Remembering Steven Stucky : Gentle yet powerful influence

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“One kind of artist is always striving to annihilate the past,” composer Steven Stucky once wrote, “to make the world anew in each new work, and so to triumph over the dead weight of routine. I am the other kind . . . who only sees his way forward by standing on the shoulders of those who have already cleared the path ahead.”

Such was the case with his Second Concerto for Orchestra, the work that won him the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in music. The composition was deeply informed by tradition — he called it “an homage piece to the orchestra and to my heroes,” Ravel, Stravinsky, Sibelius and Bartok. But it also was squarely in keeping with his championing of contemporary classical music, neither parroting nor repudiating some of the experimental musical motifs of his time.

Dr. Stucky, an emeritus professor at Cornell University, died February 14 at his home in Ithaca, N.Y. He was 66.

Stucky was born in Hutchinson, Kansas. At age 9, he moved with his family to Abilene, Texas, where, as a teenager, he studied music in the public schools and, privately, viola with Herbert Preston, conducting with Leo Scheer, and composition with Macon Sumerlin. He attended Baylor University and Cornell. Stucky worked with Karel Husa and Daniel Sternberg.

Stucky wrote commissioned works for many of the major American orchestras, including Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and St. Paul.

Stucky was an expert on the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski and authored the 1981 study Lutoslawski and His Music. He also was curator of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s 2013 centenary celebration of that composer, Woven Words: Music Begins Where Words End. Stucky was the Given Foundation Professor of Composition at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.  There he founded Ensemble X and led it for nine seasons, from 1997 until 2006, while at the same time he also was the guiding force behind the celebrated Green Umbrella series in Los Angeles.

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Mr. Stucky was also an exceptional orchestrator and colorist. Silent Spring, written in 2011 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s book, a cautionary ecological study, employed a “vast timbral palette,” the critic Allan Kozinn wrote in a New York Times review of a performance by the conductor Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Lincoln Center.  With its “pillars of commanding, rich-hued chords” and “chaotic, swirling woodwind lines,” Mr. Kozinn suggested that if this “shape-shifting” tone poem had a visual analogue, it might be a Jackson Pollock painting.

In 2012, Mr. Stucky provided some revealing insight into his own music with an offhand comment before the New York premiere of his Symphony. “Graspable” is the way he described the 20-minute, single-movement piece in conversation with Alan Gilbert, conductor of the New York Philharmonic before the performance. For all the modernist complexities of Mr. Stucky’s scores, his music was sanguine, lucid and structurally clear — graspable in the best sense.

He had an extraordinarily long and fruitful relationship with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 1988, the ensemble’s then-music director, André Previn, named him the orchestra’s composer-in-residence. Stucky went on to work with the orchestra for more than two decades, including as their consulting composer for new music during the tenure of music director and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen, with whom he worked closely in commissioning new music, programming contemporary music, and in such outreach efforts as founding the LA Philharmonic’s fellowship program for composers still in high school.

Stucky delighted in making engaging, smart music. His first opera, The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts), was a collaboration with pianist and writer Jeremy Denk that premiered at California’s Ojai Music Festival in 2014. As theater and opera director Simon Williams wrote in an Opera News magazine review, “The Classical Style is a free-ranging, often bizarre fantasy in which Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, ensconced in boredom in Heaven, become panicked by reports of a decline of interest in classical music on Earth and a perception that human audiences find their music stale … The opera is hugely entertaining, not least because Steven Stucky is a parodist of genius whose knowledge of the language of classical music over the past 250 years is astoundingly detailed and seemingly infinite.”

In 2014 he retired from Cornell and was named an emeritus professor, and joined the Juilliard School to teach composition. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in November.

“He went out of his way to come to the Ensemble X concert last Sunday, and he was warm and generous with his students, who saw him for the first time after his surgery in early December,” Bjerken said. “He was such a gentle yet powerful influence on so many of us.”

Said Steven Pond, chair and associate professor of music: “Despite the challenges of treating his illness, Steve was an active presence in our musical community until just a few days ago. In his decades-long career in our department, Steve’s kind heart and cool head made him invaluable. His impression is left on the many graduate and undergraduate students he taught and advised.”

“In his career as a composer and intellectual, Steve rose to the top ranks in his field,” Pond said.

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