Sunday, June 27, 2010

Rochberg's Big Break

The announcement that Jennifer Higdon won the Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto gave David Patrick Stearns a chance to look back on notable Philadelphia composers of the past and identify some, including Higdon, that are coming into their own.

George Rochberg was one of the older generation that Stearns discussed. Like Higdon, Rochberg taught at the Curtis Institute--he was also a student there, continuing a music career suspended when he went overseas to fight in World War II. 

But it was in 1958, after Rochberg left Curtis to work for the music publisher Presser, that a chance meeting on Chestnut Street with an old mentor set in motion a series of events that would bring him to national prominence. 

The composer remembers hearing someone call his name: "Roschbergh, Roschbergh." It was George Szell. The Hungarian conductor taught Rochberg in New York at the Mannes School, shortly before he was drafted in 1942. Szell was an aloof teacher, and Rochberg was taken aback by the informality of the greeting. He was even more shocked when Szell called him a few weeks later to say, "Roschbergh, I am going to do your Second Symphony." 

And he did. The world premiere with the Cleveland Orchestra was a huge success. In February 1960, Szell reprised the work at Carnegie Hall; in 1961, the piece won a Naumberg award, leading to a performance and recording on Columbia with the New York Philharmonic. 

Although Rochberg thought the recording was poor, it, along with the high-profile performances of his Symphony No. 2 by Cleveland and Szell, solidified his position as a leading American composer.