Steven Stucky’s career as a Pulitzer Prize winning classical composer started with a free viola.
Stucky, who has also won a Grammy, said Thursday at Bowling Green State University that when he was 10,
his school music program charged rental fees for violins and cellos, but the viola was free, so that’s
what he played.
The violin’s deeper voiced cousin is often considered the Rodney Dangerfield of the orchestra – Stucky
claimed as a violist he had little to do beside counting rests and playing off-beats. That location in
the middle of the orchestra, though, afforded him a prime perch for absorbing the richness of the
symphonic sound starting with resonant harmonics from the bass section at his back.
"That seat inside the orchestra is still where I think of myself," he said.
Stucky is the special guest composer for the 30th Annual New Music Festival on campus. His talk Thursday
afternoon served as a keynote for the event, which incudes a dozen performances and talks, featuring the
work of more than 20 composers, many of whom traveled to BGSU for the event. The event continues today
and Saturday, concluding with a concert Saturday at 8 p.m. in Kobacker Hall in the Moore Musical Arts
Center. That concert will feature three works by Stucky as well as pieces by Marilyn Shrude, of Bowing
Green, Witold Lutoslawski and Erica Muhl performed by the New Music Ensemble and the Bowling Green
Philharmonia. See a full schedule of events at http://festival.bgsu.edu.
Stucky’s first success as a composer came in choral music. In school he also sang in choir. His tone
wasn’t so good, he said, but "I was the guy in the back row who could read music." So he
taught the rest of the basses their lines. That led to him writing and publishing anthems for choir.
Still when he was about 20 he started writing "almost exclusively for orchestra."
That orchestra for about 20 years until his recent retirement was often the Los Angeles Philharmonic,
where he served as resident composer and advocate for new music.
The Philharmonic, he said, in an interview after his talk, is a great orchestra to present new music
because so many of the members also do studio work in Hollywood. That work requires them to read music
correctly the first time they see it.
The composition which won the Pulitzer, "Second Concerto for Orchestra" was written for that
"It’s full of my friends," he said during his talk. "It’s the orchestra in my head."
He believes in piece being able to grab a listener with its own distinctive "character." It
should pack some emotional message from the start.
Stucky also discussed his frequent use of quotations, his "conversations" with music from the
past. The concerto, for example starts with a crack, evoking the opening of Ravel’s piano concerto, and
then he summons the ghost of Stravinsky and makes a nod toward contemporary composer Oliver Knussen.
Despite the frequent rumors of its impending demise , orchestras and classical music continue to survive.
"It’s a model that keeps renewing itself," he said in the interview.
With orchestras getting more savvy about communicating with audiences, including over the Internet he
sees more music being available.
As for his own aims as a composer, he admits to "being old fashioned."
"If I can make pieces that give me goosebumps and makes the hair on my neck stand up on end then it
will do that for someone else, and I’ll have changed their life in some way."