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Language of Music Is in His Composition

By Thomas May
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 4, 2004; Page N05

It's a beautiful cold December, cold enough to freeze the fields, observes Stephen Jaffe from his home in Durham, N.C. Earlier that morning, he'd been delighted to spot a pair of pileated woodpeckers in a pine forest nearby. Less than a month separates Jaffe from what is certain to be a climactic event in his career as a composer. Despite the anticipation, he tries to keep it all in perspective.

But it can't be easy for him to maintain a Walden Pond tranquillity. There's nothing quite like the moment of truth when a composer witnesses the public birth of a new work, particularly one for a major ensemble such as the National Symphony Orchestra. This week Leonard Slatkin will conduct the NSO in the world premiere of Jaffe's Cello Concerto.

Stephen Jaffe's Cello Concerto will get its world premiere from the NSO this week. The work prompted Leonard Slatkin to exclaim, "My God, this is hard!" (Les Todd -- Bridge Records)

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Jaffe says he had decided by age 12 to become a composer. "I never had that one moment of listening to 'The Rite of Spring' for the first time and saying, 'That's it!' . . . On some intuitive level I knew I wanted to speak the language of music." For Jaffe, it was a gradual process rather than a dramatic epiphany -- which in a way is also characteristic of his subtly imaginative art.

Born in 1954, Jaffe grew up in a musically rich background. Though his parents were both geologists (they met at the now-vanished U.S. Bureau of Mines), his father took up composition as a hobby ("His real interest was basically in show music," Jaffe says) and studied it on the side at Catholic University. Jaffe's sister pursued oboe, and his brother Andy became a renowned jazz pianist, composer and educator.

The family moved to Switzerland when Stephen was in his teens, and he soon found himself attending seminars at Geneva's Music Conservatory. The timing and the place gave him direct exposure to adventurous music -- Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The music of the European avant-garde of the time -- which was "very impressive to hear as a new sound" -- was potent but didn't impose the sort of rigid orthodoxy it seemed to exercise on the previous generation.

But it was the idiosyncratic sound world of the American mavericks George Rochberg and George Crumb that had captivated Jaffe by the time he returned to the States in the early '70s. He enrolled in the graduate program at Penn and studied advanced composition with both men.

"Pieces like Rochberg's Third String Quartet and Crumb's 'Ancient Voices of Children' opened up lots of territory," he said. "It allowed for a composer to speak in a way that was broad, where you could partake of different kinds of experience from the total musical world we live in: Some are informal, down-to-earth, while some are intense and uplifting."

One of the striking things about Jaffe's own music is the impression of secure, self-reliant exploration. Despite having strong-minded mentors, Jaffe reflects their influence at most only obliquely.

"Where I differ is that I didn't like the whole idea of quotation and pastiche. I've tried to follow up after their revolution and speak a musical language that is broad, but I want to speak it eloquently [in a way that is] cut of the same cloth."

Jaffe's work bears out this meticulous sense of composition as a craft. He has composed several works for smaller chamber ensembles, including pieces such as the prismatic, pastoral "Rhythm of the Running Plough" from 1985. The title comes from an American poet (William Everson).

A more recent song cycle by Jaffe -- "Homage to the Breath" -- particularly caught the attention of the NSO's principal cellist, David Hardy, who will perform as soloist in the Cello Concerto premiere. As a member of the 20th Century Consort, Hardy was involved with the first performance of the song cycle, which was written for the Consort's 25th anniversary in 2001.

Hardy also liked Jaffe's Violin Concerto (from 1999), a spaciously symphonic and solidly constructed work. He showed the score to Slatkin, the NSO's music director, who was impressed enough to invite Jaffe to compose a completely new work for Hardy and the NSO -- the latest in the series of nearly 50 new works commissioned over the past two decades for the orchestra by the Hechinger Fund.

In contrast to many new works that end up receiving only scant rehearsals in the midst of a hectic season, Jaffe relishes the special collaboration inherent in working with a soloist on a concerto. The result was a challenging work in four movements following a form Jaffe describes as "fluid and expressive."

"You can have this process of working through complex, virtuosic, challenging music with the soloist over months," Jaffe says. "I wanted to use the whole, versatile range of the cello to its full extent. Just as athletes leap higher and run faster than they did 50 years ago, today the repertoire of cellists' sounds is greater than it used to be."

Jaffe also chose to engage the orchestra with the soloist by dividing the former into various timbral groupings. His scoring is intricate and colorful, calling for a huge complement of percussion including steel drums and the "lion's roar." Hardy notes that when the final version was delivered, Slatkin exclaimed, "My God, this is hard!" (A view that Yo-Yo Ma, visiting at the time, echoed.) Yet even if it is "probably the hardest concerto I've ever done," Hardy also admires the music as "a gorgeous piece that uses the cello so well." Jaffe's piece runs the technical gamut, calling for double stops behind the bridge, difficult harmonics, and lots of ponticello playing (the icy sound often heard in eerie horror films).

Yet virtuosity isn't the goal, just a vehicle for Jaffe's imagination. The composer admires the "extraordinary array of colors" Hardy is capable of producing and refers to the versatility of his 1694 Testore cello. "Today it's common to think that the repertoire for these instruments is behind us, but we're never more than a few great pieces from a whole new repertoire. There are still many wonderful new things for a cello to say."

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