Intellectual fount of Robert Hall Lewis yields another work

April 09, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

The next few days will be a sort of festival of the chamber music of Robert Hall Lewis.

Tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. at the Baltimore Museum of Art, in the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore series, the Cuarteto Latinoamericano will give the world premiere of Lewis' String Quartet No. 4 ("Seven Environments"). At 7:30 p.m., at Towson State University's fine arts concert hall, three TSU faculty members will perform his "Inflections II for Piano Trio." And at 8 p.m. Monday at Goucher College, Lewis' "Nine Visions for Piano Trio" will receive its local premiere.

You might expect all this attention to please Lewis, but his pleasure is alloyed by a sense that things could have been arranged more to his liking.

"It would have been nice to have these performances spread out a little," he says.

Lewis, 67, deserves such attention in Baltimore, where he has taught and worked -- he has joint appointments at Goucher and the Johns Hopkins University -- since 1957. He's probably the most distinguished composer residing in the area. While he has never won the Pulitzer Prize or the Friedheim Award, he has won just about every other honor -- some several times -- an American composer can win.

Like several other distinguished composers -- Jacob Druckman, Donald Erb, Gunther Schuller and Milton Babbitt, to name a few -- Lewis started out as a jazz player.

"I think there's something in jazz that gives any composer good preparation for color and rhythm," says Lewis, who earned his living in his teens playing jazz trumpet.

He graduated from high school at 16 and, because he did not have enough money to go to college, his divorced mother permitted him to go on the road as an itinerant musician.

"I made pretty good money, too -- sometimes as much as $350 a week when the bands I played with were broadcasting," Lewis says. "I saved enough money to go off to the Eastman School [in Rochester, N.Y.], where I thought I could study some more and become a studio musician."

As it turned out, however, composition classes with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers were the high points of Lewis' first six years -- he took a master's as well as a bachelor's -- at Eastman. Two years as the principal trumpet of the Oklahoma Symphony made him decide to turn his back on performing for an academic life as a composer.

"Being a principal trumpet is tough on the nerves," he says. "When you're broadcasting at the mike right in front of you for the trumpet solo in Aaron Copland's 'Quiet City,' clinkers are all too easy to produce and it's not great for your morale!"

Lewis went back to Eastman for a doctorate, which he completed in 1964. His dissertation was his Symphony No. 1, which he wrote after spending a year in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger and two more years in Vienna, studing conducting with Hans Swarowsky and orchestration with Hans Erich Apostel, a favorite student of Alban Berg.

Lewis remains a proficient conductor -- he had studied earlier with Pierre Monteux -- but any ardor he may have had for a career spent primarily on the podium was dampened by listening to some of Swarowsky's other students, such as Zubin Mehta and Claudio Abbado.

Lewis' music features the control of a strong intellect. He is not bashful about exhibiting a technical mastery that often results in inventive textures, unusual timbres, complex rhythms, rich harmonies, passages that are played simultaneously in different tempos, and the occasional use of aleatory techniques. Unlike many younger composers, and even a few of the other important composers of his generation, Lewis has never sought to curry favor with audiences by turning to what is sometimes called "the new Romanticism" -- music made more accessible by simple melody and undemanding harmony, or by the techniques of minimalism, which radically reduce compositional materials with easy-to-follow, stripped-down harmonies, rhythmic patterns and repetition.

Reducing the content of his compositions is not part of Robert Hall Lewis's character.

"I like to think of myself as a musical maximalist," he says.


What: Cuarteto Latinoamericano performs music by Robert Hall Lewis, Bartok, Villa-Lobos, Silvestre Revueltas and Astor Piazzola

When: at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive

Tickets: $15; $13 for seniors and BMA members; $5 for students

$ Call: (410) 486-1140

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