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Composer Wins Award That's Music to His Ears : Arts: Stephen Hartke is honored for his lifetime achievements. He will use some of the funds to record.


GLENDALE — Music grabbed composer Stephen Hartke when he was young.

The Glendale resident, one of four recent recipients of an Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York, was 9 years old when he first sang in a church choir.

At age 10, he wrote his first composition. The choir sang Masses, "so the first piece I wrote was a Mass," he recalled. "It was a little tiny Mass. I think it was about four pages."

Since that time, Hartke, now 40, has earned his Ph.D. from UC Santa Barbara, been a Fulbright professor in Brazil, and is now a professor of theory and composition at USC.

He won the 1987 Louisville Orchestra Prize, a Kennedy Center Friedheim Award for chamber music, and a 1991-92 Rome Prize, which allowed him to live in the Italian capital for a year to compose.

The recent honor from the arts and letters academy recognizes his lifetime achievements and includes a $7,500 cash prize and another $7,500 for a recording project.

"Most people don't know this, but American composers generally have to underwrite the recording of their own music," Hartke said, adding that he plans to use the funds to record a quartet, a duo and a solo for cello, all to be played by friends with whom he has been collaborating.

Hartke was nominated for the award by academy members last September.

After being notified that he had been nominated, Hartke submitted his second symphony and a piece he had written in honor of the bicentennial of Mozart's death. But he wasn't overwhelmed by the process.

"The fact is, I've been nominated a number of times," and the other three honorees--Stephen Jaffe, Christopher Rouse and David Sheinfeld had also been nominated more than once, he said. "We were all about ready to give up sending in our portfolios."

The awards luncheon in New York did impress the composer. Authors Kurt Vonnegut and Ralph Ellison attended, as did Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Hartke said.

"It was very hard not to gawk," he said.

The Academy of Arts and Letters, established in 1898, includes such luminaries as author John Updike and painter Andrew Wyeth among its members, as well as several modern classical composers, including Ned Rorem and Andrew Imbrie.

Hartke describes his music as being melodically driven, "which isn't exactly the most prevalent way of doing things," at least not in the world of modern classical music. "I don't particularly go along with my modernist inheritance."

The composer said his family was not particularly musical, although his father liked classical music and jazz.

"I think it took a while for my parents to figure the extent I was drawn to music," said Hartke, who is married and whose wife is expecting their first child in the fall. "It's one of those professions that chooses you. You can't help it."

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