For all my efforts rummaging in the attic of memory, the occasion of first meeting Steven Stucky remains somewhat blurry in my mind. I think it may have been a hurried introduction and a handshake in the backstage or a corridor of a concert hall. Faulty memory may be to blame, of course. But I am convinced that the reason for the ambiguity is that by the time we met in person, I felt I had already known him, and known him rather well. You see, I came to know him through his first concerto for orchestra. And my experience of hearing it for the first time was something between a shock and a revelation—a memory still vivid in my mind.
The shock was in the realization that I was hearing, in the year 1988, symphonic music that was as radiant as it was unabashedly appealing. Moreover, this riveting, aurally stunning three-movement composition felt, from the first to the last note, wholly organic. It seemed as though by having found the particular pitch-sound-rhythm combination with which the concerto begins—like finding a magic key to a wondrous castle—the rest just fell into place naturally; as if there simply was no other way. And for all of its rich, meticulous detail at every level, it seemed as though it would have been created with a single burst of unencumbered inspiration, waves and waves of gorgeous music flowing forward with urgency and spontaneity. In a manner shared by not many works of that era, the Concerto for Orchestra seemed to radiate light.
With repeated listening to the work, I recall thinking that the composer must be a person not just of huge imagination but also of great generosity. It was, how to put it, music that kept on giving. And it reaffirmed in my own mind the notion that “new music” and music with a capacity to “speak” broadly to the public was not necessarily an oxymoron. Its lustrous veneer caught you. But there were also innumerable layers below the surface that were revealed as one delved deeper.
And who would have guessed that, a few years later, there would be a second concerto for orchestra. And unlike many a “sequel,” this one turned out to be another grand, inspired composition, earning Stucky the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, further solidifying his position as a composer with a special knack for bold, sumptuous orchestral writing.
Sometime after meeting the composer’s music entered Steve Stucky the person. Over time, our lives in music brought us together in many diverse circumstances, different cities, festivals, serving side by side on boards and panels, as well as at Ithaca and Chicago, his and my respective home bases. Steve turned out to be very much the person implied by the music. I come back to the word “generous.” Generous in the utter willingness with which he shared his talent, time, initiatives for spreading the goods and empowering others. He was one always ready to pull up his sleeves and get to work. That was true at Cornell, most recently at Juilliard and at Aspen, and of course during his immensely successful composer residency with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, groundbreaking for its bold initiatives and unprecedented duration. He knew much, but never sought to show off—comfortable enough with himself to remain unpretentious and unassuming. One often hears the expression “he tolerated no fools” applied to certain people of prodigious talent. But I sense that Steve’s tolerance was greater than most, as was his natural kindness.
And—he was genuinely funny. He seemed to have an endless repertoire of spontaneous quips, some of a mildly self-deprecating kind, others quick repartee. And at no time was the humor a put-down of someone else. I remember a time, almost twenty years ago, when we were catching up, and I told him I had just put the double-bar on my opera, to which his response was “you clearly are the better man”; then, to my surprise, adding “I honestly don’t know that I have it in me.” But of course he did, as shown brilliantly by “The Classical Style, an Opera (of sorts),” a hilarious tour de force of startling imagination. He enjoyed life, travel, art, and was definitely what people now refer to as a foodie. I recall an occasion in a Chicago restaurant, Steve savoring that restaurant’s signature opener of roasted garlic over French bread, shutting his eyes and after a short pause murmuring “I am having a religious experience.” And just as in his music, Steve the person was not afraid to show emotion. A gripping talk given at the University of Chicago about the process of composing his massive August 4, 1964, revealed him to be moved by history but also by the complexity of human nature. President Lyndon Johnson’s place in history will forever be defined by the Vietnam War. But there were, also, the signing of the “Civil Rights Act” and the “Great Society,” and Stucky was mindful of this in creating his large-scale oratorio. Following the premiere, as recounted candidly by the composer, there were tears—the composer’s own. So great was the emotional toll this work took of him.
A supremely devoted mentor and beloved teacher, his energy must have been boundless. There he was, flying across the globe for a performance or the planning of a festival, and two days later he was back in action closer to home, in typical Steve Stucky multi-tasking mode. With all of this, he still found time for that personal touch. I know, because I had the good fortune of being on the other end of decades of a special camaraderie.
Steve’s untimely death on February 14, 2016, came as a shock, a devastating blow to the many colleagues, students, friends and associates whose existence he profoundly affected. I think we all took it very personally. I hear that social media was filled for days and weeks after his passing with tales and remembrances of people who felt compelled to share as a small way of easing the pain; a kind of a communal “Shiva,” or mourning period.
Of course we will never know what might have come next. But perhaps there is a measure of comfort in knowing that in his 66 years what he accomplished—mattered. Steve is gone. But the legacy, the music of Steven Stucky lives on, and is here to stay.