The cat that tickled the ivories Music: Morris Cotel's pet once walked across his piano keys. The result debuts tonight at Peabody.

January 21, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I hate to break it to Ketzel, whose "Piece for Piano, Four Paws" will be premiered tonight at the Peabody Conservatory, but she is not the only cat who composes in the world. Not even the first.

Morris Moshe Cotel of the Peabody faculty will tell you different, but he's forgetting her distinguished predecessors.

There was Domenico Scarlatti's cat, who in the early 1700s jumped onto the keyboard of his harpsichord and produced a tune that Scarlatti turned into "The Cat's Fugue."

And in the 19th century, opera composer Gioachino Rossini, inspired by the melodious conversation of two alley cats on a fence, wrote "The Cat Duet," which continues to be performed today by sopranos with a sense of humor.

So Ketzel -- which means "cat" in Yiddish -- is just a follower.

Her piece was created when the 5-year-old feline jumped onto the piano one morning while the composer was playing his daily Bach prelude and fugue.

Entranced by Ketzel's natural musicianship, Cotel jotted down her chord clusters -- Ketzel's are more clustered than most because she has six toes on her hind feet -- on a piece of music staff paper.

"I'm her amanuensis -- that's a good word," Cotel said, referring to the confidential secretary of many Victorian novelists.

Ketzel's musical meditation had the virtue of brevity, lasting just 20 seconds, and Cotel entered the work last year in a competition for a 60-second piano work sponsored by the Paris New Music Review. The piece was awarded a certificate of recognition.

Its premiere is the centerpiece of a concert of in-house piano music at Peabody. Regrettably, Ketzel is a flighty performer who cannot remember what she has played from one moment to the next, so the interpreter of her composition will be 11-year-old Shruti Kumar, a student in Peabody's Preparatory Division.

The program also features more serious works by Cotel and composers Robert Sirota, director of the conservatory, and Chen Yi, composer-in-residence.

Religious theme

Many of the works have a religious or liturgical theme. Sirota's "Jerusalem Psalms" for two pianos and speaker will be played by Heidi Williams and Kevin Winkler and narrated by Rhoda J.H. Silverman, cantor of Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore. It was written for the 3,000th anniversary of Jerusalem's founding, and its text includes Psalms 122 and 137 and a passage from the Book of Baruch, a part of the Apocrypha.

Cotel, a religious Jew who wears a yarmulke at all times, will play his own "Haftarah Fantasy" and will be joined by students Matthew William Bengston and Michael Andrew Hammer for "Tehom," a tone-poem for three pianos.

The Haftorah (to use its more common spelling) comprises the books of the Old Testament -- the histories, poetry and prophecies -- that follow the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. A Haftorah chapter is read every Saturday morning in the synagogue after the weekly Torah portion, and the trope or melody to which it is chanted is always the same, because the tune belongs to the day of the week. Cotel's piano fantasy is a wide-ranging, virtuoso commentary on this melody, which is always discernible.

"Tehom" (1974) means "the deep" and is a musical picture of creation as described by the Book of Genesis, from the Earth without form to the division of sky from sea and land.

Cotel, a prize-winning pianist, says when he began working out the ideas of "Tehom," they were "innately pianistic," covering much too wide a range for any orchestral instrument. Some of the musical figures touch the extreme ends of the keyboard -- bits of musical glitter that imitate sunlight and splashes.

"I quickly discovered," he said, "that two hands wouldn't do, and then that four hands wouldn't do." So the work expanded into one for three pianos, whose massed sound enriches the colors of ocean and earth, wind and calm.

"Variations With a Little Help" is based on the Beatles tune "With a Little Help From My Friends." Cotel says he had been thinking of writing a piece for left hand alone, and his daughter Orli, then 11, came home from school singing the Beatles song.

Her father discovered it was possible to play the tune and its harmony in one hand, and also that it fit neatly with the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. The finale of the variations is an apocalyptic explosion of octaves and filigree in which both tunes fight for primacy.

Cotel's other work

Cotel has written two operas on Jewish themes: "Dreyfus," about the Jewish captain in the French army who was accused of espionage and defended by Emile Zola in the famous essay "J'accuse!"; and the as-yet-unperformed "Daniel Deronda," based on an epic novel by George Eliot whose protagonist is an assimilated British Jew standing up to anti-Semitism.

Cotel is best known, however, for "Night of the Murdered Poets," a cantata about the 24 Jewish writers who were executed in Moscow's Lubyanka Prison on Aug. 12, 1952, during a Stalinist purge.

Chen Yi is a survivor of a later purge: the exile and forced labor of Chinese intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. The daughter of two doctors, she was a violin student of 15 at the time she was sent to the Chinese countryside in 1968 to haul rocks for the construction of a mountaintop army base. Two years later, she was rescued by the need for violinists to play in the orchestra of the revived Chinese opera in Beijing.

The Chinese folk songs and instruments she heard during her internment are integral to her work as a composer. This program includes "Duo Ye," "Yu Diao" and a children's piece called "Guessing," all to be played by Amy Weh.

Piano at Peabody

What: Works by Morris Moshe Cotel, Robert Sirota and Chen Yi

When: 8 p.m. tonight

Where: Miriam Friedberg Concert Hall, Peabody Conservatory of Music, 1 Mount Vernon Place

Tickets: Free, but reservations needed

Call: 410-659-8124

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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