Verdehrs' Making of a Medium means
working with some of the 20th century's greatest composers

By Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr

Creating new repertoire has its rewards--not only does one contribute to the art of music, but one can also have a lot of fun along the way, sharing unforgettable moments--and equally unforgettable meals--with the composers! World-renowned performers and Michigan State University professors Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr and Walter Verdehr founded the Verdehr Trio nearly 30 years ago, soon after meeting at MSU. Since then, their quest to commission and perform a new repertoire of works written for the violin-clarinet-piano trio has taken them around the world numerous times and brought them in close contact with many of the world's most gifted composers. The Verdehrs' vision of audiorecording and videorecording their performances of these new works, in addition to interviewing the composers on videotape, has resulted in a remarkable, unique archive of music and materials about composers that generations of musicians to come will be able to experience and explore. The Verdehr Trio collection is available at the Michigan State University Library, with manuscripts, letters, and other materials related to the commissioning over the years. The Verdehrs are also having many of their commissioned works printed by the MSU Press, a third prong to help disseminate information about the new pieces.

The Verdehrs have been busy editing and preparing three CDs containing music written for the Verdehr Trio, in which a number of them were commissioned with the help of Michigan State University. Two volumes, American Music Vol. I and II, will be released in fall 2001. Composers who wrote works featured on the CD are: Joan tower, Sebastian Currier, William Brohn (MSU graduate), John Biggs, David Diamond, Charles Hoag, Dan Welcher, Paul Chihara, Donald Erb, Marc Satterwhite (MSU graduate), and Jonathan Kramer. A third CD is of Austrian Music--due to be released early in 2002--with trios written by Thomas Christian David, Gottfried von Einem, and Ivan Eröd. A fourth CD is of double concertos for violin and clarinet, with works of James Niblock (former music department chairman) and William Wallace. It is due to be released in the summer of 2002. In fall 2001, the Verdehrs will record a volume of French music written for the trio, due to be released in the winter of 2003.

Following, Elsa shares her experiences of being on the road with the Verdehr Trio during the 2000-01 academic year:

While we have often had quite a bit of interaction with the many composers (well over 100) we have commissioned over the years, this past year gave us more than the usual occasion to work directly with many of them. In turn, we got to know them better, understand the intent of their works more fully, and enjoy their personalities. From October 2000 through April 2001, we gave nine premiere performances nationally and in Europe of works written for the Verdehr Trio, and in most cases the composers were present for the premieres.

East Coast and Europe

We began the academic year in September 2000 at the Eastman School of Music making a video recording of works by Joan Tower and Libby Larsen, with whom we had spent four delightful, laugh-filled days the previous year in South Carolina. During that time, Walter conducted hour-long video interviews with each of them, to be edited into the half-hour programs on each composer. (Each program will include an interview with the composer as well as a performance of his/her work, thus continuing an earlier series of six similar programs of the Verdehr Trio's Making of a Medium television series recorded several years ago.)

In mid-October, we had our first premiere of the school year. Alvin Singleton, who wrote Jaspar Drag for us in memory of James Byrd, Jr., who was dragged to his death by two white men in Jaspar, Texas a few years ago, attended our concert for the Miami festival held at the University of Miami.

For the past several years, we have played twice each year at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., where we are the ensemble-in-residence. We usually invite a composer to attend the concert and present the pre-concert talk. However, in November 2000, we had four well-known composers attend our concert: Peter Sculthorpe, perhaps Australia's most eminent composer; Peter Dickinson, the distinguished English composer who visited Michigan State University last year and gave several lectures; Scott McAllister, a rising young American composer from Florida who visited MSU last year for a wind symphony performance of his Clarinet Concerto "X;" and Alvin Singleton, one of the most renowned American black composers. As one might imagine, the after-concert dinner hosted at the Georgetown house of the Phillips music director was a lively affair, with the four composers (as well as a fifth, English composer Nicholas Maw, who had been in the audience) holding forth in fascinating debate and thoroughly enjoying each others' company.

In December, we traveled to Europe to rehearse, perform and record two double concertos for violin and clarinet with the composers. American composer William Wallace from the University of Utah was in attendance in Zlin, Czech Republic, where we performed and recorded his double concerto with the Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra. Again, it must be said that the after-concert and after-recording session dinners with composer, conductor and some orchestra members were a highlight--the superb restaurant at our hotel surpassed any meals we had eaten in Prague, and the release of tension from the sessions doubled the good times.

Next we traveled to Leipzig, Germany, where we premiered the double concerto, Love Music by Paul Chihara with the Mendelssohn Chamber Orchestra in Leipzig's Gewandhaus Hall. Paul is an eclectic composer whose works span chamber music, orchestral works and ballet, and is well-known from Hollywood to New York for his film and television music. Currently, he provides music for the new A&E television series 100 Centre Street. His after-concert talk spins stories of the entertainment world--the actors, directors and other film celebrities.

Arnold Black

In our work with so many different composers, we've had some sad experiences--and so it was with recently deceased composer Arnold Black. Arnie was a violinist in a chamber orchestra led by David Blum in the '60s. Walter first met Arnie--and current members of the Guarnieri Quartet in that group--as a student at Juilliard. Walter and Arnie saw each other only once for the next 30 years, until they both happened to serve on the jury for the Naumburg Violin Competition in the Spring of '98 in New York, where they renewed their friendship.

Arnie came to Washington in March 2000 to hear one of our Verdehr Trio concerts, and at the inevitable post-concert dinner, we discussed his writing a work for our trio. He began work on it that summer, but unfortunately died suddenly, before completing even the first movement. However, sketches of what he had completed were saved on his computer, and his widow sent them to Walter.

Ironically, the day after receiving Arnie's sketches, Walter was scheduled for a television interview with composer William Bolcom for our trio's new video series. Bill had been a very close friend of Arnie's, so Walter showed him the sketches, and asked if he knew who might be able to complete the movement, to which Bill replied that he would try to think of someone. (Bill and Arnie had collaborated on the music for the movie Illuminata, thus Bill knew Arnie's style intimately.) Low and behold, the next evening we received the message from Bill that he had stayed up all night to complete the movement himself. He asked if we would like to play it at Arnie's memorial concert in New York--with Bill himself at the piano. We were thrilled, and of course, accepted the offer.

So came the morning of the concert, October 25, 2000. We rehearsed with Bill at his apartment in the old Chelsea Hotel in New York (where many notables have lived including Dylan Thomas) and gave the first performance that afternoon in a concert that featured performances by many who had known Arnie. He had a huge number and variety of friends in New York, and the performers were a virtual Who's Who of New York musicians. On the program were Robert Mann, formerly of the Juilliard Quartet; David Nadien, former concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic; Carol Wincenc, renowned flutist; singers Lucy Shelton and Nadia Steinhardt, daughter of Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarnieri Quartet who, though he couldn't attend, had sent a delightful letter, which she read for him. In the audience were Richard Goode, Ursula Oppens, the actor John Turturro and many others. It was a very moving afternoon--a real tribute to a wonderful friend and musician--and we felt most privileged to have been a part of it.

Back to the East Coast and Europe

In January 2001, we began rehearsing a new work by Curtis Curtis-Smith of Western Michigan University. We premiered this tricky piece, with many jazz twists, in Kalamazoo, Mich. for the Chamber Music Society. We then flew to New York for a concert in February featuring a major trio written for us by David Diamond, dean of living American composers. This had been commissioned for the Verdehr Trio by the Library of Congress many years ago and we had premiered it at the Kennedy Center during Diamond's 80th birthday year. Now, for the New York premiere, we performed it in honor of his 85th birthday. Although his health precluded his attendance that night, two other composers were in the audience: Gernot Wolfgang, a young Austrian composers, now living in Los Angeles where he works in the movie studios, and Charles Hoag, from the University of Kansas whose Sweet Melancholy Lost Your Dolly Slow Drag Rag, always an audience favorite, closed the program. (His program notes assure the reader that he didn't lose his dolly and, in fact, never had one!)

In March, we returned to Washington to premiere two more new works: Tibetan Dance. by Bright Sheng (pictured to the right with the trio), a young composer from China now teaching at the University of Michigan, as well as a trio by the director of the Austrian Composer's Society in Vienna, Heinrich Gattermeyer. We gave the European premiere performances of both works in Vienna later that month, followed by yet another post-concert party and delightful evening with Herr Gattermeyer at the Cafe Mozart in Vienna--downing Viennese specialties of goulash, wiener schnitzels and strudels.

Also on that program was a work written for us by the late Austrian composer Gottfried von Einem, perhaps the most famous international Austrian composer of the second half of the century. His widow regaled the audience with stories about her husband, an avant-gardist who for years after World War II was considered the "bad boy" of Austrian music.

Continuing our tour in Europe, we flew to Athens, Greece where we premiered a duo for violin and clarinet by Dinos Constantinides (former MSU Ph.D. student), the third piece he has written for us, as well as a new work by Greek composer Athanasios Zervas. Dinos has been at Louisiana State University for many years and heads up the Festival of Contemporary Music held there each year. In April, we performed Dinos' revised double concerto for violin and clarinet, Concerto of Psalms, with the Louisiana Sinfonietta in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, bringing premieres for the school year to an end.

During our 19th-annual summer chamber music series, we premiered Voyage by Turkish composer Timur Selcuk, and Sounds from Luhong by Chinese composer Zhu Shu-hua, the father of one of Walter's former violin students, Zhu Hong, who now teaches in Oklahoma. Later in the summer on an Australian tour, we did the first Australian performances of works written for the trio by Joan Tower, Bright Sheng and Gian Carlo Menotti. Unfortunately, none of them could join us on the tour, but we enjoyed performing works by Australians Peter Sculthorpe and Richard Mills. In honor of Gian Carlo Menotti's 90th birthday year, we also played his trio throughout Australia.

We would like to acknowledge Michigan State University's interest and assistance in our commissioning project over the years. The support we have received from administration has been incalculably helpful in making our mission possible. As a show of appreciation, it is our hope to reach 150 commissions by the year 2005, which is MSU's 150-year anniversary.

For other articles:

"The Making of a Medium"
- November, 1995 issue of The Strad,
Volume 106, Number 1267

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