The Peggy Rockefeller Concert Series

By Ben DiMatteo

Now in its 56th year, The Peggy Rockefeller Concert Series is decidedly unknown to much of the campus community. But those familiar with the program know that some of the most accomplished musicians in the world played Caspary Auditorium as a live rehearsal for Carnegie Hall.

Since its inception, the series has featured performances in a wide array of genres, from chamber music, to Renaissance revival, to operatic arias, to jazz. Three dedicated caretaker scientists with a passion for music have shepherded the program across five decades, and kept the program afloat through rising and ebbing tides of interest within the Rockefeller community. Though performances often sell out, admission sales and private donations barely cover the program’s expenses.

The concert series traces its origin to 1958, shortly after its unique venue was unveiled. Caspary Auditorium’s geodesic structure was designed by modernist architect Wallace Harrison, who also led the construction of Rockefeller Center, the U.N. Complex, Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House, and Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill Co-ops.

Theodore Shedlovsky, a Russian-born electrochemist who researched conductivity within cell fluids, quickly realized the acoustic possibilities of the auditorium’s revolutionary design. He also had many friends in New York City’s classical music scene. Caspary’s size and unique shape made it well suited for intimate performances. No doubt many mid-century musicians were intrigued by the opportunity to perform in a space-age metal dome.

Through his contacts, Shedlovsky assembled a rotation of loyal players that often returned year after year. The Guarneri Quartet, formed in 1964 and disbanded 45 years later, played at Rockefeller every year they were together. The concerts also attracted world-class soloists visiting NYC on tour or in residency, many of whom had performed for European royalty before World War II and the rise of the Soviet Union forced them to flee their homelands.

When he retired, Shedlovsky passed leadership of the series to Gerald Edelman. Born in Queens, NY in 1929, Edelman once said in an interview that he had studied the violin at an early age but decided he didn’t have the inner drive to pursue it as a career. He chose medical research instead, and would win the Nobel Prize in 1972 for discovering how antibodies are structured.

During Edelman’s tenure the concert series saw its most prolific years, when concerts were held almost weekly throughout the academic calendar. It has since been trimmed to just six concerts a year.

In 1996, Rockefeller University President and Nobel Laureate Torsten Wiesel dubbed the program the Peggy Rockefeller Concert Series after David Rockefeller’s late wife, who was a frequent attendee and ardent supporter of the performances.

George Reeke, head of Rockefeller’s biological modeling lab, has organized the concert series since 1993. Reeke took piano lessons as a child, and recalls that as a student at Cal Tech, upper classmen had their rooms wired with speakers that blared Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” on exam day. While other students loathed the song as it heralded the approaching finals, Reeke says it actually launched his life-long love of the opera.

Though opera remains his passion, Reeke selects a diverse line-up of performers for the Peggy Rock Series to suit a wide range of tastes. Many of the artists he selects are recommended to him by audience members, and some are promoted by their managers. Others he discovers just be listening to the classical radio station WQXR. Still, Reeke would like to broaden the scope of the concerts even more to appeal to Rockefeller’s student body, and welcomes your thoughts.

Three shelves in Reeke’s office hold cassettes and reels of past performances that have never been aired to the public. He says nearly every concert was recorded, but some tapes were lost during a past renovation. Still, a perusal of his shelves turns up a few popularly recognizable names.

Can you believe Dizzy Gillespie blewhis bent-up trumpet at the Caspary Auditorium in 1980 and again in 1987? I also recognize Canadian Brass, who performed here in 1982 and 1986, because my parents play their goofy Christmas album this time of year.

Another familiar name pops up beginning in 1975: Yo-Yo Ma, who would have been 20 at the time he first performed at Rockefeller. Ma has become perhaps the most well-known cellist on earth, but before he arrived on the scene that title was claimed by Pablo Casals.

Born in Catalonia, Spain in 1876, Casals’ first cello had a gourd for a soundbox. Yet by 1900 he was performing at London’s Crystal Palace and for Queen Victoria at her summer residence. Shortly thereafter he acquired a cello built in around 1700 by the master Venetian lutier Matteo Goffriller. Casals played it more than any other instrument throughout his career.

The rich sound of this 300-year-old cello filled Caspary in December, at the talented hands of Amit Peled. Growing up on an Israeli kibbutz, Peled heard Casals’ recordings and fell in love with the distinct tone of the very instrument he now plays. He briefly pursued a dream of becoming a basketball player before devoting himself full-time to music. When the Peabody Institute picked him up at age 28, he was the youngest person ever hired as a professor to a top musical institution.

In 2012 Peled played the Goffriller cello for Casals’ widow, Marta Casals Istomin, who then gave him the instrument as a gift. In November he took it on a tour of the Midwest, where he played 19 cello and piano recitals.

The next concert, featuring tenor Russell Thomas, takes place on January 14. You can read his bio and learn more about the Peggy Rockefeller Concert Series at http://www.rockefeller.edu/peggy.

Amit Peled performs at Rockefeller on December 17, and admission for students and postdocs is just $10.

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