The Penn Triumvirate

Between 1968 and 1983, the Music Department of the University of Pennsylvania was lucky enough to employ three of the major American composers of the twentieth century: George Crumb, George Rochberg, and Richard Wernick. Nicknamed “the triumvirate,” these three men helped push American classical music out of strict adherence to the European serialist tradition and into the post-war period of heterodox experimentation. Having recently had a chance to process the Richard Wernick papers here at the Kislak Center, a collection which includes scores by all three men, I’ve been particularly fascinated by the record it provides of their productive collaboration: most specifically, marks which Richard Wernick made in his capacity as conductor on scores by Crumb and by Rochberg—as well as the beauty of the scores themselves, testament to the flee-flowing creative power of the three composers in their primes.

A prime example of both these aspects comes from Crumb’s Star Child, a monumental piece for large orchestra, soprano, and a children’s choir and handbell section that required two primary conductors and two secondary conductors “as needed.” This ambitious score features a hand-inked front page with a stage plot that demonstrates the piece’s complexity quite neatly.

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In addition, it provides texts, instrumental profiles for its various percussion instruments, and necessary performers – all in Crumbs loose but legible (and quite beautiful) cursive script – augmented with type.

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Crumb’s “circle music” notation is particularly visually arresting.

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One can appreciate Wernick’s work as he attemps to translate sections of the complex score (visually beautiful but also technically confusing) into a seamless performance. Consider, for example, his precise rhythmic delineations in the following complex passage:

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In other examples, such as this one, one can see evidence of Wernick’s practical delineations for the performance personnel, as here, where he marks a point for the full children’s choir to join the fray:

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Overall, one gets the sense of a thoroughly practical, performance-minded conductor marshalling an extremely complex score into its live incarnation—as one of four conductors, no less!

In contrast to Star-Child, George Rochberg’s Tableaux (Sound Pictures) is more conventional in design, and thus Wernick’s marks focus on the more familiar technical aspects of conducting: dynamics, cues, relative tempo.

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Still, the relationship between Rochberg’s stated intent (as illustrated by the score) and Wernick’s interpretation (illustrated by the conductor’s marks) remind the viewer that the conductor’s role is not to be a conduit for the score as written but a collaborator with the composer. Thus Wernick’s marks and Rochberg’s score represent a kind of dialogue. (I can imagine a researcher being very pleased to discover that the collection also contains an audio recording of the Penn Contemporary Players performing Tableaux, conducted by Wernick. It would be interesting to compare written score and performance, to see this dialogue in action. The same is also true of Crumb’s Star-Child.)

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Unfortunately, the collection does not contain any scores by Wernick with revision or conductor’s marks by Crumb or Rochberg. However, it does contain Wernick scores with conductor’s notes, such as his work Aevia, of which a recording by the University of Chicago Symphony is also included in the collection. Who provided the conducting marks is unknown—possibly Rich Solie, if the recording in the collection corresponds to the score—but they are in a larger, looser hand than Wernick’s. As with Rochberg’s Tableaux, I imagine comparing the recording to the performance would be illuminating, even if the identity of the conductor remains unclear.

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We at Kislak are fortunate to have the Wernick papers for many reasons—most of all, to document his influence as a composer and teacher, through his own scores and material related to his tenure as a professor here at the University of Pennsylvania. But his work as a conductor for the Penn Contemporary Players is an angle of the collection that might go less remarked, and deserves scrutiny. A marked conducting score is a particularly fascinating palimpsest, and the handful of scores by Rochberg and Crumb marked by Wernick’s hand (along with the corresponding recordings) represent an illuminating example of the composer/conductor dialogue in action.

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