Composer ‘paints’ with music

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Carol Sorgen

Although she studied music in her youth, Vivian Adelberg Rudow didn’t begin composing until she was nearly 40. Now she is in demand internationally for her creative compositions and live performance art, some of which utilizes electronic elements such as synthesizers and remote-controlled tape decks. Adelberg Rudow’s “Earth Day Suite” will be performed at a free concert on November 1 at Har Sinai Congregation, together with works by Vivaldi and others.
Photo by Christopher Myer

Vivian Adelberg Rudow is an award-winning, internationally recognized composer who got a late start, professionally-speaking.

As a young woman, she said, “I had no desire for a career whatsoever. Let’s get one thing totally clear. I got married to be married and to raise a family.”

And that she certainly did. Married for almost 60 years to attorney David Rudow, the 79-year-old Roland Park resident is mother to three grown sons, and relishes her role as wife, mother and grandmother.

But when her sons were young, Adelberg Rudow started writing children’s songs. The children’s magazine Humpty Dumpty paid her $25 for a song, and she thought, “I got paid for that? This is fun!”

Excelling early

It’s not that Adelberg Rudow’s musical talent sprang up out of the blue. Though she came from a family with no musical interest (“Zero!” she laughed, when asked), she began studying piano at the age of 6 at the Peabody Conservatory of Music.

She was so talented that she was offered a full scholarship — not only to Peabody but to a prestigious private school so that she would have been able to arrange her schedule to practice more.

Her father refused, however, wanting her to have a more traditional childhood. “It wasn’t my destiny,” she said of becoming a scholarship student.

Nevertheless, Adelberg Rudow continued her piano lessons at Peabody (and also studied dance until the age of 16, when she had to choose between that and piano).

There, in addition to performance, she learned music theory, the basis for composition, which she describes as “a language, just like English.”

“By the time I graduated high school, my musical ‘vocabulary’ was complete,” said Adelberg Rudow. It would be more than 20 years, however, before she began to use that vocabulary. That’s when she returned to Peabody, at the age of 38, to earn her undergraduate and graduate degrees in music.

From then on, Adelberg Rudow, who calls herself a “sound portrait painter” (“what artists see with their eyes, I see through my music”), has earned one accolade after another. Among them, in 1982 she became the first Maryland composer to have a work performed by an orchestra in Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, with Sergiu Commisiona conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Her career is still going strong, and she has recently been invited to compose music to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Chapter Four, for an upcoming international tour of Hong Kong pianist Stanley Wong.

Experimenting with electronic music

Adelberg Rudow uses her music to express emotions, life experiences, hopes and dreams, using both traditional and more contemporary idioms.

For example, she believes that pop music rhythms and vocabulary are today’s folk music, and that they may be incorporated in classical music just as Brahms and Bartók used folk music in their compositions.

One way she does this is through her fluency with not only classical acoustic instruments, but also the tools of electro-acoustic music. The latter uses traditional instruments as well as electronic musical instruments, such as the electric guitar, and electronic technology, such as the sound synthesizer.

“I love electronic music for the new sounds you can create,” she said. “And now video has become a part of new compositions...I see visuals as being a significant component in music in the future.”

Adelberg Rudow has also created a type of performance art she calls the “Vivian Technique of Creating a Sound Collage.” This involves activating four or more portable multi track-CD players on stage via hand-held remote controllers, combining different tracks of music to create a new, live collage work. She has performed the technique twice in Cuba and once at the Kennedy Center.

Because she believes artists have a responsibility to have a social conscience, Adelberg Rudow’s compositions have addressed subjects such as ecology (“Earth Day Suite”) and civil unrest (“Prayer for Peace”).

“Our country has gone mad,” she said somberly. “I don’t understand it. We need to improve our schools, our cities...we have to get this across to people however we can.”

In addition to her composing, Adelberg Rudow also founded and served as artistic director of Res Musica Baltimore/Res MusicAmerica, Inc., from 1980 to 1991. The organization produced concerts of music composed mostly by living American composers, in addition to hosting symposia and youth concerts for the Baltimore City Public Schools.

In 1988, she produced the Res Musica International Electroacoustic Music Festival in Baltimore, which was attended by composers from 14 countries. Since 1992, she has produced or co-produced the Peggy and Yale Gordon Har Sinai Classical Music Series concerts.

Fighting stage fright

In addition to the hard work of composing, (made harder, at least before the advent of computers, by her handwriting disability or dysgraphia — “My best handwriting is someone else’s worst,” she explained), Adelberg Rudow used to suffer from stage fright, which was one reason she abandoned the idea of a performing career. “I was as good [at performing] as anyone else, but my nerves were a mess,” she recalled.

She eventually took “stress lessons for musicians” from trumpet soloist and Peabody teacher Wayne Cameron, who also suffered from performance anxiety. She credits those lessons with helping her be able to appear at music festivals around the world and allowing her to perform “fearlessly.”

Still, she says, she would be more than happy to sit in her office and simply write music all day long.

That’s especially true of her latest passion project, “Laxers,” a musical interpretation of lacrosse. [“Lax” is a nickname for the sport of lacrosse, with the “x” standing for “cross.”] Adelberg Rudow is familiar with lacrosse, a favorite Baltimore sport, through her sons and grandsons.

Like many musicians, Adelberg Rudow doesn’t listen to much music other than what she’s composing. “If I hear something very beautiful, I turn it off so I won’t unconsciously copy it,” she explained.

Despite her busy career, Adelberg Rudow hastens to point out that she is still the wife, mother, and grandmother she set out to be.

“I have a very full life,” she said, adding, “And make sure you say that I couldn’t have done — or continue to do — any of this without the support of my husband!”

Hear her work live

Baltimoreans can hear Adelberg Rudow’s work on Sunday, Nov. 1, at 3 p.m. at Har Sinai Congregation, 2905 Walnut Ave. in Owings Mills. Ronald Mutchnik will conduct the Howard County Orchestra in a performance of her “Earth Day Suite” (“Dark Waters of the Chesapeake” and “Go Green!”).

Also on the program is Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” and solo violinist and orchestra leader Jonathan Carney performing in Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” The concert is sponsored by the Peggy and Yale Gordon Trust.

Tickets are complimentary and are available in advance at Har Sinai Congregation, (410) 654-9393, or at the door. Parking is free.