Music review: Rolf Riehm’s ‘Hawking’ gets U.S. premiere at Monday Evening Concert


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The Monday Evening Concert at Zipper Concert Hall of the Colburn School had the title “St. John Passion.” There were two pieces, each lasting 35 minutes. The second was Heinrich Schütz’s unadorned, a cappella, startlingly severe and uncomforting setting of the Gospel text. On the first half of the program came a piece written by Rolf Riehm 333 years after Schütz’s and unrelated in every way other than its unsettling severity of sound. You might call that one a passion for St. Stephen.

Riehm called it “Hawking.” The German composer, born in 1937 and little known in the U.S., wrote in a program note that his inspiration was a photograph of the famous physicist paralyzed in his wheelchair, framed by a gigantic picture of the starry night sky. For Riehm, Stephen Hawking serves as a “metaphor for the ceaseless extension of limits.”


This was the U.S. premiere of “Hawking.” It is an incredible piece.

The image of Hawking in zero-gravity suspension has inspired other composers. Hawking floats in his wheelchair in Philip Glass’ 1992 opera about Columbus and about discovery, “The Voyage.” A new opera by Osvaldo Golijov for the Metropolitan Opera in 2014 will be based on Hawking’s bestselling “A Brief History of Time.”

A physicist grappling with both physical limitations and the mysteries of the universe is, obviously, a strong subject for music. Riehm pushes limits by pushing his ensemble to the edges of the concert hall. A piano was alone on stage. Behind the audience in Zipper Monday was a menacing bass drum. On the side balconies were oboe, violin, viola, cello and –- for the extremes of range -– small piccolo and the convoluted, huge contrabass clarinet.

The sounds often came individually, and they were astonishing deep grunts and unearthly squeals. The pianist, the only player one could see without twisting one’s neck, was theatrical. His part, mostly confined to a virtuosic cadenza in the middle of the piece, is, in the composer’s words, “a ballet for two hands.” It is a wrenching, not a graceful, ballet, and Eric Huebner managed it magnificently. A couple of times, strings or winds echoed a huge piano sonority with something eerie.

The piece ends with a big bass drum solo. The outstanding percussionist Jonathan Hepfer was hidden behind his instrument in the back of the hall. Its source obscure, the unstoppable sound went through the floor, through the ears, through the stomach.

This, in the end, is spiritual music not in a mystical sense but in a disorienting one. Hawking finds no place for God in “The Grand Design,” his latest look at the cosmos. And with shocking sonic surety, Riehm reveals a universe with a mind of its own.

In a concert of improbabilities, another one was that William Kraft, himself a notable percussionist and composer, 87 years old, conducted Schütz’s passion. With a chorus of 12 and two vocal soloists on stage, Baroque music offered a radically different sound world from Riehm’s. The Evangelist (tenor Jonathan Mack), restricted to a limited range, tells the Passion story dispassionately, a newsman of old. A booming Jesus (Ed Levy) answers Pontius Pilate’s questions with the remoteness but intensity of an unseen big bass drum. The chorus has a small role and occasionally gets over its sternness, here helped by the warm, confident way Kraft shaped its participation. Earlier in his career, Schütz wrote much gorgeous choral music. The Passion is an old man’s music, movingly devoid of frivolity.


Like “Hawking,” this Passion takes guts to program and to perform. But Monday Evening Concerts has found a responsive audience that doesn’t seek easy music or answers. The hall was nearly full.

-- Mark Swed