In celebration of Robert Koff, whose contributions to music are far-reaching, the renowned Lydian String Quartet performed as part of Brandeis University’s 2015-2016 concert series. Performed on Saturday, Oct.17 at 8 p.m. in Slosberg Music Center, the concert showcased the wonderful musicality of two violins, a viola and a cello.
Koff, who passed away in 2005, had a lifelong fiery passion for music—he played the violin—that could not be extinguished. The Lydian String Quartet performed in memory of Koff because of his insurmountable accomplishments, as he helped found the Julliard String Quartet after completing his studies at Oberlin Conservatory and Julliard. He performed in the String Quartet for a number of years before he became part of Brandeis’ faculty in 1958, at which point he was both a professor and director of performance activities. He also served as chair of the Department of Music from 1969 to 1976.
Before the performance started, the Interim President Lisa M. Lynch, two of Brandeis’ alumni, Barbra Rabson ’80 and Sally Pinkas ’79, and Judith Eissenberg introduced the Lydian String Quartet and made some remarks about Koff who left an indelible print on the last three speakers. Koff spent a considerable amount of time mentoring his students, and Pinkas in particular mentioned that Koff was the best piano teacher she had ever had. His comic and honest personality coupled with his supreme ability to teach helped fuel her continued passion for her craft. Judith Eissenberg, on the other hand, who was part of the original Lydian String Quartet, performed once again with the group and performed using Koff’s violin.
Over the course of the performance, the Lydian String Quartet played both modern and traditional classical music. There were three parts to the program, the first of which was titled “Aqua,” by Harold Meltzer, the second was “String Quartet No. 5” composed by Richard Wernick, and the third, which was titled the “String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1” by Johannes Brahms. Wernick did his undergraduate work at Brandeis and has received an innumerable amount of awards, the greatest of which was the 1977 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
The first piece in the second set, titled “At the Crossroads” was particularly dissonant and unsettling, even uncomfortable. Despite this evocative quality, the various chords somehow worked together and meshed, bringing to the forefront a more contemporary sound. The viola was the lead instrument of this piece, which is not typical, while the other instruments only added single notes or chords to the set. That’s not all; this piece was not solely instrumental. Actually, Hannah Senesh’s poem with the same title as the song was translated from Hebrew to English and then incorporated into the piece, thereby adding meaning to the song that caused a more melancholy tone.
Another piece in the second set, titled “Scherzo I” was strangely pieced together, each musician appearing to play at their own pace, performing their own individual piece. Though “Scherzo I” did not have an overriding main melody that each instrument played into, the unusual form of the song allowed the individual instruments greater musical range and freedom. Wernick’s composition redefines norms within music and creates an altogether different ambiance. “Scherzo I” also made use of unusual bowing techniques so that the musicians hit the strings with the back of the bow, resulting in a sound like falling raindrops. All in all, this composition embodied the concept of confusion with all its echoing tonality and sharp, grating sounds.
“String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1,” on the other hand, laid siege to a completely different style of music that is far more reminiscent of the traditional harmonics of baroque music. Brahm’s earliest quartet, the songs within are a tribute to excellence and precision, especially considering that this piece was the only string quartet, of 20 he wrote, that he actually published.
In honor of Koff, the Koff Scholarship in Music was created in memory of the musician and professor who mentored countless students over his 25 year tenure at Brandeis. Recipients of the scholarship are Brandeis students who contribute to the music community, with a preference to those who perform or study string instruments. Over 29 contributors have made the Robert Koff Scholarship in Music possible and have consequently allowed Koff’s lifelong dedication to music continue on and blossom through their own study of music.
Robert Koff may have died 10 years ago, but his legacy lives on through his students who recognize his contribution to their own musical journeys and continue their craft.