Sixty candles for Stephen Paulus

Sixty candles for Stephen Paulus


August 19, 2009
Stephen Paulus
Saint Paul composer Stephen Paulus says while Minnesota winters are tough, the Twin Cities are 2 - 3 hours from everywhere else in the U.S. so still in the center of "it all."
Courtesy: Sharolyn Hagen Photography

Stephen Paulus' website can't keep up with his fast-paced life. It states he's "a prolific composer of over 350 works."

When I quoted that, Stephen quickly corrected me that he has written another 50 or so, bringing his opus to about 400 works - and in every genre imaginable: 10 operas, around 55 orchestral works, a bunch of works for chorus and orchestra, probably 200 choral works, several song cycles, a handful of works for band and a couple dozen chamber works.

Stephen turns 60 today, but he is not one to rest on his laurels. He's currently working on 40 commissions through 2013, ranging from a short choral work for the Minneapolis Youth Choir to a Violin Concerto for Bill Preucil and the Cleveland Orchestra.

All this activity and variety keeps Stephen Paulus busy and happy - and Pentel of America in business.

Alison Young: You have such a "baby-face" and still have all your hair. I thought this was your 50th birthday for sure. What's your secret - good genes, lots of composing, fresh Minnesota air?

Stephen Paulus: Well, I think that I just have good genes. My Dad looked young his entire life and my Mom has always looked youthful too! I also think living in Minnesota might have something to do with it. We don't have quite the same stress as some of our colleagues in New York.

ay: Reading your bio leaves me breathless! What could possibly still be on your "life-list?"

Stephen Paulus celebrates his 60th birthday
Stephen Paulus has put his 60 years to good use, composing 400 pieces in every conceivable genre. His latest project was a cello concerto, premiered two weeks ago (when Stephen was still in his fifties!) by Lynn Harrell and the Grand Teton Music Festival.
Photo courtesy Richard Rasch

sp: I would like to write a ballet. I currently have two ballet projects in the works. One is called "Jump" and is a story about a princess and four frogs that will be staged in Atlanta in a couple of years. The other is with the Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan and that is still being worked out. Additionally, I would love to write a great Broadway show. This will happen too, I think. I like Stephen Sondheim's comment about opera and musicals he made to Marian McPartland on her "Piano Jazz" show after having turned down the Vienna State Opera for a commission, "Why write a work that's going to get eight performances when you can write one that will get eight performances per week?"

ay: We're featuring your latest project - and the last from your fifth decade - Lynn Harrell and the Grand Teton Music Festival premiere of your cello concerto. I heard a story that you barely finished this concerto under deadline and you were almost convinced not to write the fourth movement because you were out of time. Can you tell us your side of the story?

sp: The story on that piece is this: Originally, I planned a standard three-movement concerto. Part way into composing the work I got this idea to make the third movement kind of a quirky scherzo with the solo cello and mostly the percussion section. Then I would conclude with a big, bravura fourth and final movement. This idea was patterned after the solo trumpet concerto I wrote for Doc Severinsen and the Phoenix Symphony several years ago.

Lynn liked this idea. But when I got into the third movement, it started to change and use instruments from the entire orchestra and not just the percussion section. So, the third movement became a little more like a "finale" than some quirky scherzo. When I finished it, I didn't feel that the work had a conclusive ending. It wasn't "bravura" enough to have that big conclusive finish and it begged for something additional.

There were two choices: #1, to write a big, finale sounding 4th movement, or #2, to take a whole different route. I chose #2 and wrote a very child-like and (for the most part) quiet final movement. It is very much like a "Gymnopedie" and allows the cello to sing "a little song."

When I first met with Lynn and his pianist for our first run-through, I wasn't sure that he would like this approach and told him that he could cut the fourth movement if he felt that it was inappropriate or disappointing as an ending. He laughed out loud and then said something like, "Oh sure Mr. Mahler. You don't mind if we cut out the "Adagietto" do you?"

One expects that a concerto should end with many shenanigans and loud and fast with the cellist's bow stabbing the air in a final "up-jab." This one doesn't and it turns out that it worked just fine. Much to my surprise the audience jumped to their feet at both premiere performances this past August 14th and 15th. No one was more surprised than the composer.

ay: We met for the first time when I was playing in the Atlanta Symphony and you were their composer-in-residence. I remember thinking this guy's music is so good, he could live anywhere in the world and find success. But you chose to stay in Minnesota. Why?

sp: I always joke that the big advantage of living in Minnesota is that it is 2 - 3 hours from everywhere else in the U.S. I am only kind of kidding. I don't like winter, except maybe for about a week of snow around the holidays. Other than that I would prefer 75 degrees and sunny, low humidity.

Cellist, Lynn Harrell
Virtuoso cellist Lynn Harrell premiered Stephen Paulus' Cello Concerto at the Grand Teton Music Festival. He teased Paulus about cutting out the final, prayer-like movement that didn't give Harrell a loud, fast ending, but brought the house down at the premiere none-the-less.
Photo courtesy: Lynn Harrell

As it turns out though, Minnesota has been a great nurturing ground and a place to develop without a ton of people looking at you in an odd way artistically and asking you why you would write that or whatever. I think those of us who remained in Minnesota have felt more free to develop our own musical signature then some of our colleagues on the East Coast. Not all of them, but some.

ay: Now that you're 60, are Miami winters starting to look a little more enticing?

sp: Remember that Florida is the only state in the Union that is shaped like a gun. I already mentioned that I am not a big fan of winter. I don't think I would take up residence in any one place for winters, but I might spend more time in a warmer climate during the dead of winter. I like Tucson and a few places out west.

ay: There's a quote about you from The New York Times (I lifted it from Wikipedia; you did not include it in your official bio!) They write: you're "a young man on the road to big things." 60 may indeed be the new 40, so attitudes change, but when you hear that quote do you feel, yes, that young man did accomplish big things?

sp: I often say that "60 is the new 80." Ha, ha! I do feel that I have accomplished quite a bit. 400 works is not an insignificant number of artistic creations. I don't look back and think, "Why did I not write more or why didn't I write a double trumpet concerto?" or any of that.

It's all relative though. There are composers who have written much less, but their works are no less significant. I think the most important thing is that one speaks from the heart while still using the intellect. The heart always communicates, but the intellect gives a composition the rigor to stand the test of time and bear repeated hearings.

ay: Long ago, when I played your music at the Washington Island Music Festival, you mentioned to me how great it was to make a living on commissions alone -- no college gig or day-job for you. Do you feel lucky, blessed, just so darn good?

sp: I feel that I have been very fortunate to have always had work (i.e. commissions) ever since I made the decision to just be a composer when I was 28 years old and had finished with my Ph.D. in Music Theory and Composition at the University of Minnesota. I never looked back. The music business is about building and maintaining personal relationships. I have worked hard on this and I really enjoy all the people I am working with and have worked with over the years.

I would still like to do a little teaching some day and am always flattered when some college or university asks about that. At this point there just isn't time, but I feel that it is important to give back too. So, that will happen some day.

ay: What kinds of music do you like writing the most? Are there times you write just for the money or is that even possible for a composer?

sp: I like writing everything! I am perhaps most inspired by things that include text, such as operas and song cycles, works for chorus, but I also love the contrast of writing something purely for orchestra.

The recent "Cello Concerto" was a great joy to write - to be so fortunate to write for one of the great cellists of our time -Lynn Harrell and to work with Donald Runnicles too! This was magical! Money does play an issue in some commissions. I wouldn't write a new work just for the money, but sometimes it can influence one a bit.

If I already have three choral commissions and a fourth comes along and is paying the going rate I probably would accept it even though I might think "Gee, I wish the next commission was for a chamber work." I never, ever take on something that I can't be enthusiastic about though. That would be unthinkable!

ay: What music do you listen to you in your spare time?

SP: I have very eclectic tastes and have ALL kinds of music on my iPhone -- Beach Boys, meditation CDs, Beatles and Supertramp, Mahler, Debussy, world music selections, and all my own stuff of course.

ay: Do you have spare time? What do you enjoy as a hobby? At 60, are you now taking up golfing?

sp: I have spare time if I decide to take time off and make some spare time. I probably don't have a hobby. I collected coins as a kid. I used to say that reading was a hobby, but I think that is just something that one does all the time. I love to canoe and do that as time permits up at our lake place in Wisconsin. I also like to play tennis, but don't get to that very often. I have enjoyed golf since I was in 9th grade and took it up. Now I play about once a year, only do the front nine holes and don't take a score card.

ay: What does your studio look like? Do you tolerate interruptions from the family?

sp: Ha, ha! My family has always been free to wander through the studio. It seems like there are even more interruptions these days with my publishing staff and various other people wandering through. My studios is on the main floor of our house and just features a nice baby grand piano, a sofa and table and lots of books in the built in shelves. I write the old-fashioned way with a Pentel Rolling Writer pen and 11 x 17 manuscript paper. Then I scan the score and email it to my engraver in Phoenix. I have an office upstairs where I do paperwork and business stuff.

ay: Now that you're an "elder statesman" of the compositional craft, what would you tell the next generation of composers?

sp: I often tell the next generation of composers that they are going to need to be versatile and look for new opportunities. There are many more ways in which music is being used and it is also becoming more utilitarian. They need to keep their eyes and ears open for these opportunities and help to create new ones.

ay: Composers never die, they just de-compose; but do they retire?

sp: Composers don't retire. They are like conductors. I fully intend to die "with my boots on." Of course, I am hoping to have all of my marbles up to the end as well. I don't want to spend my final days sitting in a wheel chair facing a wall at the Heavenly Arms Hotel and Nursing Home. We probably don't get much choice about that though.

One thing that I believe strongly in is physical activity as a catalyst and counter activity to the business of creating. In the summer and nicer months in Minnesota I always walk three miles per day. During the ten months of winter (ha, ha!) I go to Lifetime Fitness and spend about 50 minutes on an elliptical trainer. I work on languages on my iPhone and sweat like a pig. It's a great work out and all I think is that I am working on my Mandarin lessons while exercising.

ay: Looking back on six decades, what are you most proud of?

sp: I am proud of three things -- helping to raise a great family, writing a substantial body of works that have connected with people and which I am hoping will last for a while, and co-founding the American Composers Forum with my colleague Libby Larsen.

The latter has provided hope and inspiration for others and this is very important to me. The Forum could have been one of those "personality" things that go down the tubes the minute the founders leave. But it didn't and it hasn't. It is still going after 36 years and that makes me happy.

ay: And most embarrassed by?

SP: I once walked into the second violin section of the Minnesota Orchestra after taking a bow from the premiere of my "Ordway Overture" with Neville Marriner. I just couldn't find the path through the fiddles to get off stage. Neville thought it was quite funny.

ay: Please tell me the question (and the answer) that you had most wanted me to ask?

sp: I am not sure that you have missed any questions, but I could add this: I am pleased to have been a composer who can satisfy all kinds, somewhat in the fashion of a Benjamin Britten. I have written very practical little pieces for youth choirs and community groups and have also written works for the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, and the Robert Shaw Festival Singers.

My experiences have allowed for the writing of works for young performers who are not yet well known as well as great singers like Thomas Hampson, Deborah Voigt, Hakan Hagegard and Elizabeth Futral. I am also grateful that my musical style has been adaptable enough to accommodate the talents of people like Doc Severinsen and Leo Kottke to William Preucil, Robert McDuffie and Lynn Harrell.

All of these people are wonderful performers, amazing people and great friends. It is this combination of working with interesting and wonderful people who possess great talent and being able to create something new for them that brings so much richness and meaning to one's life. I have had many wonderful years and look forward to many more!