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A musical mensch-in-residence, with 'keys in hand'

In his Medford home, Yehudi Wyner, 80, recalls his career’s expanse, studying, singing, playing, composing, and the influence on him of his father’s Yiddish art songs. In his Medford home, Yehudi Wyner, 80, recalls his career’s expanse, studying, singing, playing, composing, and the influence on him of his father’s Yiddish art songs. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / June 21, 2009
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If you go to a classical concert in Boston - one with music that really matters, whether old or new - there’s a good chance you’ll find the composer Yehudi Wyner perched near the back of the hall, surveying the scene with warm eyes and a knowing presence. Bump into him at intermission and he might dispense a wry joke or a casual but penetrating remark about what you’ve just heard. He’s not there simply for a pleasant night out but because, in short, he is one of the most actively engaged composers you will meet.

Wyner, who is also a fine pianist and conductor, an adored teacher, and the city’s all-around musical mensch-in-residence, turned 80 this month and there have been generous tribute concerts here and in New York. And a new CD out on the Bridge label finally gives listeners a chance to encounter or meet again his Pulitzer Prize-winning Piano Concerto “Chiavi in Mano,’’ in a superb performance by Robert Levin and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, recorded in concert under the baton of Robert Spano in February 2005.

As this disc alone makes clear, Wyner is a rare breed of composer. He has lived through a century of musical polemics but never cast his lot with any one of the dom inant stylistic schools of his day. He has spent decades teaching at universities (Yale, SUNY Purchase, and until his retirement a few years ago, Brandeis) but he does not write what could be called academic music.

He is rather a composer with a fiercely independent spirit, a modernist who believes that serious music can and should still bring sensual pleasure. His works are vital and capacious, often finding fresh ways of wedding extremely visceral expression with a refined sense of craft. Levin, speaking by phone recently from Florida, where he is again performing Wyner’s Piano Concerto, described his music this way: “It delights, it exalts, it mourns, it broods, it rejoices, it engages in behavior which is sophisticated and elegant, and at times in something which is raucous and obstreperous. It’s just a wonderful combination.’’

To know the music is also to know the man. The other day, Wyner took a break between rehearsals for an upcoming recording and met for a conversation in his studio. The space was once a freestanding garage just behind his Medford home but Wyner has converted it into a kind of Mahlerian composer’s hut, crowded with a piano, scores, recordings, and memories.

He is a natural raconteur who talks like he writes music, with a crisp precision of language - he might dismiss a piece as “Victorian fustian’’ or simply as “repellent’’ - but also with colloquialisms tossed in to season the mix, sometimes from the Yiddish he learned as a boy. He began a conversation that spanned several hours by speaking about his father, the composer Lazar Weiner, and continued with reflections on his own journey in music.

Roots in the Kiev opera
To be sure, Wyner’s story rightly begins on the day that his father, the son of a shoemaker in Ukraine, was plucked from his town by a passing musician and given the opportunity to sing in a choir at the great Brodsky Synagogue of Kiev. Lazar went on to become a boy soprano in the Kiev opera and even sang alongside the legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin. He immigrated to New York and ultimately became the leading composer of Yiddish art songs. Wyner (whose last name was changed by his father when he was a boy) is deeply admiring of his father’s legacy and has labored to help preserve it.

“Essentially what he did was to codify in a body of work a whole culture, and to embody that culture in its most idealistic and most passionate medium,’’ Wyner said. “My feeling is that it is a monument to a certain aspect of idealistic Judaism, and to Yiddish. I also feel now that time passes and I’ve lived with those songs over the years, they only get better, they don’t tarnish. My feeling is that as long as there is classical music, and any aspiration for singing art songs like those of Schubert, Brahms, and Wolf, there will be a place for this music.’’

Wyner grew up in New York, and his musical gifts were spotted early and encouraged at Juilliard. His piano technique was good enough for him to consider a solo career but he could not reconcile himself to playing the same repertoire again and again, nor did he think he had the prodigious memory required to succeed as a concert virtuoso. Composing beckoned, and two of the most magnetic teachers at the time were both émigrés from Hitler’s Europe: Arnold Schoenberg, who taught at two schools in Southern California, and Paul Hindemith, who taught at Yale. Wyner was more drawn to Hindemith’s music at that time, so off he went to New Haven, only to learn upon arrival that Hindemith did not have real contact with undergraduates. Years later, when Wyner embarked on graduate study at Yale, he finally got the old man’s attention.

“It was a struggle and not very pleasant,’’ Wyner said bluntly. By that time, his romance with Hindemith’s music had faded and he recalled having frequent arguments with his teacher over the way a piece of music should be heard. As part of his training, however, Wyner also sang in a chorus directed by Hindemith, and that experience, he said, was revelatory. The chorus began with music from the 12th century and worked incrementally up through Anton Bruckner. “For Hindemith, every composer had an individual stamp, was so characteristically himself, and yet also a representative of a whole culture. It was wonderful.’’

After completing his studies Wyner won a fellowship to spend three idyllic years at the American Academy in Rome, living in a communal setting with poets and writers of all stripes . Elliott Carter was also there, and Wyner had the opportunity to immerse himself in Carter’s music and in some essential scores by revolutionary composers of the early 20th century. Capping his experience in Rome, Wyner wrote his landmark Concert Duo, a work that forcefully cast aside his early neoclassical leanings and plunged into a more liberated, post-expressionistic style. Scored for violin and piano, it is a brief piece but one of coiled intensity and rhapsodic expression. It was completed in 1957, and Wyner played on an early recording with the violinist Matthew Raimondi.

“I knew that recording of the duo before I knew Yehudi,’’ recalled fellow composer John Harbison, who was still a student at the time. “It was a piece that appealed to me tremendously. It was also phenomenal piano playing. You could hear right away the really great confidence and real emotional directness of the way he writes - and also the way he’s able to present himself as a performer. He just has a tremendous energy and alertness.’’

In the late 1950s, back in New York, Wyner was living a bohemian existence, taking piano accompanying jobs for as little as $2.50 an hour. He landed a job as music director of the small Turnau Opera in Woodstock, N.Y. “I had never had a moment of opera experience,’’ he recalled as if still in disbelief, “and it was incredibly intense. For the first rehearsal I had to learn ‘Barber of Seville’ in two days. We performed in a tiny barn that seated 200 people - a piano in the pit and a tiny stage. I was the orchestra.’’

When he eventually began teaching composition at Yale, he continued his conducting work with the New Haven Opera, and his piano playing with the Bach Aria Group. He came to teach at Brandeis University in 1986.

The rush of performing
Strange as this may sound, a composer with so much practical performance experience is a rarity these days. For most of the history of Western classical music, composers were also performers but over the course of the 20th century, to the great danger of the art as a whole, they came to see themselves as specialists removed from everyday performance of their own music, or anyone else’s for that matter. Wyner is a counterexample, a grounded musician whose music does not breathe the rarefied air of a lonely garret but rather revels in the sheer physicality of performance and the rush of communicating with a live audience.

Surveying Wyner’s catalog of work, one is struck by the range of his expression, from liturgical music like his “Friday Evening Service’’ to orchestral, choral, and chamber works of various combinations. Basic materials often reveal surprising depths, and works such as the “Second Madrigal’’ and “On This Most Voluptuous Night’’ contain landscapes of striking silvery beauty. Many pieces feature the soprano voice and were written for his wife, Susan Davenny Wyner, who was a widely admired singer before a biking accident in New York ended her days as a vocalist. She is now a conductor and has recorded much of her husband’s work, including the rugged yet passionately lyrical Cello Concerto that appears on the new disc alongside Wyner’s absorbing “Lyric Harmony’’ and “Epilogue: in memory of Jacob Druckman,’’ both in stirring performances.

But it is the composer’s Piano Concerto, by turns poised and rollicking, that opens the new disc and grabs attention from the start. It is packed with references yet somehow never feels like pastiche. Wyner often unabashedly brings hints of jazz and the popular music of his childhood into his concert pieces, and near the conclusion of the concerto, a furious boogie-woogie erupts and then charges through to the end. The title of the work, “Chiavi in Mano,’’ is an Italian expression that means “keys in hand,’’ and Wyner chose it because the piece is designed to lie comfortably beneath the soloist’s fingers even in passages of immense difficulty. For his part, Levin gives an exhilarating performance, full of adrenaline and risk-taking, strong sonorities and clear textures.

It was Levin himself who first suggested that the BSO commission a concerto from Wyner, and over the years he has been a close colleague and a fervent admirer of the composer’s music. “The virtuosity of his wingspan - the excellence of everything he does - is virtually without parallel, at least in our age,’’ said Levin. “One of the things that matters to me most as a musician is to have an active engagement with those musical minds that I feel are truly communicating across the divide. Yehudi is the quintessence of this kind of all-around musician. [Working with him] has been one of the deepest joys of my life.’’

Back in Wyner’s studio, the lunch hour beckoned and the composer offered a few parting comments. The politics of musical style have stymied the careers and sometimes the creativity of plenty of composers over the decades, and Wyner was asked if he ever felt pressure to adopt the strict 12-tone language that once reigned supreme in the academy. He responded with candor, and a with a wider view.

“No,’’ he said, “but I did feel I was on the outs. I never felt attacked - I just felt I was ignored. I was going my own way, writing the music I wanted to write and felt I had to write. There was never a [grand] statement. I didn’t know what would become of my music - that was not even a concern. It was simply the work of a practical musician who loved music and had a lot of references.’’

“I remember,’’ he continued, “a question Hindemith once asked one of his students who was writing very complex chromatic music. He said, ‘Is this what you have singing and ringing in your mind when you think of music?’ I found that a very admirable statement. When it came to writing a piece I simply did the best I could to write something that was coherent, something I believed in, something that touched me.’’

Wyner paused and glanced over at his piano as if checking in with an old friend, and then added: “Writing is so much a matter of ego strength. If you don’t somehow believe in it, if it does not ignite something in you, then you’re simply writing theory exercises. It can’t have any power of life.’’

Yet Wyner’s music does have that zest. “Any time I came to some kind of impasse I would return to this idea of what is it that I love about music? That sustained me.’’

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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