Interview “Interrupted Melody: The Compositional Career” By David Deboor

BY DAVID DEBOOR CANFIELD

Given that Osias Wilenski is not exactly a household name—yet!—to the readers of this publication, I’ll introduce him briefly with some biographical details of his interesting life to this point. Wilenski was born in Argentina of Russian-Jewish lineage. He undertook early studies in piano and composition, the latter with a pupil of Berg. Not surprisingly, he developed an interest very early on in the Second Viennese School. In the 1950s, he received a scholarship to attend the Juilliard School of Music. Failing at first to find a satisfactory piano teacher, he switched his major to composition, studying with William Bergsma, Vincent Persichetti, and Juilliard’s president at the time, William Schuman. Eventually, he was accepted as the only piano student of Simon Barere. Returning to Argentina, he became dissatisfied with life as a concert pianist, and found limited opportunities as composer there. He became so disillusioned that in the 1960s, he gave up music as a career entirely, even going so far as to destroy all of his compositions up until that time. He became a film director, producing shorts and two features. One of these was awarded a prize at the 1959 Mar del Plata Festival. Subsequent activities included a stint as an opera répétiteur at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, and a similar position in the 1980s at the Teatro Liceo de Barcelona, where he has lived until the present time. He has now retired from Teatro Liceo in order to devote more time to composition, and found time to answer the questions that I posed to him below at the end of January 2013.

 

Q: You’ve certainly led an interesting life! Reading your biography, I can scarcely imagine what it must have been like to have lived a life that has taken so many unexpected turns. Was there ever any time that you believed you were done with music for good, or did you always maintain hope during those times you were not actively involved in it that you would get back into the field?

A: This is going to be more of a “confession” than an interview, for your questions drive me through themes beyond music, and I thank you for that. When I took those “unexpected changes” you speak about, I never looked back. I was certain I was doing the right thing and ready to work in the new field I had chosen, completely disregarding what I had left behind. These events occurred during the ’60s and ’70s, an era of great change in the world, and so it was also in Argentina, a land of eternal unrest and instability where I was living in those decades. It was admittedly a drastic change when I switched from music to cinema and TV, and then, a few years later, back to music. It’s easy to be critical after so many years, but I now judge such a sudden change of profession to be a great mistake, perhaps the cause of my lack of success in both fields. But that is past history, and no one can tell what would have happened had I taken another path.

Q: You studied with such musical luminaries as Schuman, Bergsma, and Persichetti. How did these various composers influence your compositional voice? Were any of them particularly helpful to you in finding your style? Even though you abandoned strict serialism, I hear more of the influence of Berg through your first teacher, Erwin Leuchter, his pupil, than I do of the other composers with whom you studied. Is this your assessment too?

A: Leuchter taught me the wonders of the Viennese school, to which I faithfully adhered. It

wasn’t long, though, before I freed myself, realizing that I could write the same music without following an iron-fisted tone row. That step also gave me freedom to choose the type of music I wanted to write. Leuchter said that my real talent was in composing, and it has taken me over 50 years to recognize that he was right. I remember a number of works I had written in childhood under his guidance. One of them, a piano trio with flute and violin, was performed in the presence of Artur Rubinstein, who on the basis of hearing the piece and my performance of it as a pianist (I studied under Vicente Scaramuzza, the best teacher in Argentina at the time), helped me obtain a scholarship at Juilliard School of Music in New York.

After many years in America, upon my return to Argentina I began a career as concert pianist,

but it did not blossom into one of international status as I expected, and in a few years even declined from where it had begun. Since the 1980s I have slowly returned to composition, and I didn’t do too badly: I was in my own country, where I had the privilege of being an important local composer. Many of my works were performed and some were awarded prizes (for instance  The Legend of the Kakuy, included on one of the recordings in this review). Since approximately 2000, and by that time living in Spain, I have given all my energy to composing and performing my works, being convinced that this was my future. From the American composers, those with whom I studied, and other great names such as Copland or Roy Harris, I learned that music should “sound,” and this concept impressed me so much that I spent years trying to obtain that special “sound,” the 12-tone technique I used only in some early works that were destroyed. It was more natural to me to move in a world of atonality broad enough to include aspects of tonality. (I come back to the “sound” again!) I thought, and still do, that this mixture of concepts helps the listener to grasp the flow of the musical discourse and the formal aspect of the piece. It also produces more agreeable-sounding harmonies than the clashing seconds and sevenths typically encountered in 12-tone music. One composer stood out as a model for me: Alban Berg, whose Three Pieces for Orchestra op. 6 and his opera Wozzeck were icons in my studies. Neither is strictly 12-tone, and both are deeply rooted in the postromanticism of late 19th- and early 20th-century Austro-German music.

There are as many techniques as composers—that’s what’s great about musical creation. Each one has to find his own way. I love repeating notes, using octaves in melodies, doublings in the orchestration, and major and minor chords, all forbidden by the serial purist. But 12-tone composition is not a sound  per se – listen for example to Berg and Webern to hear the different sound possibilities within this style. Other composers have created sound worlds without drawing much at all from the Viennese school. These would include Penderecki, whom I greatly admire, Stockhausen, and Ligeti. Each of these three has engaged for a time with experiments in sound, but which they abandoned rather quickly. Other great composers, like Stravinsky, turned to the 12-tone idiom in a later period in order to produce an austere and condensed musical utterance. Even Schoenberg him- self used tonality in some of his later work. And then there were Béla Bartók, and Benjamin Britten, two great musicians working more or less within tradition. I’m not trying to compile a list of com- posers, but just to prove a point: Nobody cares any more what technique a composer uses, as long as the finished product comes out great!

Q: You have an equally impressive pedigree when it comes to your piano instructors, including your work with the legendary Simon Barere, where you were amazingly his sole pupil. How did that come about, and what was he like as a teacher?

A: I met Barere through a friend, after I was initially unable to find someone to work with.

But Barere was unique, as he was not a teacher in the usual sense. Rather, he taught by example.

I remember playing for him (mostly Liszt at the time), and his teaching would consist of saying, with his heavy Russian accent, “Why don’t you do it this way,” and then play the same piece with impeccable virtuosity.

Q: Why did you leave Argentina?

A: The real question should be “Why did you leave the United States?” If only I would have had a little more understanding of the great opportunity that was given to me at that time! I would have then stayed and made real my dream of success. But I was too young and immature, and I left when my parents summoned me back home to Argentina. In the midst of the mediocrity I went back to, I became another character without hope, and that may have been a contributing reason for my leaving music. However, life constantly surprises us, and in 1989 a colleague from Teatro Colon of Buenos Aires, where I was working as pianist at the time, had left Argentina a few years before, having gained an important post at the Teatro del Liceo of Barcelona. He phoned me to tell me that the theater needed a pianist, and to inquire if the post interested me. At the time, Argentina was suffering from inflation of 10 percent a day, and the Teatro Colon was closed for lack of funds. Thus was Argentina, so I seized the opportunity and left for Spain with my wife. My six-month contract was prolonged to a year, then another year, and I ended up staying in the position for 15 years. I never went back to Argentina, and have never regretted it.

Q: I’ve read where you have given up concertizing in order to devote yourself primarily to com- position. What is it about composing that you find more attractive as a means of musical expression than playing the piano?

A: That’s not actually completely true. I gave up concertizing mainly because I felt I had reached my technical limit as a performer, and realized that I did not have it in me to become a pianist of international stature. There was also the issue of stage fright, which most performers struggle with. This decision was not easy to accept at the time, but I’m glad that for once I made a good one. Now I find that composing music is my true way of expression and one in which I find myself absolutely at home.

Q: May I assume, then, that in the 1990s, when you gave up composing for a time, you must have missed that aspect of musical creativity?

A: During the 1990s, when I was principal pianist at the Teatro Liceo in Barcelona, I composed very little because that job, even though I loved it, was very demanding on my time and energy. Only after I retired could I dedicate myself completely to composing, and I have not stopped since.

Q: In your program notes, you refer to your perception of the decline of public interest in con- temporary music. Do you see that decline continuing, such that future composers of classical art music will become irrelevant in society? Or, do you believe there is a way to halt and reverse that decline?

A: I have a very low opinion of the general public. The 20th century (the greater part of which my lifetime spans) was a time of wars (although what time in history wasn’t!), but also of art.

People knew about it, enjoyed it, and produced it. Look at the number of great names in music, painting, literature, cinema, and more from the century just past. Today, most members of the younger generation have shifted their interest to rock and popular songs. Ignorance is one characteristic of our times, as is disbelief that there are things of greater value than everyday diversions.

The result is nihilism, which I’m sure is one of the causes of the horrible world crisis for which our present age will be remembered. However, in very recent times, I do find a shift in the very young, who are slowly becoming interested—certainly education has helped in this respect—and intrigued by classical art. It may be that one cycle of history is ending, and a new one is slowly emerging out of the decadence of the other.

Q: Well, the staff of Fanfare is here to help do our part to foster this! Most of the music on the CDs reviewed below seems to exist in earlier and later versions. Are you ever 100 percent convinced that a particular work has reached its final version?

A: If you look at works from composers of the Romantic era, you will find examples of works redone in several versions (as examples, consider Liszt and Bruckner). Later, someone like Charles Ives spent years just correcting notes in his Fourth Symphony. Many others made several versions of their works, a brilliant example being Maurice Ravel. Sometimes these were orchestrations of piano music, or reductions of large orchestral works for smaller forces, but on occasion, you find radical changes. In my case, my revised works belong to a period in the 1980s when I had not yet mastered the art of form and transition, so during the period from 2006 to 2009, I rewrote several of them.

Q: You, like Brahms, Hovhaness, Dukas, and numerous other composers, destroyed a large quantity of your early works. And yet, other composers, such as Benjamin Britten, retained their early scores, even though they did not consider them part of their official catalog. Thus, subsequent generations have found some gems among them. I’m thinking of Britten’s juvenile string quartets, the youthful symphony of Edvard Grieg, and the early romantic music of Béla Bartók, that I and others find utterly delightful. So, how can you be sure that there was no worthwhile music among these works? Is the composer always the best judge of his own music? Have you ever regretted your decision to destroy these works?  

A: The composer is definitely not always the best person to judge the quality of his music, and

I do mostly regret having disposed of my early works. Although they had faults, they could have given me ideas to use or unfold in other works, and in fact, I have used certain motives from those destroyed works, although obviously I was compelled to quote them from memory.

Q: Do you have a family to support you in your compositional activity?

A: I have been married five times, and loved all of my wives. I also had bad luck in that those moments did not last long. I feel I should mention here my last companion, a dear woman named Maria Rosa, who came with me to Barcelona when I emigrated, but alas, died some years ago. So now I live alone, sheltering myself from my loneliness through my music and my film collection, of which I’m very proud. I have more than 3,000 films from all periods and styles, purchased all over the world. These provide my daily quota of joy!

Q: Tell us about some of your upcoming compositional projects.

A:I have just finished a symphony, a large work in four movements of Mahlerian proportions

(50 minutes’ duration) in which I have gone the furthest in the direction of embedding tonal harmonies in an atonal context. As usual with one’s most recent works, I think it’s my best. It’s certainly my largest orchestral effort to date. I have other projects in mind—a work for band, more string quartets, and more piano music—but all of these depend on how much strength and time life has in store for me. While my output is not very large, many of my works are still unheard, either in performance or recording. So I have plenty of work to do to help promote them. After all, if a work remains locked in a drawer of your desk, it’s the same as if it didn’t exist!

Q: My sentiment exactly! Thank you for your time, and I hope to hear more of your music someday—the symphony sounds particularly exciting.

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