David Wolfson : Dual citizenship in the “classical” music world and the world of musical theatre

thumbnail_David Wolfson headshot

David Wolfson is a composer, music director, arranger, pianist and copyist who lives in New York City. He graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1985, and in that same year was the first recipient of the newly established Darius Milhaud Award and won the Bascom Little Fund’s Musical Theatre Composition Competition for his short opera Rainwait. After many years attending the school of hard knocks, he transferred to Hunter College, graduating with an MA in music composition in 2013, and is currently a PhD candidate in composition at Rutgers University.

His compositional output has included music for dance and transdisciplinary performance and incidental music for plays; opera, musicals, children’s musicals and comedy songs; song cycles, chamber music and music for orchestra; and one memorable score for an amusement park big-headed costumed character show.

From 2007-2010, Mr. Wolfson was the Associate Artistic Director, Music Director and resident composer of Experience Vocal Dance Company. His compositions for the company have been performed in Hannover, Germany, New York and London. His work with the company was supported by grants from the Puffin Foundation, the Manhattan Community Arts Fund and the Joyce Dutka Foundation.

From 1989-1992, Mr. Wolfson was resident composer and music director of EM/R Dance Co., a choreographer’s collective. From 1993-1996, he was co-artistic director of  Wichern/Wolfson dance & music, a company dedicated to performances involving both dance and live music. In connection with the company, Mr. Wolfson received several grants from Meet The Composer and a grant from the Music Program of the National Endowment for the Arts. Mr Wolfson’s music for these companies was called ‘brilliant’ by the Cleveland Plain Dealer; the New York Times referred to it as ‘musically inventive’ and ‘theatrically forceful.’

Mr. Wolfson was also the composer for Story Salad, a series of stage revues for children which was toured nationally for thirteen consecutive years by Maximillion Productions, and one year by Story Salad Productions, Inc. Story Salad was seen by well over a million children, teachers and parents.

2017 saw the premiere performances of The Faith Operas at Hartford Opera Theatre; Play Like a Winner (with Erik Johnke, book and lyrics) on the New York Musical Festival; and The Bet (with Tony Sportiello, book) on the Midtown International Theatre Festival. Mr. Wolfson’s theatrical song cycle Dreamhouse, based on the poetry of Barbara DeCesare, also was presented at the Midtown International Theatre Festival in 2005.

In 2013 Albany Records released Seventeen Windows, a CD of his music, performed by pianist Jenny Lin and cellist Laura Bontrager. In addition, “Song For An Accident” from Dreamhouse was recorded by Tamra Hayden on her CD A Day At The Fair; the lullaby “Like Water” was recorded by EVDC principal artist Karen Jolicoeur on her CD The Dream That You Wish; and “Time and Tide: Benediction,”  for cello quartet, is the final cut on Suzanne Mueller’s CD Solitaire.

Mr. Wolfson was the Music Director of the New York Theatrical Community Chorus from 2002-2007. He has served as music director and/or arranger/orchestrator for over sixty regional or Off-Broadway musicals and four Off-Broadway cast albums. In addition, he has played piano in the pits of twenty-five Broadway shows, and served as a rehearsal pianist, copyist or synthesizer programmer for productions in venues ranging from Broadway theatres to elementary school cafetoriums.


What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer? 

Listening to a recording of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” probably around the age of 8 or 9. I remember the thrill of the trumpet solo that opens the first Promenade section as my first notion of how deep music could strike; and I think this must be where I got the idea that every piece of music needs a distinct personality, which has been a major factor in my composing.

I also remember see a production of the musical Man of La Mancha at about age 12, and being so overwhelmed that I couldn’t speak for hours. I have had dual citizenship in the “classical” music world and the world of musical theatre my whole life; and people in each world tell me they can hear the other one in my work. 

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work?  Has this changed over time?

Of course, but it’s been a very mixed bag. There are a handful of pieces I listened to (or played!) in high school, such as Tombeau de Couperin, Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, that informed my notions of what music could be. I was also a Sondheim worshipper starting in high school, which took quite a while to get over. In college I discovered Bartok, and read John Cage’s seminal work Silence, which recontextualized the very nature of composing (and listening) for me, although I was never tempted to use chance procedures to compose. In college I also discovered pop music: the Beatles, Paul Simon, Billy Joel.

In more recent years, the musical theatre music of Adam Guettel was quite a shock to me, and took a while to assimilate. And as I’ve started to teach in recent years and had to revisit some things I’d ignored, I’ve discovered to my surprise that I really like a lot of Schoenberg’s music, as well as Haydn’s—the meticulousness and dry wit they share really appeals to me, and is probably turning up in my own work as well. 

How do you approach the question of “form” especially for longer works?

I see two aspects to form: one, the construction of a satisfying arc to a piece; and two, the balancing of unity and variety, of recognition and surprise.

In dramatic works (i.e., opera or song), the arc is inextricably intertwined with the dramatic arc. Since the libretto or text comes first for me, that simplifies matters—or it would if I weren’t also generally writing the text. In instrumental works, I think in terms of a narrative logic of events: what follows naturally from what I’ve just done? How do I get from where I’ve started to a climax so that it feels inevitable and yet not predictable?

I am a big fan of repetition and recontextualization in pursuit of the balance of recognition and surprise. I try to put myself in a listener’s shoes: at what point in the piece do I need something to hold on to—how long can I track what’s happening before getting tired? Conversely, have I heard this material enough to thoroughly get it? Am I going to feel jerked around if I don’t get to hear it more? 

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process?  What other technology, if any, do you use? 

My process generally begins with pacing around my apartment and/or staring out the window. I try to get a firm notion of at least one musical idea in my head before approaching the piano. Most of the actual writing is done in pencil, on staff paper, at my upright piano. (When I bought a new piano a few years ago, I had to make sure it was the correct height for me to write on its top while standing!) After the first draft is done, I go to the computer to notate it using Finale. I will generally revise at the computer; I find the playback function immensely useful in fine-tuning the form and pacing, although it can be very misleading about almost everything else. Since you asked: I do my initial drafts in pencil on paper because software note entry is much more cumbersome than scrawling dots and lines for getting ideas out quickly. 

Please describe a recent work and provide a link to an audio clip. 

“Secret, Lost, Undone” is a mixed quartet for flute, trumpet, English horn and cello, about seven and a half minutes long. It was written for the Broadway Chamber Players, a group of accomplished classical players who also play in Broadway pit orchestras (as do I from time to time). The group performs in The Actors Chapel, also known as St. Malachi’s, which is a very resonant space with a long reverberation; I set out to write a piece that would use that to its advantage, rather than have to fight through it.

You can listen to a recording at his website.

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