Marvin Rosen and the 20th anniversary of WPRB’s ‘Classical Discoveries’

Two decades of discovery

Why is new and unfamiliar music in the classical tradition so hard to find? Our local musical ensembles are doing their best to bring largely unknown sounds to the concert stage, but just how many concerts does a typical music lover attend in a year? If you attend 10 concerts, at best you’ll walk away having heard 10 unfamiliar works (one per concert), if that. Local classical radio stations provide excellent programming, but like their concert colleagues, they offer new music as an add-on to traditional fare.

(Photo by Beata Rzeszodko-Rosen)

The man behind the music

Our region is actually stronger than many in the exposure we give unfamiliar music. One ensemble, Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001, is dedicated exclusively to playing and recording new music. On the early-music side, Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, offers pre-Baroque delights with plenty of attitude and good humor, while Tempesta di Mare has revived interest in the rich diversity of Baroque repertoire.

But how many existing or potential lovers of new or unfamiliar music are able to attend these concerts or buy recordings? What if you want to hear the best new Estonian music, the lesser-known composers of New Zealand and Australia, music by women before 1600, or the latest works by Philadelphia composers?

And what if you don’t even know this music exists?

Enter Marvin Rosen. Rosen, a full-time music educator with the Westminster Conservatory in Princeton, New Jersey, has a doctorate in music education from Columbia University. He was managing the record department at Princeton University’s store when he was offered the opportunity to host a morning music program on WPRB 103.3 FM, the school’s independent radio station, which has a strong signal and a following in Philadelphia. The date was May 29, 1997.

Early to rise

“I started out with a mix of old and new,” Rosen told me recently. He is tall, trim, and casual, with glasses, Einstein hair, and the good cheer of a man eager to get to work. “In fact, I still have that first playlist, which starts with a Vivaldi sinfonia.” But Baroque was only part of the first airing of Classical Discoveries, as the series became known. Listeners responded immediately to the “new music”—recently composed works—Rosen wove into his programs, and by November, his unique musical platform was established. Today it is available online at WPRB.com and on the radio, with many programs available for several weeks after broadcast.

Rosen’s wife Beata works side by side with her husband, regularly updating the ClassicalDiscoveries.org site for their regular Wednesday program. They've also added a “Treasures of Early Music” edition, which has been airing on Mondays this spring. The couple typically arise at 3:30am on broadcast days and arrive at the Princeton University campus well before the program begins at 5:30am, in weather fair or foul, and without pay.

Robert Moran asks, “What would we composers do without Marvin Rosen and his amazing show?” Moran, who lives in Philadelphia, has been a guest on Classical Discoveries several times.

Portrait of Leonora d'Este of Modène, from the Palazzo Ducale, Modène. Anonymous artist, ca. 1595. (Image via Creative Commons/Wikipedia)
Portrait of Leonora d'Este of Modène, from the Palazzo Ducale, Modène. Anonymous artist, ca. 1595. (Image via Creative Commons/Wikipedia)

Andrew Rudin, another highly regarded contemporary composer, called Rosen “uniquely important to living composers of the greater Philadelphia area. (He) educates us … with his extraordinary knowledge and curiosity about music of living composers in even the most obscure corners of our planet and in the most marginalized communities. His perceptions, taste, and explorations represent a personal passion that greatly enriches our musical community.”

New to you

But providing a forum for composers of new music is only part of Classical Discoveries’ mission. “There is so much beautiful and interesting music that’s simply unknown,” Rosen told me. “I say, give it a try, you may be pleasantly surprised!”

This year the show included five installments called “In Praise of Woman,” offering more than 25 hours of music composed by women. Through this series, as well as “Treasures of Early Music,” I first encountered the richly varied music composed in convents, including works attributed to Suor Leonora d'Este, the daughter of Lucrezia Borgia.

Rosen has pulled several all-nighters during 24- and 25-hour music marathons and has hosted special editions such as “From Riga with Love” (music of Latvia), “Voyage to the Rainbow Nation” (South Africa), “From Jakarta to Jayapura” (Indonesia), “In the Land of Kiwi” (New Zealand), “Polish Music beyond Chopin and Górecki,” and dozens more with geographical and topical themes. Recent programs focused on the music of Lou Harrison and the late Philadelphia-based composer Richard Yardumian. Rosen also finds time to lecture and perform as a pianist in recitals inspired by the content of his radio program. A longtime fan of the late WFIL DJ Jim Nettleton, Rosen shares Nettleton’s philosophy that, in radio, unpredictability equals entertainment.

Classical Discoveries celebrates its 20th anniversary on WPRB 103.3 FM on Monday, May 29, from 5am to 11am, slightly earlier than its usual time slot; you can also listen live on WPRB.com. The program is a testimonial to one man’s determination to bring deserving music to a wider audience -- and to the audience whose open-mindedness and enthusiasm continues to support the broadcast of new and underrepresented music. 

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.