Composers take classical approach


By Gloria Tierney


Sting vowed to record Elizabethan songs. Andy Summers contemplated a career in jazz. And Stewart Copeland said he would compose orchestral and chamber music. The three members of the Police were contemplating ways to demolish their careers after the group disbanded.

Only Copeland followed through. He began composing music for films, and before long, he was creating orchestral pieces, operas and ballets.

On Friday, he will join two other, more traditionally schooled composers - George Tsontakis and Paul Schoenfield - as a composer-in-residence at SummerFest 2009. Each has a unique musical personality. All three will be present when their music is performed for the first time.

Inspiration from the road

Copeland is not the first pop artist to venture into the classical realm, but unlike others, he never tethered himself to the traditional classical canon.

“I love Mozart, but I don’t want to copy him,” he said. “My goal is make music and not to live in any particular musical world - be it classical, jazz or rock ‘n’ roll,” he said from Düsseldorf, Germany.

The music he creates is amazing, said Cho-Liang Lin, SummerFest’s artistic director. He discovered Copeland’s music while watching a documentary on the Serengeti. While the film was visually beautiful, Lin was captivated by the music.

“Right then, I knew I wanted to commission a piece by him,” he said.

Copeland titled his composition “Retail Therapy” and describes it as “a cheerful piece about the joys of shopping.”

He wrote it during the farewell tour of the Police. The inspiration came from his years on the road. Rock stars, he said, are like pirates of old, passing though distant shores, pillaging as they go.

“When you’re on the road, you grab things that you don’t need or even want; then you get home and say, ‘Why did I buy this?’ ”

Besides “Retail Therapy,” Lin has programmed three other works by Copeland - “Kaya,” “Gene Pool” and “Celeste,” with Copeland on percussion for the latter two pieces. Neither was written for drums, so he will be “composing” his part on stage, something he loves to do.

“I like to have everything set, then arrive at rehearsal and screw it up,” he said.

It’s all Greek to him

Tsontakis will not be performing at SummerFest. He has given his commission “Stimulus Package” over to the considerable talents of Real Quiet, an ensemble formed by cellist Felix Fan.

Lin is a bit puzzled by the title.

“George has a fine sense of humor, and I suspect it will be on display in this piece; then again, I could be wrong, and the music may well stimulate all of us,” Lin said.

Tsontakis admits the title is a bit risky.

“In three years, it’ll sound stupid. If it doesn’t, we’re in trouble,” he said from Aspen, Colo.

Actually, the work is a tribute to his Greek ancestors and his grandfather in particular. The movement titled “Papou,” the Greek endearment for grandfather, imitates the sounds of the lyra and lauto, traditional Cretan instruments, with the piano and percussion simulating the lauto and the cello the lyra.

As an adolescent, Tsontakis would play his compositions for his papou.

“I wrote ‘beep, splat, burp’ type music,” Tsontakis told Chamber Music Today. “He would put down his glass of brandy at the side of the piano and dance like Zorba the Greek. I’m sure what he was hearing was lyra and lauto music, not mine.”

The atonal music of his youth has given way to a style that has evolved into “beautiful lush music,” Lin said.

Tsontakis sees his music in more practical terms. He simply writes the type of music that musicians want to play, not what an audience might want.

“I get lots of commissions (more than 50 at last count) because musicians like my music. Standing ovations don’t get you commissions,” the Charles Ives Award winner said.

Tsontakis began composing at 17. At first, he wanted to be an actor, but fell back on music when his dreams fell through. He worked his way through Julliard, one of its few, if not only student, carrying a carpenter’s union card in his wallet.

Van Gogh through a kaleidoscope

Like Tsontakis, Schoenfield hails from the traditional world of classical composers. He began studying piano at age 6 in his native Detroit and wrote his first composition a year later. Before giving himself fully to composition, Schoenfield forged a distinguished career as a concert pianist.

He writes beautiful music for the violin. “Sonata for Violin and Piano,” which Lin and Jon Kimura Parker will perform at SummerFest, is Schoenfield’s first sonata.

“It’s a challenging, well-crafted work. People will detect elements of Jewish music and well-known compositions, such as the ‘Emperor Concerto’ and the ‘Unfinished Symphony,’ ” Lin said. “Listening to it is like looking at a famous van Gogh painting through a kaleidoscope.”