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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Richard Owen

Richard Owen

Among the imposing buildings of Lower Manhattan, rich in power past and present, stands the United States Court House. The Foley Square landmark holds the U.S. District Court (Southern District) and, high up under its pyramidical top, with spectacular views of New York's land and water ways, are the judges' chambers. Simple name cards on heavy oak doors identify the Federal judges. Judge Richard Owen is one of them, but his judicial eminence is only one of his dimensions. Richard Owen is a composer.

Owen, a lithe and youthful 60 — he is a devoted runner who participated in (and finished) the New York Marathon last year — first came to public musical attention with his opera, A Fisherman Called Peter, premiered in 1965. This simple and touching work tells the story of the conversion of Simon, the fisherman of Capernaum, into "Peter," the disciple of Christ. It was primarily written to be performed in the sanctuary of a church, but its through-written operatic style permits it to be performed anywhere. It has by now had over 100 performances, and has been recorded on the Serenus label with a cast including Lynn Owen and John Reardon.

But Peter was not Owen's first operatic effort. His very first theatrical composition was given under unusual auspices: the New York City Bar Association's production of Dismissed With Prejudice in the mid-fifties was probably the first and only opera production ever offered by that august body. This was followed in 1958 by a one-act opera entitled A Moment of War.

Richard Owen grew up in New York City. His father, a law partner in Wendell Willkie's firm, was an avid opera enthusiast and Metropolitan subscriber. Richard, as a boy, was friendly with many of the Broadway folks who lived in the neighborhood, and Saturdays people would get together to sing, play, and make merry with the latest theatrical talk and tunes. (Richard's best friend's father was Ray Henderson, composer of such evergreens as "Sonny Boy," "Button Up Your Overcoat," etc., whose film biography The Best Things in Life are Free was made in 1966.) He took piano lessons for a few years, beginning at the age of five, but soon quit in favor of athletics. In school he joined the glee club and also played drums in the swing band. At Dartmouth, he went back to the piano, but he never thought of music in professional terms, always knowing that he would study law. After graduating Harvard Law School, he taught at New York Law School and then served as Assistant U.S. Attorney and later as senior trial attorney for the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Although deeply involved in the practice of law, Owen would spend many leisure hours attending operas, and most particularly contemporary stage works given by modest New York companies. "I came to feel that I could write better works than many of those I was seeing," Owen recalls. "I started right off with an opera. I got about 30 minutes down on the page for an opera competition when the contest closed. The notes are enormous!" (Just as children learning the alphabet use large-size letters, so the musical notation of beginners is often jumbo-sized.) The experience had a double effect: it whet the appetite for further musical composition; and it demonstrated that the time had come for further formal studies in music. He studied harmony and counterpoint at night at the New York College of Music — he still swears by the Hindemith books — before studying with Vittorio Giannini and Robert Starer. His association with the Manhattan School of Music began in the fifties when he took courses there, and it continues to the present. He is on the Board of Trustees. During the summer of 1956, he decided to take some opera courses at Tanglewood, and it was there that he met a Wisconsin-born soprano, Lynn Rasmussen, whom he married in 1960. The couple has three sons, Carl, David and Rickie.

Since becoming a judge in 1974 — he was appointed by President Nixon — Owen has heard a number of cases involving music. Perhaps the most far-reaching of these concerned the definition of the word "posthumous" and involved one of the most important copyrights in 20th century concert music, that of the Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók.

We asked Richard Owen if it was still feasible, in this complex time, to pursue multiple disciplines. "If a person is motivated and has the skills, he can have a number of different disciplines. But there is more to know today than, say, during Jefferson's time when it was possible to be involved on so many fronts. When disciplines compete for your time, it can be quite taxing."

Owen says that there are ideas and feelings which he can only express in music, and that he always writes, like Puccini and Verdi, for an audience. "I have a feeling that a lot of composers today write for each other, not necessarily for an audience. They might wish to be recognized for being in the avant-garde swim, for not being `old-fashioned,' for being considered for grants. I think that some composers have cut themselves off from understanding audiences. A composer should want to move people, whether or not they understand the craft. I'm always astonished to hear people say that they've looked at a score and seen things on a page. To me the question is always: `What do they hear?' "

Music critics, hearing one of Owen's operas (Mary Dyer), perceived a rather wide gamut. Said one: "It was couched in a modern chromatic idiom lying somewhere between that of, say, Berg's Wozzeck and Prokofiev's Flaming Angel." While another thought that Owen's "chief influences appear to be Puccini and Richard Strauss." Composer Owen nevertheless feels that criticism fulfills an important function in that it informs people of what is happening while also offering insights which might have been missed by composer and listener alike. Critics, by and large, have been pleased by what they've heard, and sometimes unexpectedly so. Wrote Alan Rich in an article entitled "Trial and Triumph": "Supposing I were to tell you that a New York judge had composed an opera on a Bicentennial theme, with a juicy soprano role for his wife. And then, supposing I told you that the opera in question, Mary Dyer, by the Honorable Richard Owen of the U.S. District Court (Southern District) turns out to be a work of remarkable merit, and that, at its premiere, Judge Owen's wife (Met soprano Lynn Owen) sang beautifully. Wouldn't you be surprised?"

Owen's most recent work, a one-act chamber opera entitled The Death of the Virgin (see page 7 ), deals with yet another aspect of the individual within a society. Whereas Mary Dyer portrayed the religious persecution of a dedicated woman in the rigidly restrictive Massachusetts Bay Colony of 1660, the new opera examines the role of the artist employed by the narrow-minded establishment. Considering the choice of opera librettos and the texts for the innumerable songs to poetry by Whitman, Crane, Dickinson, Frost, Amy Lowell and others, it soon becomes evident that Richard Owen's central preoccupation, as composer as well as jurist, is a deeply sensed manifestation of his humanism. "A composer should be part of the society in which he lives. If you're going to clothe a certain emotion in sound, you've got to really know the emotion to start with. You may fail, because your talents aren't great enough, but unless you're acquainted with the emotion, you'll have nothing to spring from. That's what the Puccinis and Verdis and Wagners have in common: they were all in the world."

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