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Steven Stucky marks return to L.A. with his very own 'Symphony'

A composer supremely familiar with the L.A. Philharmonic, Steven Stucky debuts the world premiere of 'Symphony' at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

September 26, 2012|By David Ng, Los Angeles Times
  • Steven Stucky debuts the world premiere of ‘Symphony’ at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Steven Stucky debuts the world premiere of ‘Symphony’ at… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

When Steven Stucky set out earlier this year to write his first symphony, one of the most difficult decisions he faced was deciding what to call it. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer had actually written four symphonies in his youth — but to hear him put it, those efforts don't really count.

"I wrote two when I was a little boy, and I have no idea what unholy mash-up those were," he recalled in a recent phone interview. "Then I wrote a symphony when I was a senior in college, and then one for my doctoral thesis, and I'm sure those have been completely expunged from the record."

The logical choice for a title would no doubt seem pretentious. "It was not sensible to call this piece Symphony No. 5," the composer said.

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Stucky's "Symphony" — simple, to the point — will have its world premiere this week by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The piece was co-commissioned by the L.A. Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic, which will perform it later this year at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. (The L.A. Phil weekend program, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, includes Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring.")

The premiere marks Stucky's return to Los Angeles after serving as the orchestra's composer-in-residence and new music advisor from 1988 to 2009. He said the symphony was written "thinking about both orchestras, and in some cases about specific players. I know the L.A. Phil like the back of my hand, or I did. That orchestra has been in my head so long."

"Symphony" comprises four movements lasting approximately 20 minutes and features a number of solo passages for woodwinds. "It starts in a dark and pessimistic way and becomes light and bright and optimistic as it goes," Stucky explained. "It has an emotional arc, and not one I knew I was making until halfway through."

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The actual composing of the symphony took place in a relatively short burst from January to early July, said the composer. "The only way for me to compose is intensively," he explained. "To pick at it over a long period doesn't seem to work."

Stucky won the Pulitzer for music in 2005 for his Second Concerto for Orchestra, which was also commissioned by the L.A. Philharmonic. His body of work — including "Radical Light," "Silent Spring" and numerous other instrumental works — is notable for its mood shifts and tonal diversity as well as its accessibility.

During his tenure in L.A., Stucky was a champion of other new music composers and often led the orchestra's Green Umbrella concerts. He was first hired as composer-in-residence under Andre Previn, and later worked as the orchestra's new music advisor under Esa-Pekka Salonen, whom he considers a close friend.

Stucky's music doesn't belong to any particular school, according to Salonen.

"His style is a synthesis of several historic influences," said Salonen by email. "But one can tell that he represents 'the third way,' by which I mean that his identity is not directly related to the postwar modernist project, nor is it part of the reaction against it."

The key point of reference in Stucky's career is the late Polish composer Witold Lutos¿awski. "His influence can be heard in the very controlled way Steve builds his harmonies and form," said Salonen.

Since leaving L.A., Stucky, 62, has continued teaching at Cornell University and makes his home in Ithaca, N.Y. Last season, he held a composing position at the Pittsburgh Symphony, and will work this season at the Berkeley Symphony.

Stucky said spending more than 20 years with the L.A. Philharmonic changed him as a composer. "It made my work realistic, less theoretical," he said. "There's a sense when escaping the academy is a liberation."

He is currently working on a number of new pieces, including one for the American Choral Directors Assn. that is expected to premiere next year in Dallas for the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

"I find composition difficult," Stucky said. "I never thought of myself as someone who can crank it out. I can't crank it out — I have to dig it out the hard way. In some sense, you become more confident in your technical apparatus, but it becomes harder to do something you haven't done already."

david.ng@latimes.com

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'Symphony' by Steven Stucky

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown L.A.

When: 8 p.m, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $54.50 to $189

Information: (323) 850-2000 or http://www.laphil.com

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