Palmer, music director of the North Charleston Pops, has been a devotee of Rosner’s music for a long time. He has even recorded some of it.
Now, Palmer has been asked by Rosner’s estate to lead a new recording project with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Palmer and the orchestra will rehearse and record 120 minutes of music, two CDs, at the legendary Abbey Road Studios.
Rosner died in 2013, on his 68th birthday. He left behind well over 100 published works, though many were never performed during his lifetime, and some still have not been heard by any audience.
“I don’t think his music really received the kind of performances and recognition that it deserved,” Palmer said. “It’s music whose time has come.”
Rosner’s earliest musical output was in a late-Romantic vein, inspired by composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Carl Nielsen and Alan Hovhaness, according to musicologist Walter Simmons, a long-time friend and colleague. But he grew impatient with the heart-on-the-sleeve emotionality of that style, and had little tolerance for the dominant musical trends such as serialism and minimalism and other isms that took hold in the 20th century.
He wanted to find his own way, and when he heard the music of Renaissance composers, especially Josquin des Prez, he began to experiment with hybridizations that melded old modal, triadic sounds with adventurous rhythms, late-Romantic drama and 20th-century grit. He approached composition with the discipline of the trained mathematician he was.
But he paid a steep price for his insistence on making his brand of tonal music and his stubborn rejection of most everything else, Simmons said. Rosner was lost in the shadows.
“He came of age at a time when there was almost a blacklist that forbade the writing of certain kinds of music,” Simmons noted, citing the preference in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s for atonal and avant-garde music over anything melodic. “You would be ignored to death.”
Palmer said Rosner’s music is melodic, interesting and surprisingly accessible, certain to gain a wider audience if only it were more readily available. That’s why he’s embraced the chance to record several of the composer’s orchestral works in London, including Symphony No. 6; “Unravelling Dances,” a “Bolero”-like work; “The Parable of the Law,” featuring a baritone singer; and “Five Ko-ans for Orchestra,” based on Japanese riddles.
Palmer’s work with North Charleston Pops is just one of his myriad musical commitments. He also conducts the Lafayette Symphony in Indiana, the Evening Under the Stars Music Festival in Massachusetts and the Dubuque Festival Orchestra in Iowa.
About 15 years ago, he recorded some of Rosner’s music on the Albany label after a colleague at the Manhattan School of Music, Peter Vinograde, turned Palmer onto the work of obscure New York-based composer. Rosner attended Palmer’s performance at school and liked what he heard, asking the young conductor to join him on a recording project.
“So we got to know each other,” Palmer said. “Since then, I’ve been a big fan of his music, helping to promote it. It’s really been a mind-expanding experience.”
Simmons first met Rosner in 1970, when the two men were in their 20s. They lived in The Bronx, in close proximity and saw each other nearly every day, discussing Rosner’s latest composition. Simmons liked the music but wasn’t terribly impressed.
“The first pieces I heard did not reach me particularly,” Simmons said. “They struck me as novel, intriguing, but not great. Then he wrote a piece, his 4th string quartet, in 1972, and I thought that was the best piece of his that I heard and met my criteria for greatness. It was extremely intense emotionally, unlike any other music by any other composer and was consistently gripping from beginning to end. Up until that point we were basically music friends who had many of the same favorite composers. But I didn’t take him seriously as a composer.”
But after hearing that string quartet, Simmons became a fan and advocate. Subsequent works continued to thrill Simmons. The music recalled well-established styles yet felt fresh. Rosner had found his voice.
In 1975, the composer left The Bronx for a studio apartment in Brooklyn, where he resided for the rest of his life, writing pieces large and small, and teaching to help pay the bills.
Today, Rosner’s devoted champions are few but determined. The core consists of Simmons, who has written extensively about his friend’s works and has assisted in the preparation of performances; Palmer, who has jumped at the chance to conduct these pieces; Carson Cooman, a young composer, editor, organist and critic who has put together editions of Rosner’s music; and Irene Rosner David who, since her brother’s death, has become his biggest proponent, managing his estate.
"Promoting of my brother’s work ... is my tribute to him, gift to him, a continuation of what he put out in the world," David said. "I always knew that creating music was not only his mission in life, but his life."
Her efforts are paying off. Little by little, her brother's music is getting heard.
"I've been impressed and brought to tears reading the superlative reviews," she said.
Palmer said he looks forward to working with the London Philharmonic, which has a reputation for excellent sight-reading and quick preparation, and which has lots of experience in the recording studio. He and the players will have to work fast: they only have four days.