Steven Stucky’s Twin Legacies Of Music And Light
By Richard S. Ginell
LOS ANGELES – Mortality has taken a terrible toll this winter among pop and rock performers from, and just before, the boomer generation – David Bowie, Maurice White, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Dan Hicks, etc. – and the year has barely begun. Now, the classical world has lost someone of that generation suddenly and prematurely. The Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky, only 66, died of brain cancer on Valentine’s Day – and perhaps no region aside from his hometown of Ithaca, N.Y., has felt the blow as intimately as Southern California.
Stucky was also a teacher, lecturer, and author. He mattered to us because he was associated with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a longer period of time than any of the orchestra’s music directors – and longer than any composer for any American orchestra, unless you count Duke Ellington’s 50 uninterrupted years leading his band!
Stucky became the orchestra’s composer-in-residence under André Previn in 1988, succeeding John Harbison, and then, when that position expired, staying on as the consulting composer for new music all through the Esa-Pekka Salonen years. When Salonen, a colleague and close pal, left in 2009, so did Stucky, having overseen the Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella new music series through his moves over the years from the Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo to the Colburn School’s Zipper Concert Hall, and finally, the future-world interior of Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Throughout his long tenure under the Green Umbrella, Stucky would usually deliver the pre-concert lectures, brandishing his intelligence, knowledge of the inside-baseball of composition, and sardonic wit in a way that banded listeners together in a not-so-secret society. He also conducted interviews with many visiting and resident composers and performers, sporting a determined poker face as he probed his subjects, never overmatched. Though most of us never visited Cornell University, where he taught, we were in effect Stucky’s students for 21 years, much longer than any undergrad would have been.
Eventually he would perform the same service for the New York Philharmonic’s Hear & Now concerts. I don’t know how many of Stucky’s pre-concert talks were preserved, but if you have Apple Music or iTunes, you can hear a five-minute sample of what Stucky’s talks were like at the tail end of Gustavo Dudamel’s DG Concerts performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (sorry, it’s online only).
Being on the inside of the Philharmonic’s new music establishment – he once half-joked that he and Salonen used to be youngsters who now “have their hands on the levers of power” – Stucky was able to play a big part in the programming of the Green Umbrella concerts. He must have taken particular pride in the semi-regular residencies of his idol Witold Lutosławski, of whom Stucky wrote a benchmark study, Lutosławski and His Music, in 1981. (He was once heard to proclaim Lutosławski as “our Beethoven.”)
We would hear Stucky’s music frequently, too, although he wasn’t as relentless a self-promoter as he could have been in his position. Like Salonen, Stucky’s years in Los Angeles changed him as a composer as well. He had access to an excellent symphony orchestra that he could write for, and his palette of colors grew. His Second Concerto for Orchestra (2003) – the piece that got the Pulitzer – was written for the Philharmonic, and deep into the Dudamel regime, Stucky’s Symphony, with its fantasy land of carefully controlled ad libitum effects heavily influenced by Lutosławski, received its world premiere from the Phil in 2012.
Stucky later began to take on historical events and issues that affected the boomers, such as the powerful dramatic cantata August 4, 1964 – a juxtaposition of the best of Lyndon Johnson (his commitment to civil rights) and the worst (the Gulf of Tonkin resolution) – and a choral piece Take Him, Earth that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. “It made my work more realistic, less theoretical,” he once told the Los Angeles Times about his years here. “There’s a sense when escaping the academy is a liberation.”
But if there is one piece to which I would gravitate as a remembrance of Steve Stucky, it has to be The Classical Style, the uproarious one-act opera in which he supplied the music for Jeremy Denk’s gleefully funny libretto. [At right, fast-forward to 41:42.] Having retired from Cornell that year (2014) and perhaps feeling further liberated, Stucky went on a musicological spree, with one devilishly clever quote, parody, and burlesque after another of everybody’s music that he and Denk could think of.
Just before the premiere of The Classical Style at the Ojai Festival, Stucky quipped that he was “putting those decades of teaching sophomore theory” at Cornell to good use. Alas, it would be one of his last compositions. And so, like Verdi, who bid farewell to the stage with a smile (Falstaff), Stucky leaves us with the image of a teacher at play, sending up everything that he had learned and taught with a mischievous grin.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.