Composition of a lifetime: Portland Symphony Orchestra helps Freeport composer celebrate 75 years

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PORTLAND — Composer Elliott Schwartz is turning 75 next week and he’s inviting the Portland Symphony Orchestra and 1,900 of his closest friends to help him celebrate.

Schwartz’s composition, “Diamond Jubilee,” was recently commissioned by the PSO and will have its world premiere at the symphony’s Jan. 25 concert at Merrill Auditorium.

Schwartz, who lives in Freeport, said he didn’t set out to write a birthday piece, but that was how it came together.

“I started out with fragments of my own early music,” Schwartz said. “There’s a four-note motto from the first piece I wrote that I heard performed by an orchestra. That is developed and becomes part of the rest of the piece.”

Schwartz, who taught music and composition for years at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, said “Diamond Jubilee” is divided into three movements, each representing 25 years of his life and the historical events that occurred during those years. Each movement begins with a solo performed by one of the PSO’s long-standing members: clarinetist Thomas Parchman, violist Laurie Kennedy and horn player John Boden.

During the performance, Schwartz said iconic images and words representing each of the 25-year time periods will be projected onto a screen above the stage.

“It’s like a slide-show,” Schwartz said.

He selected photos as iconic as an atomic bomb mushroom cloud, and photos of old cars and telephones, and a few photos of himself as a baby and on his wedding day. He even included a photo from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, which he attended as a young boy.

“My first memory is of the World’s Fair. It was the world of the future,” he said with a chuckle.

Schwartz is known as an adventurous composer. In a previous composition for the PSO, he called for a piano and pianist to set up in the front of the orchestra, but the pianist never actually played the instrument.

“Musicians in the orchestra would get up and walk up to the front of the stage and play into the body of the piano,” he said.

Schwartz said he has always enjoyed the theatrical aspects of music and in this new work, the PSO musicians will be asked to do a few surprising things, including humming chords and chanting numbers in different languages.

While Schwartz has been a prolific and influential classical composer, he started out majoring in pre-med in college. Even though he had been composing since he was 9 years old, his father pushed him to become a doctor.

“My father and both his brothers were doctors,” Schwartz said. “There was a lot of pressure there.”

But he still managed to compose and continue playing piano while enrolled in chemistry and biology classes. After he graduated, he went immediately to graduate school to study composition.

Despite the strong influence of atonal serial composers Anton Webern and Alban Berg on the prevailing compositional style, Schwartz continued to write tonal music, adopting only a few aspects of atonal serialism and chance music. He became fascinated with French and English early 20th century composers, who pushed tonality in a different way than their German counterparts.

In the 1970s he experimented with electronic music, but lost interest when electronic music moved from tapes to computers.

“I liked doing things with my hands, like splicing the tapes,” Schwartz said. “I need something tactile.”

Plus, he said, computers just didn’t make as interesting sounds as instruments.

So he moved back to exploring ways to compose based on themes from others’ works or from his life. He became inspired recently by a group of students who took his Modern Music class, and has written several works specifically for them.

“I love writing for students. They’re so eager, very willing to try things,” he said. “And their knowledge of electronics far surpasses mine.”

He is, however, quite active on the social networking website Facebook, which he used as the inspiration for a recent work, “The Facebook Chronicles.”

When asked if he was thinking about retiring from composing, he shook his head.

“I don’t think any composer ever retires,” he said. “It used to be, you retired when you couldn’t hold a pencil anymore. But now, you just have to be able to type. As long as the ideas are still there, I’ll still write them down.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

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Composer Elliott Schwartz with his newest composition, “Diamond Jubilee,” which will be premiered by the Portland Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 25. The work is a celebration of Schwartz’s 75th birthday and examines his life and historical events in three movements, each representing 25 years.

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