By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN
It’s taken some six years, but native New Orleanian Morris Rosenzweig, a noted composer and conductor of new classical music, has finally achieved resident status again and made the move back to his hometown. His “pipedream,” as he refers to it, has been to serve as artistic director of the Louis Moreau Institute, a local arts society that promotes concerts of new classical works by emerging classical artists.
Named for New Orleans’ own Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the first American-born composer of note (whose father was a Jewish banker from London), the institute has been producing two concerts a year for the past five years. Rosenzweig has served as the artistic director and titular master of those musicians he has recruited to perform the programs of classical music.
“I thought there are two things that I’d like to combine in terms of things that I have an effect on and came make more positive,” the emeritus professor of composition from the University of Utah explained in a phone interview with the CCJN. The first was to launch an artistic entity that would promote new classical music and the second would be to increase opportunities for early career professional musicians who are trying to establish themselves.
“This is going to be the fifth season,” he added. “It was done with the idea that it was something that would be long term.”
Rosenzweig, who still is on the university faculty but teaching remotely, made a move to the Mid-City area near Bayou St. John, only a few months ago. He did so after the completion of a busy two-year term in which he crisscrossed the country overseeing musicians here in New Orleans, teaching students in his regular course of activities and conducting and premiering some of his own works.
The Louis Moreau Insitute, a non-profits arts organization, was formed with the help of several of his close friends including Seth and Julie Schwam Harris. “We’ve been at the Marigny (Opera House) for one concert each of the years we’ve done this presentation and we always do the other concert somewhere else,” he continued.
The first program of works will be at the Marigny Opera House, 725 St. Ferdinand Street, on Friday, March 8, at 7:30 p.m. The program consists of Sky Macklay’s “Many, Many Cadences,” Igor Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne,” Luciano Berio’s “Squenza VII,” György Kurtág’s “Quartet (Op. 1)” and “Tipitina Improvisation” by New Orleans’ own Professor Longhair (real name Roeland “Roy” Byrd) as realized by the Ullyses String Quartet under Rosenzweig’s direction. The Professor Longhair work is the only one that will be heard on both programs.
Last year, the setting for the second performance was the Recital Hall in the Dixon Hall Annex at Tulane University and Rosenzweig announced this year will be no different.
In addition to Stravinsky, who will be featured on the first program, several of the composers featured on the Tulane University program are Jewish too. These include Israeli-American Yotam Haber (“From the Book”), George Perle (“Quartet No 5”), Gottschalk (“Bamboula”) and Arnold Schoenberg (“Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte”).
Rosenzweig considers Schoenberg as an important Jewish composer as the leader of the Second Viennese School and because of his influence in developing the twelve-tone technique or chromatic scale. Schoenberg, whose music was characterized as “degenerate” by the Nazis, was forced to flee Germany in 1934. Rosenzweig points out that unlike Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler, Schoenberg was one of the first great composers who did not feel the need to convert to Christianity.
“Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte” is an important piece, Rosenzweig claimed. “This is the setting of Lord Byron’s ‘Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte,’ which is a castigation of Napoleon,” he added. “It’s a castigation and also a celebration of his demise. Schoenberg used the text to celebrate Hitler’s demise and castigation. It’s from 1945 and it’s very much a sardonic setting on that lyric.”
The piece will be performed by a group of musicians along with a singspiel in which the Byron text is both spoken and partially sung by New Orleans native Jonathan Z. Harris, a bass-baritone who now calls New York City home. Harris is the son of Seth and Julie Schwam Harris, two of the insitute’s board of directors.
“Jonathan sings all 19 verses with the ensemble, which is the string quartet and piano,’ he added.
Rosenzweig believes the Louis Moreau Institute adds to the already colorful landscape of music offerings heard in New Orleans. He calls it “recently written music extremely well played.”
This year’s musicians include Christina Bouey and Rhiannon Banerdt on violins, Colin Brooke on viola, Grace Ho on cello. They perform collectively under the ensemble name of The Ulysses Quartet. Classical pianist Adrian Blanco rounds out this year’s musicians.
In addition, groups like the Ulysses Quartet, who are in the beginning stages of establishing classical careers together as a group while maintaining separate careers as musicians, consider the time they spend under Rosenzweig’s masterful baton as extremely beneficial. “What this does is to give them a good week of intense work and also you could call it training,” he continued. “I coach them. This kind of music is my specialty and it’s been a very rewarding thing for them and me, obviously.”
Tickets for the Marigny Opera House event are $20.00 per person, while students get in for $10.00. The Dixon Annex performance next Monday night, March 11, is free to the public.
Over the course of the last few years, the numbers of attendees have risen, but it’s still not where Rosenzweig would like it. “I’d like to get it up to a hundred people and we haven’t hit that number except once,” he confided.
Nevertheless, he is buoyed by the level of musicianship at this year’s concerts. “Our product is well worth visiting because I do think it is unique and the repertoire is very strong,” he concluded. “And the playing is absolutely unbelievable.”