An Irving Fine anniversary is observed in words and music at Brandeis

October 18, 2012
By David Wright

Irving Fine

Every composer should have friends like Irving Fine’s friends.

When performers, composers, students, and members of the Fine family gathered at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. on Sunday afternoon for a concert to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Fine’s death, it was only the latest in a series of annual events sponsored by the Irving Fine Society, founded at Brandeis in 2006 to honor contemporary composers in general and to keep Fine’s music before the public.

The Boston-born, Harvard-educated composer taught theory and composition at his alma mater for eleven years before joining the fledgling Brandeis University in 1950 as lecturer and composer-in-residence, and later the founding director of the university’s School of Creative Arts.

A former pupil of Walter Piston, Nadia Boulanger, and Serge Koussevitzky, Fine became a close friend of such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland.  He also enjoyed a steadily advancing career as a composer, a highlight of which was conducting his then-new Symphony with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in August 1962.

Two weeks after that concert, Irving Fine was felled by a heart attack at age 47.

Fifty years after that, one could still hear echoes of grief in the auditorium of the university’s Slosberg Music Center.  “His spirit weaves through the history of this university in a profound way,” said Eric Chasalow, the university’s Irving Fine Professor of Music, in welcoming remarks Sunday.  “He thought up the first Festival of the Creative Arts at his kitchen table, and it did so much to put not just this department but Brandeis University on the map.”

Music followed: Fine’s Serious Song: Lament for String Orchestra of 1955, with a 21-piece string ensemble led by Neal Hampton, conductor of the bi-collegiate Brandeis-Wellesley Orchestra.  Although the players seemed to be feeling their way in spots, Hampton drew from them a vivid evocation of Fine’s musical personality, an exceptionally lyrical and refined take on the musical trends of the mid-20th century.

Serious Song began in a distinctly American vein, its yearning lines and bold gestures echoing the fervent style that ran at mid-century from Roy Harris and William Schuman through Copland to Bernstein.  The more agitated, jittery middle section recalled Stravinsky’s neoclassical works, which had been a formative influence on Fine.  Through it all, no passions were torn to tatters—a warm glow prevailed, growing calmer and more reflective down to the final, pianissimo bass pizzicato.

That was the cue for three of Fine’s colleagues, decorated composers all, to take the stage one after the other and offer their recollections of the man and his music.

Lamenting the present-day marketing of classical music as entertainment, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Yehudi Wyner praised Fine’s music for its “integrity, nobility, refinement, and message of high decency.”  To make his case that “Irving’s humor is as deep and informed as his serious music,” he played recordings of three brief songs from Childhood Fables for Grownups, sung by his wife Susan Davenny Wyner with himself at the piano.  In those lively performances, “Tigeroo,” “Lenny the Leopard,” and “Frog and the Snake” proved to be gems of sly yet tender wit, bringing a welcome lighter note to the afternoon’s proceedings.

Martin Boykan, Chasalow’s predecessor as Fine professor, recalled being inspired to become a composer by hearing Fine’s music at Harvard in 1947, when he was 16.  He praised Fine’s abilities as a teacher of aspiring composers, drawing out “the individual voice in each,” and marveled at the crowds that used to flock to Fine’s on-campus concerts of contemporary music.

Richard Wernick, another Pulitzer laureate, was also 16 when he had his memorable first encounter with Irving Fine, driving his father’s Oldsmobile 88 in a snowstorm, “fishtailing all the way through Newton and Natick” to keep an appointment with the composer at his house.  At the end of this scary journey, he stepped through Fine’s front door and “I knew I was home,” he told the audience Sunday.

Wernick recalled the pleasure of composition lessons with Fine, of analyzing together a prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, of being Fine’s amanuensis and copy editor as major Fine works such as the Fantasia For String Trio and the Symphony went through painstaking revision after revision.

“Everything Irving did was elegant,” he said.  “He walked elegantly, talked elegantly, wrote elegantly.  He even smoked elegantly.”  That quality of elegance, Wernick said, comes through clearly in Fine’s music.

The concert closed with Fine’s Notturno for Strings and Harp, with harpist Ina Zdorovetchi joining the string ensemble.  Her well-executed part was not soloistic, but added an attractive highlight to the string sound.  The true soloist’s role went to violist Peter Sulski, who gave a sensitive account of several meditative monologues, said to have been composed with Joseph de Pasquale, the longtime principal violist of the BSO, in mind.

Hampton ably steered the ensemble through the first movement’s constantly shifting moods, recalling Schoenberg one moment and Poulenc the next, and Mahler after that—all handled with the kind of modesty and refinement that has endeared Fine’s music to musicians, and perhaps held it back from wider public acclaim.

The second movement, the only fast one in the work, indulged in some Prokofiev-like high spirits without ever losing its poise.  Hampton and the players crisply characterized a piece that Fine’s biographer Philip Ramey called “that rare musical animal: an elegant scherzo.”

The work’s closing Adagio is the piece Bernstein selected to perform with the New York Philharmonic as a tribute to Fine two months after his death.  On Sunday, the complex chords that pulsed under the viola solos seemed inspired by Stravinsky’s classical ballet scores such as Apollon musagète, known to have been among Fine’s favorites.  From these rapt moments, the music grew into a full-throated song for the whole ensemble before dying away to an enigmatic ending.

In a program note for Bernstein’s memorial performance, the critic Edward Downes observed: “Admired by his colleagues and held in strong affection by his friends, Mr. Fine had a heart as well as a mind–a most romantic heart, to judge by some of his music.”

Sunday’s performances and reminiscences left no doubt as to the quality of Irving Fine’s mind and heart.

One Response to “An Irving Fine anniversary is observed in words and music at Brandeis”

  1. Posted Nov 09, 2012 at 11:25 pm by Richard Fenner

    I am sorry to say that only today did I find out about this tribute to Irving Fine.
    He was my composition teacher at Brandeis and at Tanglewood in 1956-58 — my beloved teacher who saw in me things others did not then see, myself included. He was always gracious, kind, encouraging and deeply inspiring to me. I remember him every day of my life and am ever grateful for his teaching and for his quiet love for his students.