David Schiff’s Complex Musical Lines Lead To Friendly Guy Next Door

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Composer David Schiff melds numerous genres into his music.

PORTLAND — David Schiff is one of the West Coast’s most prolific composers of chamber and symphonic music. Add to those genres his knack for writing jazz, opera, Irish folk, rock ’n’ roll, klezmer, Jewish liturgical, pop, and art song. Yet to accomplish this extensive body of work, he has not lived the isolated life of a self-absorbed artist. 

Just the opposite. At 76, he remains an affable, outgoing guy who lives in Portland, Ore. He keeps coming up with new ideas, bouncing them off everyday culture, and collaborating with top-notch musicians who play his works.  

He’s as much at ease with newly curious music students as he is with seasoned maestros and such famous musicians as Regina Carter. She played his Four Sisters: Concerto for Jazz Violin (honoring Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan) not once, but twice with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, in 2004 and 2017. She has since performed it in Chicago and Portland, and in 2023 will play the piece in Buffalo. The self-effacing Schiff remarked in a 2004 Detroit Free Press story that “this is like the dream of a lifetime. The perfect person for my piece is going to play it.”

Today his musical relationship with Carter and Four Sisters is among his most precious. “Even though Regina and I had not had a chance to talk through the piece, from the very start she played it like she owned it. She totally understood everything I was trying to do, but also played it in her distinctive voice,” he said in an interview this spring. “About half of the solo part is improvised, and she has played it differently every time in her special way….Working with her has been one of the greatest musical experiences of my life.”

Schiff’s continuing compositional creativity includes two premieres coming up this year. The first, Prefontaine, is a 35-minute, three-part piece for the Eugene Symphony to be performed June 4 in Eugene, Ore., based on the charismatic Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine, who died at 24 in 1975 after crashing his MGB convertible in Eugene at the height of his record-breaking career. Eugene is a runner’s town — the prestigious Prefontaine Classic track meet was named for him — and the running star has remained a local hero for the last 50 years.

The second premiere is Vineyard Rhythms, a chamber composition inspired by the changing seasons of Susan Sokol Blosser’s pioneering vineyard (established in 1971 outside Portland, Ore.) and commissioned by her in honor of her late mother, a violinist with the Woman’s Symphony of Chicago in the 1920s. The three-movement piece will premiere with a nonet (two string quartets and bass) July 28 at Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest. Violinist and festival co-artistic director Soovin Kim will perform the first movement, “Hawk,” and Francesco Lecce-Chong, Eugene Symphony music director, will conduct both premieres.

David Schiff and his wife, Judy, with jazz violinist Regina Carter after a performance of the composer’s ‘Four Sisters: Concerto for Jazz Violin.’

“David’s work is incredibly virtuosic and full of complex textures,” Lecce-Chong said this spring. “It demands a lot from its players and a careful understanding of the layers of sounds and rhythms. It is a rewarding challenge and also what makes his music so thrilling for audiences to experience.”

Even if his work is complex and ranges all over the musical map, Schiff remains a guy with whom you can sit down and chat about everything except sports. (His favorite sport is piano; his favorite team, the Chicago Symphony.) His remarkable recall can pinpoint exactly when his works were played, and by whom. His memory includes a 1978 lunch in New York State with Aaron Copland, who was coping with Alzheimer’s. The Appalachian Spring composer sat next to Schiff and delightfully conversed with him, turned away from Schiff, and on turning back, asked Schiff who he was. Copland had much musical wisdom to impart, though. He told Schiff he believed that a composer’s work could be recognized by a single chord.

Is that true?

“Most people know it’s my music,” Schiff said with a characteristic grin during an April Zoom conversation, 44 years after that lunch at the Waccabuc, N.Y., summer home of a longtime friend and colleague, composer Elliott Carter.

“David is an easy-going guy with a brilliant mind,” said David Shifrin, former artistic director of Chamber Music Northwest, who retired in 2020 after a 40-year career with the organization. The Avery Fisher Prize-winning clarinetist has known Schiff since 1981. Though both grew up in New York, they only met in Oregon when Schiff began his 40-year tenure as a music professor at Portland’s Reed College and Shifrin undertook artistic leadership of the festival, which regularly held concerts at Reed during the summer. The two musicians hit it off socially and musically.

Schiff and Shifrin collaborated on many pieces over those 40 years, beginning with an arrangement of Schiff’s Gimpel the Fool, an opera based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, which later became a Chamber Music Northwest staple. Over the years, Schiff became the festival’s de facto composer, contributing a new composition or arrangement every two or three years. “Schiff’s relationship with CMNW has produced a body of work which will last in the canon of classical concert music forever,” Shifrin said.

The most recent collaboration was Schiff’s four-part Homage to Benny — as in Benny Goodman — written for Shifrin (Goodman was Shifrin’s childhood hero and inspiration) and performed by Shifrin and the Miró Quartet in April at Portland’s The Old Church. Swinging with mid-century rhythms and carried by Shifrin’s bell-like clarinet, the piece showed off Schiff’s easy grace with jazz — an example of his versatility with most genres of music. 

Schiff grew up in a non-musical family that nurtured his talent without being aware of it. He comes from a family of accountants and teachers, he said in an April interview, but he was spared the accountant gene. However, he has done a lot of teaching, including Head Start, and he retired in 2019 from teaching at Reed College, where he directed the college orchestra. The conducting part he misses, though these days he is happy to work from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday, in his home office, creating more music, and losing track of time until lunch comes around.

From the beginning of his life, he loved music. At the age of 4, he took over the state-of-the-art Magnavox hi-fi that his Dad purchased in the late ‘40s, and he never stopped listening to it as a kid. He also asked for piano lessons when he was 4 years old, and his parents said, fine. “I was at the piano all the time, and the nice thing was my parents never said, `Stop that banging.’” When he was 6 years old, he heard Claude Debussy’s La Mer and played it “around the clock. My parents never said, why aren’t you listening to Bach or Beethoven?”

At 12, he was obsessed with Stravinsky and Schoenberg. “I was a very weird kid.” 

Clarinet David Shifrin and the Miro Quartet playing Schiff’s ‘Homage to Benny.’

If weird, he was also thirsty for more music. When he was in fifth grade, his family moved from the Bronx to New Rochelle, a town with a wonderful library. He spent his after-school time in the stacks, seeking out and soaking up more music. His parents took him to musicals, if not to the Met or Carnegie Hall. He lugged around the tuba and played it proudly in high school band, performed bass in a teen-age rock band, hung outside of Greenwich Village jazz clubs listening to Charles Mingus, became a huge Frank Zappa fan, and absorbed liturgical Jewish music. He played bass as a teenager in the Westchester Philharmonic, a well-respected community orchestra in Mount Vernon, N.Y., that was boosted by ringers from New York City for big concerts. It’s now an all-pro orchestra based in White Plains, N.Y.

In a recent text piece, “Thoughts for Tough Times,” intended for his grandchildren, Schiff recounts his musical education and growth, writing that “music was at once my partner in loneliness and my connection to a universe, an ever-expanding universe.”

In one part he writes, “in addition to my private weird music, I was constantly involved in all kinds of ‘normal’ music, from the score to Brigadoon, to Gustav Holst’s Suite No. 1 for band, with its great tuba part, to Brahms’ first and third symphonies, which we somehow managed to perform at Stonegate (a summer music camp), to the latest rock ’n’ roll hits, which our little quintet would learn to cover, to the cantorial music I would hear at the Conservative congregation my family attended.

“I was absorbing music I heard at the movies, on television (from Kate Smith to Leonard Bernstein to Dick Clark), at school dances, where we did the lindy, foxtrot, mambo, cha-cha, meringue, stroll, slop and twist. At the time, all these `normal’ kinds of music, much as I might have enjoyed performing them, felt external. They were fun, but they were not me. Looking back, though, I can see that the boundaries were fluid, that all the music I was encountering either alone or with others, was part of an encompassing fabric. The non-me was as important to my identity as those aspects which I consciously embraced.”

A turning point came when he was 15, playing both the bass and the piano, and attending Stonegate music camp in the Adirondacks and studying under “old school” maestro Richard Karp, for many years the principal conductor of Pittsburgh Opera. Though Karp lost his temper over the young musicians’ inability to play a high A-flat in the fourth bar of Brahms’ Third Symphony and sent the violinists off to practice again and again, he encouraged Schiff’s music-making. Schiff had written a prelude and fugue for a wind trio that summer, and after hearing it, Karp exclaimed, “Schiff, you’re a composer!”

Schiff composed his ‘Vineyard Rhythms’ in honor of the pioneering Susan Sokol Blosser.

“I had no idea what to do about that,” Schiff recalled, but the idea settled in and eventually shaped much of his life’s work. 

It wasn’t until he was 26, a Columbia University English graduate and Cambridge University Masters grad, that he set foot in a music school. New York’s Manhattan School of Music was offering a summer class in music theory, and he enrolled, petrified he wouldn’t fit in. But much to his surprise, he found his people. He went on to receive advanced music degrees from Manhattan and Juilliard, though his English degrees also have served him well. He has written numerous books and articles, including The Music of Elliott Carter (Cornell University Press) and George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (Cambridge University Press).

But it’s for his music that we know Schiff. The third movement of his Prefontaine, “5K,” is named for the 5,000-meter race most closely linked to Steve Prefontaine, which the runner never lost in his four years at the University of Oregon. As Schiff writes in his program notes, the movement “is organized as a sequence of 12 compact fugues that represent 12 laps in a 5K race, each one approximating Steve Prefontaine’s actual best timings, and each scored for a different group of players, beginning with small ensembles and gradually building to include the entire orchestra. Each lap has its own theme and character, ranging from exhilaration to exhaustion to final victory.”

For Schiff, life and music find and reflect one another.