Among the more delightful dimensions of returning home is the opportunity to renew old friendships. Some have, like me, experienced their own odysseys and returned safely to New York. Others have never left. But distance, time, and the peculiar responsibilities of life challenge all but the very most intimate of friendships. Proximity facilitates.
Among the people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of reconnecting is a very dear friend whom I have seen but rarely over the years. I’ve known Bruce Lazarus since we were about six years old. That’s a long time. Only my wonderful friend Phil is of similar vintage.
Bruce is a warm, sweet, funny, and very smart guy. All of this is clear in his music. Bruce, you see, is a composer. He is also a pianist of enormous talent. I have to confess that, much as I like Bruce, I was a bit jealous in high school. My pianistic technique could not compare with his. But envy is a sentiment of the young. It rather easily transforms into admiration. I admire his talent the way I do that of writers like Robert Caro and David Foster Wallace. No matter how good I might become, I will never be that good. Nobody is. So let’s call it the admiration of a journeyman for an artist.
Part of resuming friendship with Bruce is, for me, the opportunity to catch up on his music. You may want to, as well. I’m linking to his website here. In fact, let me recommend highly that you do. Bruce’s music is extraordinary.
Last month I was privileged to be present at the world premier of selections from Bruce’s song cycle setting the poetry of Lewis Carroll. The music was pure delight. Its humor honored Carroll’s quite well. There were moments of deep poignancy, revealing pain beneath the laughter. There was energy and intelligence. And fun.
But I’ve been listening over the past few weeks to one of Bruce’s major compositions. Messier Catalogue of Star Clusters and Nebulae is Bruce’s setting for piano of selections from the catalogue compiled by Messier in the late 18th century. According to Bruce, his inspiration was a series of photographs taken with the Hubble telescope (as well as his life-long interest in astronomy. Bruce and Phil shared this interest seriously. I was a curious camp follower.)
No surprise to me, the music is wonderful (and Bruce’s playing is about as authoritative as it gets). I don’t have the vocabulary to do it justice, but I’d like to tell you a bit about it in words that can only convey impressions. (For those who want Bruce’s own description of the piece, click here. I haven’t read it yet because I wanted to describe the music in my own way, uninfluenced by the guy that wrote it. How postmodern of me!)
The piece consists of 14 separate portrayals of specific entries in the Messier catalogue. They run from about a minute and a half (the shortest) to almost four minutes (the longest), but average about 3 minutes each.
It opens with the “Sombrero” Galaxy. There is an immediate shimmer in the music with an insistent pulse. The virtuosity required to coax such ephemeral sounds from the piano is remarkable, and of course Bruce has it. Just as you’re entranced by the dazzling light, the music pauses briefly for a passing lyric, before resuming a declining shimmer into darkness, rising again, more mysteriously, more distantly, slowing thoughtfully, contemplatively, reluctantly resolving. It’s quite a start.
Each of the phenomena depicted seems to have its own personality. By the time we get to the “Crab” Nebula — “Expanding Remnant from Exploded Star,” it is aggressive, brooding, angry. A little frightening. Or so it was to me.
What astonishes is Bruce’s ability to create musical geometry. The striking patterns of the “Ring Nebula” are almost visual in quality. “The Pleidaes” literally climb.
I was particularly taken with the Andromeda galaxy. It is often steadily rhythmic, with simple melodies repeating over complex harmonies. Bruce uses repetition to transfixing effect. Like some glorious pattern of light from which you cannot remove your gaze, you are drawn ever more intensely into the swirl.
Bruce’s music is controlled passion, while at the same time deeply intellectual. You can hear him think, and he makes you think. But sometimes he achieves levels of sensuality all the more surprising for their departure from the insistent structures. The “Sunflower Galaxy” is where this happened for me. Unexpectedly, he introduces fleeting measures of gorgeous, sumptuous harmony, almost lounge-y in a way, even a bit transgressive. There is an intimacy that intertwines the listener with the galaxy, an intimacy that interrupts the posture of observer in which you are cast by most of the music to, almost, the embrace of lover. But, like the embrace of lovers, it is fleeting, and you are soon hurled back to earth.
I’m getting carried away, so I’ll skip to the last portrait, “Globular Cluster in Hercules.” Really, “globular” is not a word that, to me, promises beauty. But what is a name? We are treated to virtuosic skipping scales and chords. Frankly, I’m not at all sure how he can play them. The piece begins with a strong directional pull upward, but Bruce is a bit of a tease. Even as the music climbs, he periodically and rather abruptly pulls you back, keeping you on edge. The rhythms and the almost quirky interruptions in this selection reminded me very much of Robert Schumann (and, more specifically, Carnival). Bruce stands on his own, and doesn’t need comparisons with other composers, but Carnival is one of maybe my five favorite pieces to play (when I’m in shape enough to play it), precisely because of these qualities. So I mean only the very highest praise.
The piece works wonderfully on piano and, as I’m sure Bruce intended, shows off the pianist’s virtuosity and range. But toward the end I couldn’t help but wonder how, were Ravel alive, it could orchestrate. I suspect wonderfully well. (OK, so I started orchestrating it a bit in my head.) But no matter. My friend Bruce is a huge talent. Listen to his music. He’s also a great friend. I’m glad to be back.