The Hollowness of Loss: the Life and Music of Steven Stucky

—Ithaca, New York

I first met the celebrated American composer Steven Stucky not in Ithaca, where we have both lived for the past twenty years, but in Los Angeles on February 26, 1995. I arrived in Ithaca later that year; Steve had taken up what proved to be a more than three-decade-long post as professor of music at Cornell back in 1980 after doing his doctorate in composition at the university in the 1970s.

In the spring of 1994 my wife, Annette Richards, had been hired as the university organist and assistant professor at Cornell University, where Steve was then serving as chair of the music department. Still more than a decade away from his Pulitzer Prize of 2005, Steve was already one of America’s preeminent figures in classical music: a hugely productive and widely praised composer of works for choirs, bands, chamber ensembles, and symphony orchestras.

The same day she got the Cornell job in the spring of 1994, Annette had also received a post-doctoral fellowship from the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, then still located in downtown Santa Monica a few blocks from the Pacific. One of those rare figures in positions of academic power concerned chiefly with supporting the talents and initiatives of colleagues, Steve encouraged Annette to accept the Getty fellowship and defer taking up her Cornell duties until the following academic year.

Steve had been made composer-in-residence at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1988, a position he held until 2009, much of his time there also spent as advisor for new music. He fulfilled one of his early commissions for the orchestra with a Concerto for Two Flutes, the premier coming on February 23,, 1995. (The LA Phil would also commission his Second Concerto for Orchestra, the work for which he received the Pulitzer.)

In spite of his hugely busy composing schedule and administrative obligations back at Cornell, Steve took the time to call Annette and invite us to the Sunday afternoon performance that closed out the premier run of his new concerto.

The concert took place at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, home to the LA Phil before the opening of Disney Hall in 2003. It was a cloudless day in Los Angeles with little smog, the sky’s bright clarity making the hushed dimness of the vast auditorium seem all the more otherworldly, as if it were detached in time and place from its host city. The paradoxical concept of “contemporary classical music” seemed to belong to another world than that of the endless sprawl of LA.

I do not recall what else was on the program that afternoon, but I do remember Steve’s concerto. In contrast to most concertos, Stucky’s for two flutes does not start with exuberant flair, even though he admired the virtuosity of the orchestra’s flutists, Anne Diner Giles and Janet Ferguson, whose playing had inspired him to compose a concerto for this unlikely pairing—a sort of “super-flute,” as Steve called it in his program note.

Instead, the concerto’s opening movement is an elegy for one of Steve’s musical heroes, Witold Lutoslawski, who had died the previous year and about whose music Steve had written the definitive study in English, a book first published by Cambridge University Press in 1981, and reissued in 2009. (Aside from being a gifted composer, Steve was, like only a few others before him—Schumann and Berlioz among them—a wonderful writer about music, both his own and that of others. See for example, his unpretentious, engaging, exemplary short account of his own Second Concerto for Orchestra.)

The conductor for the concert was Esa-Pekka Salonen, then in his third year at the head of the orchestra and, like Steve, a devotee of Lutoslawski’s music. (One of the many CDs Steve gave to Annette and me over the years has Gloria Cheng playing piano works by Salonen, Stucky and Lutoslawski.  Then in his mid-thirties, Salonen was, literally and figuratively in concert with Stucky, transforming the LA Phil into one of the most important progressive forces for new music among the world’s major orchestras.

Instead of the brisk and buoyant, Stucky’s concerto begins with rising murmurs of harp and piano above a mournful drone—an open fifth, perhaps expressing the hollowness of loss.

The tessitura rises slowly to pause after a slashing cluster high in the harp. This is not the music of heaven, but the cold, cutting reality of death. The muted strings hold along with the harp—not a halo, but a shroud.   High up, too, the flutes enter pianissimo in ghostly echo of each other. The movement doesn’t so much build up to, but allow space for, ever more urgent threnody, these more animated expressions of grief dying away again to final flute echoes, at the end displaced from one another now by an irreconcilably—or perhaps inconsolably—dissonant half-step.

If catharsis comes it is not through tears, but through the jovial chase that is the second movement, “Games.” (The concerto is framed by slow movements, thus inverting the traditional classical scheme of fast-slow-fast.) The work closes with the resilient affirmations of the sparsely orchestrated “Hymn.”

The moving, uplifting performance over, Salonen acknowledged Steve, who in turn acknowledged the orchestra and the soloists. I believed already then that I could see in Steve and in his music, from our outstanding gratis seats, the mix of sincerity, joy, and wit that I would come to know in ever greater depth and variety in the subsequent years.

Steve had invited us to the après party in a vast loft space that served as a wealthy woman’s art studio, two of its high walls covered in a colorful painting perhaps fifty feet long that represented, she proudly told us, the concerto we’d all just heard.

As was typical for Steve, he wanted mostly to know about us rather than accept too much praise himself. But he did he allow us a bit of that privilege, too. His modesty was never studied or forced. “See you in Ithaca,” he said, when we parted.

Steve retired from Cornell in 2014 but stayed in town even while travelling much and teaching part-time at Juilliard. The last time I saw him was this past November at the Ithaca premiere of his first and only piano sonata played by his long-time friend and collaborator Xak Bjerken. It was another Sunday afternoon, this one rich not in those impossible Californian blues, but in the autumnal golds and reds of Upstate New York. It was a moving and memorable performance for a home crowd that cherished this man and his music.

I remember back at that 1995 performance in Los Angeles that Salonen led Stucky’s first-movement tombeau for Lutoslawski not so much with reverence, as with a kind of poised grief—a tribute of thankfulness and a brave enactment of the truth that great musicians live on through their own compositions and through the students they have taught, both directly and through their work. The same is now true of Steven Stucky, claimed by cancer this past Sunday in Ithaca at the age of sixty-six.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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