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It's his day in the sun

Local composer Stephen Hartke is on a roll as his new symphonic work opens the New York Philharmonic season.

September 16, 2003|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

When local composer Stephen Hartke began his new symphony a year and a half ago, the first sound he imagined was four male voices, singing -- sotto voce -- the word "wondrous."

Now, Hartke's Symphony No. 3 is about to receive its world premiere Thursday night by the New York Philharmonic, which commissioned it for the opening weekend of its 2003-04 season. Next week, another of his compositions will premiere at Merkin Concert Hall in New York. And this month, Naxos and ECM are releasing two CDs with works by Hartke, who is also toiling away on his first opera, "All's Fair," for Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y.

It may not be a wonder, but this looks like Hartke's moment.

The 51-year-old composer lives in a modest stucco house in Glendale with his wife, soprano Lisa Stidham, and their young son, Sandy. Miro posters decorate the walls. Hartke's studio is a cave in the sunlit interior. With drawn blinds and a single light beam on his piano, the aquamarine room is dim.

The Symphony No. 3, which stands in a black binder on a shelf, "is kind of a risky piece," Hartke says. The challenge he undertook was to write for a vocal ensemble in the context of a large orchestra. He grew up singing in choirs and is infatuated with their sound, but his music draws on a wide range of sources.

"He can pack a lot into a small space, and gracefully," Josef Woodard wrote in these pages last year. "The result is a coherently voiced rather than shallow postmodern ransacking. Clearly contemporary, with a questioning spirit and harmonic puzzles, his music can also convey the cool, objective air of medieval music."

When the New York Philharmonic asked for a new symphony, Hartke realized that the premiere would be close to Sept. 11, and he decided to reflect on the anniversary. To fulfill the commission, he set to music "The Ruin," an 8th century elegy. He also translated the poem from Old English, building the symphony around its structure.

The other starting point for the symphony was the Hilliard Ensemble, a four-man vocal group he calls "the Rolls-Royce of vocal ensembles."

The repertoire of the British-based group spans Baroque and 20th century music. Other composers, including Gavin Bryars and Arvo Part, have written music for it.

"But I think this is the first piece of this sort that they've had," says Hartke, who has created two other pieces for the group: "Tituli" and "Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain."

Born in New Jersey, Hartke moved to California in the '80s to study for a doctorate at UC Santa Barbara. Since 1987, he has been teaching at the USC Thornton School of Music, where he is a professor of composition.

Before he has either a text or a trajectory for a new work, he says, he imagines a "kind of sound image, a feel for the sound world that the piece is going to inhabit" -- pauses, intervals, pitches. Then he finds notes, and those have implications, "what it is they want to do when they're together. I do feel that the composition of my pieces is about my discovery of what it is that these instruments want to do together. What does it mean to have the bass flute in the same room as that English horn? And how might they interact? Or not?"

Hartke has also set the poetry of W.H. Auden and Federico Garcia Lorca. While some composers believe there's only one way to accentuate a line, he aims to present a text in many ways.

"You have various actors read a poem, they are going to read the same line differently depending on their interpretation of it. And that's what you're offering as a composer -- an interpretation."

Hartke's music has been widely performed, and among the honors he has received was a 1997 Guggenheim Fellowship. But like the Symphony No. 3, the majority of his commissions have come from institutions and orchestras on the East Coast, he says. Most of the big performing organizations on the Los Angeles scene, he contends, have little interest in local composers.

"I have not been commissioned by a California-based organization since 1994. Look, maybe they don't like my stuff, and that's fine. That's their right. But what about the rest?

"I have no problem with Esa-Pekka [Salonen] going on and on with these Finnish composers, because he plays good stuff. That's fine. He wants to help out his pals," he says of the Los Angeles Philharmonic music director. But "why isn't there a Southern California piece being played at the first season at Disney Hall? There is no Southern California content."

The poet of "The Ruin" describes a devastated Roman city and imagines its previous glory.

"It was probably written by a non-Christian, a pagan," Hartke says, giving the word "pagan" a slight ironic twang. "It's alternately an observation and a celebration. There's no concept of sin in it."

The poem is "something of a sacred work, though from a humanist point of view," he says. The symphony reflects his fascination with history and what he sees as a collective memory loss.

"I do feel that we would all be helped if we had a greater sense of history, not in the sense of being proud of our heritage but [to remember] that those who don't heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them."

All of us, he says, must "remind ourselves: People went through this before."

Hartke's symphony and its source begin this way:


Wondrous is this wall-stone, broken by fate.

The castles have decayed: the work of giants crumbles.

Roofs are ruined, towers toppled,

gates rusted and broken, hoar frost clings to the mortar.

Broken are the roof-beams, cut away, collapsed, undermined by age.

The grasp of the earth, stout grip of the ground,

holds its mighty builders who have perished and gone.

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