go to Oberlin," she recalls. "He was a Congregationalist minister,
and when we visited the campus together and he saw all those churches
lining the square, he really liked that!" Some consolation came
when one of Becky's musical sisters, Kathy Askew '76, went to Oberlin
as a violist; Becky's other string-playing sisters ended up at Peabody
professors on the Oberlin faculty, violinist Gregory Fulkerson '71
and pianist Robert Shannon '71, boast numerous entries in the Bridge
catalog. Fulkerson knew the Starobins in the 1970s, and not long
after they founded their label, he sent them "on spec" a sample
recording he had made of the Ives violin sonatas. They liked what
they heard, and in 1989 produced a disc of those pieces performed
by Fulkerson and Shannon.
began a relationship that continues to flourish. Fulkerson's Bridge
recordings include chamber works by Gunther Schuller and the late
Robert Black '72, a concerto by Richard Wernick, and - Bridge
not being just a contemporary-music label - a much-acclaimed
reading of Bach's Unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas. More concertos
are on the way. Fulkerson spent his Christmas holidays of 2002 in
Prague with David Starobin, committing the Tchaikovsky and Dvorák
violin concertos to disc. He records Stephen Jaffe's Violin Concerto
in Denmark in May 2003 and is making plans for another Bridge release
of standard violin concertos - perhaps Sibelius and Schumann
- next season.
have recorded for other labels," says Fulkerson, "but, frankly,
most of my best work has been with Bridge. It has to do with their
commitment to the product. Of course they need to stay afloat in
the business, but quality stands very high on their mission statement.
They don't schedule longer sessions than other producers, but they
end up taking more care in all aspects of the production process.
Every decision is artistic. And that's how it should be. A studio
recording is presumably a statement of some sort. It's supposed
to reflect your strongest convictions and best efforts regarding
a piece, and we take that aspect very seriously."
similarly finds the Starobins to be kindred souls. Following his
collaboration on the Ives violin sonatas, he went on to enrich their
catalog with Ives' Concord Sonata, a piano sonata by John Harbison,
and a disc of pieces by Tod Machover. "I guess I'm a Bridge artist
out of satisfied inertia," he observes. "It's the right sized company
and the Starobins are interested in the sorts of projects I would
do. Their musical sensibilities are close to mine, perhaps because
we are of the same generation. And of course it's a high-quality
catalog, in no way a 'vanity press.'"
first exposure to Crumb was Oberlin's Lorca cycle in 1972. "It made
a stunning impression," he recalls, "and I started to dig into his
music myself. I went off to graduate school at Juilliard, and in
the 1974-75 season I was the first Juilliard pianist to play Crumb's
Makrokosmos cycle." But Juilliard had not yet adopted Crumb to the
extent that Oberlin had. "At that time," says Shannon, "Oberlin
was more involved in new music than any other school. My teacher
at Juilliard, Ania Dorfmann, did encourage me to play new music,
and that in itself was unusual. So I played Makrokosmos I for her.
That was the only book of the Makrokosmos that existed then; it's
the one that includes a quotation from Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu.
So I got to the end, and there was a long pause, and then she offered
her assessment of my performance of Crumb's Makrokosmos: 'Dear,
you don't know how to play Chopin!'"
and Shannon seemed a natural choice for Bridge's recording of Crumb's
Four Nocturnes for Violin and Piano. Things went swimmingly for
Fulkerson, but he allows that the session was not without its challenges.
"When the Nocturnes came up on the session schedule, it was the
third consecutive day of work for Bob, who had been recording Crumb's
Gnomic Variations. By that time, his hands were actually bloody
from all the strumming and plucking he'd been doing. In the Nocturnes
the pianist has to rap his knuckles on the keyboard, and by that
time Bob had already gone through all the convenient knuckles. Didn't
he tell you that?" (He had not when I spoke with him a few days
earlier. It must have seemed all in a day's work for a Crumb pianist.)
is well represented in the early volumes of the Complete Crumb Edition,
both as the soloist in Processional and Makrokosmos I and II and
as a duo-partner in Makrokosmos III (aka Celestial Mechanics). In
the last he is joined by his wife, Haewon Song, who also teaches
piano on the Oberlin faculty. "Celestial Mechanics doesn't get played
much," he says, "and I'm sure it's because it simply takes so much
rehearsal time. I guess it's best if you're married, or at least
in love - and we are both."
Crumb's most frequently performed pieces is Black Angels (Thirteen
Images from the Dark Land), a frightening essay for electric string
quartet composed, as the score notes, "in tempore belli, 1970" -
that is, in the dark days of the Vietnam War. Many quartets play
it strikingly, but for the Complete Crumb Edition the Starobins
settled on the Miró String Quartet, which was born in Oberlin
in 1995. (Half of its members are Oberlin graduates: violinist Daniel
Ching '95 and cellist Joshua Gindele '97.) Now the quartet-in-residence
at Kent State University, the foursome was instrumental in putting
together a five-day Crumb festival there in September 2002 -
Kent being a particularly redolent site given the Vietnam connection
of Black Angels.
festival was actually the first time we played for Crumb," says
Gindele, "and we found that he was open to discussing all sorts
of ideas about refinements of sound. It turns out that what's notated
in the score is no longer what he wants. His thoughts have changed
a lot since he wrote the piece, and he intimated that he'd like
to bring out a new edition. We presented him with as many options
as we could, and we were surprised by how flexible he was. He's
a performer himself, and that makes a big difference. Composers
who perform even just a little are more effective composers."
with many Crumb works, simply programming Black Angels entails more
than usual commitment from performers. "When we book it we have
to charge the presenter more," says Gindele, "because we have to
travel with so much extra equipment. You need four high-quality
microphones and stands, speakers with decent wattage, a processor
for reverberations, tuned glasses, gongs, maracas. You can try to
rent this stuff locally but usually it's easier to bring your own.
That way at least you know you have what you need for a worthy performance.
Recently I drove all the way from Ohio to Billings, Montana, just
to get all the equipment there." That's commitment. And how did
Black Angels play in Billings? "It went over great," he says. "That
piece always gets to people, everywhere." [The Miró String
Quartet returned to Oberlin this past January, performing Black
Angels and other works for an enthusiastic, standing-room-only audience
in Kulas Recital Hall. - Ed.]
in return, evinces an unusual degree of warmth toward his interpreters,
and attributes his fascination for producing fanciful manuscripts
- their circular and spiraling staves so beautiful that they
have been exhibited as artworks - as a way to communicate private
delights to performers through a medium that need not concern the
audience. For Crumb, participating in the recordings provides an
important opportunity. "I've been at all the sessions," he says.
"I felt like once the project got started it made sense for me to
be in on them. It becomes almost a supplement to the score, you
know - a way to see that your own feelings about the piece
get into the recording, to get things as I hear it in my inner ear.
Yup. And, gosh, they all play so well."
a new generation of Oberlin musicians has embraced Crumb's music
with such enthusiasm brings immense joy to those who have now championed
him for decades. Says Fulkerson, "The atmosphere here at Oberlin
is conducive to making sure students explore the music of their
own time. When people do that without an ideological bias, quite
a few will find Crumb's music to be powerful and unusual, and they
will ultimately be drawn to it. Oberlin can take some credit for
producing an environment where this attitude can grow." II
M. Keller '75, BA '75 is Program Annotator of the New York Philharmonic
and the San Francisco Symphony. From 1990 to 2000 he wrote about music
and recordings on staff at The New Yorker and in 1999 was honored
with the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for distinguished music journalism.
His first encounter with Crumb's music was the Lorca cycle premiere
at Oberlin in 1972, and he's been hooked ever since. His writings
on Crumb have previously been published by The New Yorker, Chamber
Music (which he serves as contributing editor), and Le Monde de la
Musique. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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