Music Review: Remembering Eddie Cohen

By Caldwell Titcomb

A concert in memory of composer-teacher Edward Cohen (1940-2002) took place in the Kresge Auditorium of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on April 27. The participants included instrumentalists, vocal soloists, and the M.I.T. Chamber Chorus, led by Dr. William Cutter, director of choral programs at the Institute.

Eddie Cohen
Eddie Cohen

Cohen graduated summa cum laude from Brandeis University in 1961, and went on to earn a 1965 M.A. at Berkeley, where he won the Ladd Prix de Paris that financed two years of composition in France. He taught for some years at Brandeis, and in 1977 joined the M.I.T. faculty, where he was primarily involved in the theory program until his death. His standard routine was to compose in the morning and teach in the afternoon.

The major work on the program was Cohen’s “Invisible Cities,” commissioned by the M.I.T. Council for the Arts in 1995. Cohen was attracted to a novel with the same title (1972) written by the Cuban-born Italian writer Italo Calvino (1923-85), as Englished two years later by a well-known translator from Italian, William Weaver.

Most of the book is devoted to Marco Polo’s telling emperor Kublai Khan about some fifty-odd cities, some real and some imaginary. The text is quite strange and falls into the style termed “magical realism.” Cohen drew extensive chunks of text for a work that doesn’t linger over its words and runs about a half hour.

He called for a chorus plus two vocal soloists: a baritone (David Kravitz) and a mezzo-soprano (Majie Zeller). The tellingly scored instruments were violin (Liam Buell), viola (Mark Berger), cello (Javier Caballero), flute (Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin), clarinet (Daryush Mehta), tenor saxophone (Dennis Shafer), and two percussionists (Robert Schulz and Jim Benoit).

Cohen’s text begins with plain speech: “When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city. He comes finally to Isadora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells….” The work then alternates solo and choral singing with interspersed bits of speech. A climax comes as the chorus sings “Cities and the dead, cities and the sky, continuous cities, hidden cities, hidden cities.” There follows a paragraph spoken by the baritone. One could say the opening speech is balanced by a closing speech. But I think it was a miscalculation to end with mere talk after so much music, and Cohen would better have set the last sentences to music. Still, this is a fascinating composition to a text that doesn’t yield its secrets easily.

Sharing the program, appropriately, were pieces by Cohen’s Brandeis teacher Irving Fine (1914-62). The M.I.T. singers sang two of the six beautiful songs for unaccompanied chorus, set to poems by Ben Jonson and entitled “The Hour Glass” (1949). The selections were the lament ‘Slow, fresh fount, keep time,’ and ‘O know to end as to begin.’ The Chorus also performed Fine’s masterly four-movement “The Choral New Yorker” (to texts by Peggy Bacon, Isabel McMeekin, David McCord, and Herman Fetzer). Written in 1944, the components are ‘Hen Party,’ ‘Caroline Million,’ ‘Pianola d’Amore’ (Karen Harvey played the demanding piano obbligato superbly), and the touchingly elegiac ‘Design for October.’ This was the third performance the work received locally within the last few weeks – a lot of people obviously recognize quality when they encounter it.

As a dessert, the concert ended with “Evidence” by Thelonious Monk (1917-82), played by the M.I.T. Festival Jazz Ensemble. For fifteen minutes the piece provided chances for the instrumentalists to get their solo licks in: Chris Kottke, trumpet; Shanker Raman, tenor sax; Daniel Bickerstaff, electric guitar; Jack Murphy, bass; Jason rich, drums; Matt Rosario, piano. This work was a fitting conclusion, since Cohen had himself been a jazz pianist as a teenager and never lost his fondness for good jazz.

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