Tuba meister and composer John Stevens leaves legacy of song

Written by Paul Baker

By The Numbers:
  • 18: the number of feet a note must travel from tuba mouthpiece to the bell
  • 29: the number of years John Stevens has invested in the School of Music as teacher, composer, administrator, and conductor.
  • 50: the number of compositions Stevens has written
  • 1951: the year Stevens was born in Buffalo, NY.
  • 2000: the year the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered Stevens’s concerto, “Journey”

A semester-long series of events marks the retirement of music professor John Stevens, a man known for his grace as a teacher, performer, administrator, and composer. (Scroll down for complete schedule, or download it here:  Spring2014_Stevens_concerts )

John Stevens, 2004.
John Stevens, 2004.

Stevens the teacher enjoys getting to know his students over the period of years and watching them grow. They move on to perform in quartets, bands, and orchestras, and many have landed college level teaching gigs. Beyond learning about the craft of playing the instrument, he expects them to grow in their musical thinking and in their ability to conduct business as a professional.

Stevens the performer feeds his appetite for chamber music by performing with the Wisconsin Brass Quintet. Playing in a professional ensemble of like-minded and excellent musicians is “as good as it gets,” he says.

Stevens the administrator has enjoyed representing the School of Music to the larger University community, and doing what he can to advance its mission.

And for the past 20 years Stevens the composer has written works for tuba, euphonium, trumpet, trombone, oboe, brass quintet, and woodwind quintet. On March 9 the University Orchestra will perform “Journey,” his concerto for tuba and orchestra, featuring Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal tubist Gene Pokorny, a concert co-sponsored by the Wisconsin Union Theater. (Read more here.)

From High School to The Big Time

Stevens’s parents were not musicians. His musical ambitions were whetted while playing in his high school’s nationally renowned band program. The director arranged for many inspiring guest musicians to perform with the award-winning ensemble, and before long Stevens realized music was the only career that interested him. He went on to attend the Eastman School of Music, graduating in 1973, and the Yale University School of Music, completing a master’s in 1975.

Then New York City called. For years Stevens made a reasonably good living as a free lancer,  performing often with his Eastman colleague Chuck Mangione, riding on the popularity of the album “Chase The Clouds Away” and the pop hit “Feels So Good.” Stevens also performed in the New York Tuba Quartet and the American Brass Quintet, and under the batons of James Levine, Leonard Slatkin, and Zubin Mehta.

Then he found himself on Broadway, where he paid the bills with 500 performances as a tuba player in the musical “Barnum” . In 1980,  the show made it all the way to the Tony Awards at the Mark Hellinger Theater in New York, where Stevens entertained the crowd in the audience with a uniformed march down the aisle, wrapped in a sousaphone. (Click here for the video; advance to 4:50 minutes to see Stevens.) (For the record, “Evita” won “Best Musical” that year; “Barnum” won in several other categories.)

John Stevens
Yes, that’s John Stevens wearing a bandleader’s hat
and wrapped in a sousaphone. Screenshot from YouTube.

Over the years, Stevens learned that being self-employed demands quick thinking, versatility, and the willingness to jump in to the hot seat. He recalls a Friday night when the New York City Opera called to ask him to substitute for a sick tubist. They wanted him to play Tosca on Saturday and La Boheme on Sunday. And they wanted him to play on a strange instrument, to boot: an E flat cimbasso. Without benefit of rehearsal.

Many musicians would have quailed. For his part, Stevens had never performed in either opera and had no experience with an E flat instrument, never mind a cimbasso. “I had never before done any aspect of that job,” he says. “But I said, ‘Yes absolutely. I’ll be there and do it.’”

So he got to the theatre early and introduced himself to the cimbasso, only to discover it was out of tune. Then he had to start figuring out transpositions. Then the conductor raised the baton.  John wisely took advantage of the tacet sections (the places where he didn’t need to play) to decipher whatever was coming next. He realized that if he did even a passable job, they’d be happy. And if a did a really good job, they’ll be thrilled. He was right.

It was the kind of challenge he likes. “And all the time, you’re playing incredibly beautiful music with a fine orchestra.”

In transition

That was one of many freelance assignments he found satisfying and exciting, but too many were “just for the money,” he says. He imagined himself as a freelancer ten years in the future: having to accept any and every job offer, whether satisfying or forgettable. He was living in a studio apartment with his wife and considering a family. New York just wouldn’t do. So he began looking for more stability, a job with benefits. When a faculty position opened at the University of Miami, he applied.

He speaks fondly of his years at Miami. But one important thing was missing: the opportunity to play chamber music. After several years there a position opened at the UW-Madison, and it included a seat in the Wisconsin Brass Quintet.

That’s all it took. The WBQ, as it’s called, already had a national reputation for its musicianship and the quality of its repertoire. Stevens came, and he thrived.  In the WBQ each player contributes 20 percent of the creativity. “You get good at presenting your ideas in a collegial manner. It’s like a marriage among five people,” he jokes.

Composing creates bonds

As much as he loves performing, Stevens considers composing equally important. He loves developing and nurturing the personal relationships that result from collaborating, and writes many of his pieces for people he knows. Far from being an isolating activity, composing creates bonds he finds intimate and satisfying.

Among others, Stevens has composed for tubist Roger Bobo, trumpeter John Aley, oboist Marc Fink, the Wisconsin Brass Quintet, the Wingra Woodwind Quintet, the Oakwood Chamber Players, the International Trumpet Guild, the Wisconsin School Music Association (“Fanfare for an Uncommon Man,” in honor of the late Marvin Rabin), Germany’s Melton Tuba Quartett, and the New York Tuba Quartet. Many of his more than 50 original compositions and 22 arrangements are available on the CD labels Naxos, Albany, Mark, Centaur, and Summit. Perhaps his most notable composition is Journey, a concerto for tuba and orchestra.

In the late 1990s, Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal tubist Gene Pokorny asked Stevens to submit works for consideration in a new competition. Stevens was honored. The Chicago Symphony’s brass section has traditionally accounted for much of the orchestra’s worldwide fame, and concertos had already been commissioned for its trumpets and trombones, but not for a tuba. Because Stevens had not composed for a full orchestra, he submitted examples of his chamber music and tuba pieces. Then he forgot all about it, until several months later, when Pokorny called to tell Stevens he had won the commission.

“I had to sit down,” he says. “For a composer, this was the opportunity of a lifetime, to write for the Chicago Symphony.”

He began his homework, asking Pokorny about his favorite composers and about his hopes for the piece. He studied scores by Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Richard Strauss. “I was trying to get a feel for what to do, given this huge palette, of having one of the world’s great symphony orchestras to work with.” The piece was premiered in 2000 and will be performed here March 9 with Pokorny as soloist.

Stevens is now writing a multi-movement piece for bass trombone, commissioned by a dozen players who perform in ensembles ranging from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to the San Francisco Symphony. Trombonist and UW-Madison school of music doctoral student  Alan Carr, who arranged for the commission, says he expects the piece will become a substantial contribution to the instrument’s repertory. Carr credits Stevens with writing music that’s accessible to an audience and also interesting for the performers, something relatively few composers can manage.

Teacher, Administrator, and Judge

Sitting in his studio in the Mosse Humanities Building on a cold winter morning, Stevens talks about his pride in his current and former students. Graduates of the UW-Madison tuba/euphonium program are known for excelling as musicians and as teachers. Stevens says that’s because they work hard at developing the craft of playing their instruments, the art of making music with that craft, the skills necessary to share those abilities with others in a productive way, and the necessary knowledge of the business of music.

Former students play professionally, in the Jacksonville Symphony, the U.S. Marine Band, the Sotto Voce Tuba Quartet, and the Youngblood Brass Band. Some teach in public schools and in college, includng the University of Alabama, Baylor, Arkansas, Southern Mississippi, Northern Colorado, Illinois State, Emporia State, UW-Whitewater, UW-Platteville, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.

Stevens has also served as a judge or panelist at many competitions: Michigan’s annual Leonard Falcone solo competition, International Tuba and Euphonium Association competitions, and Finland’s Lieksa Brass Festival. He serves on the music panel of the National YoungArts Foundation, a national competition for America’s most talented high school young artists. Over the years, he says, one develops a reputation for not only having the musical expertise to judge such competitions, but the sort of personality and approach to the task that makes one a desirable member of competition juries.

He has enjoyed those experiences, as well as his two stints as director of the School of Music. The job requires juggling a lot of balls in the air, he says, and one gets pulled in a lot of directions. But you just try to do what’s best for the school, operating within the way the university works. Colleague and pianist Martha Fischer has accompanied Stevens for countless concerts, recording sessions, and road trips. She says Stevens was an effective director “because he’s a sane human being. He’s good at seeing the big picture. He sees the world in an incredibly positive way.”

As Stevens reflects on his three decades at Madison he notes the quality and nature of the students and faculty. He appreciates the institutional encouragement and support to engage in meaningful and rewarding work. For him, that means performance, composition, and conducting.

Retirement will offer a little more time to enjoy his personal CD collection. Most often, he expects to pull out something by Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand, Diana Krall, or Edith Piaf. “They sing with such passion and such commitment,” he says. “And I’m a singer at heart.”

Spring 2014 concerts featuring John Stevens, the Wisconsin Brass Quintet,

current and former tuba/euphonium students, School of Music faculty, and the UW Symphony Orchestra

 

Tuesday February 11: Faculty Concert Series

Program

Mozart, Horn Quintet. Horn Quintet in E-flat major, K. 407 (386c)
(composed c. 1782 and scored for violin, 2 violas, cello and horn)
I.               Allegro
II.              Andante
III.            Rondo. Allegro

Mahler, Songs of a Wayfarer,  1883–1885

Brahms, Horn Trio in E-flat major, Op. 40, 1865
I. Andante
II. Scherzo (Allegro)
III. Adagio mesto
IV. Allegro con brio

Notes. John Stevens presents arrangements for tuba. Guest artists include David Perry, Sally Chisholm, Katrin Talbot, Parry Karp, Martha Fischer.

 

 

Saturday March 8: Faculty Concert Series

Program

Viva Voce! (2003)
Diversions (1978)
Tournament (1999)
Triangles (1978)
Music 4 Tubas (1974)
Hodesanna (2012)

Notes: A chamber music concert featuring six Stevens compositions.
Performers include a tuba/euphonium quartet of former students, members of the Wisconsin Brass Quintet, and the Sotto Voce Quartet. Sotto Voce is one of the world’s foremost brass chamber ensembles. Its members are former UW-Madison students.

Viva Voce! (2003) was composed for the Sotto Voce Quartet (Demondrae Thurman and Mark Carlson – Euphoniums, Nat McIntosh and Michael Forbes – Tubas).

Diversions (1978) Sotto Voce Quartet. (Thurman and Forbes go their MMs here, Carlson got his MM and DMA and McIntosh was an undergraduate here). Diversions was composed for the New York Tuba Quartet, of which Stevens was a member.

Tournament (1999) John Aley and Jessica Jensen – Trumpets

Triangles (1978)   Dan Grabois – Horn, Mark Hetzler – Trombone, John Stevens – Tuba

Music 4 Tubas (1974) Performed by four former students. Donald Deal and Griffin James – Euphoniums, John Bottomley and David Spies – Tubas.  Whitewater native Griffin James is Stevens’s son-in-law; Don Deal, Griffin’s former high school band director, received his DMA in Trombone at UW-Madison. Deal’s son, Robert Wiley-Deal, is a current member of the tuba/euphonium ensemble.

Hodesanna (2012) The Wisconsin Brass Quintet. This work was composed in memory of former MM and DMA student Jeff Hodapp, who died of a heart attack at age 52 in 2009.  The WBQ premiered the work in the fall of 2012.

Sunday March 9: UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra with guest soloist Gene Pokorny, principal tubist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Program

Journey, a concerto for tuba and orchestra .  Composed by John Stevens as a commission by Gene Pokorny and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, premiered in 2000.


Sunday Mar 9: Tuba/Euphonium Extravaganza.

Program

Fanfare for a Friend (1991)
Five Dances (1988)  Tylman Susato, composer; arr. John Stevens
Adagio (1992)
Power (1974)
Anna Magdalena Suite.                  J.S. Bach, composer, arr. John Stevens
Dances (1975)   Performed by the Sotto Voce Quartet
Moondance (1989)
Benediction (2003)
Notes
A large tuba/euphonium ensemble made up of current group members and alumni, including Stevens’s older daughter Katie and son-in-law Griffin James).  Stevens conducts a program of his own compositions and arrangements.

Saturday March 29Wisconsin Brass Quintet

Program

Distant Voices  (David Sampson)
The Gershwins and Harold (J. Stevens)
The Brass Calendar  (Peter Schickele)
Contrapunctus 1    (J.S. Bach)

Notes: This marks Stevens’s final on-campus concert with the WBQ .

Distant Voices is a 4-movement, contemporary work inspired by people who were big influences on the composer as a person and musician.

The Gershwins and Harold  features 4 songs by the Gershwins (3 composed by George and one by Harold Arlen, but all lyrics by Ira).  The “accompaniment” is arranged for brass quintet. Guest vocalist Abby Nichols is a leading lady of Madison’s musical theater scene and is Stevens’s younger daughter.

Stevens calls The Brass Calendar “a delightful trip through the 12 months of the year by America’s foremost composer/music humorist.”

About J.S. Bach’s Contrapunctus Stevens says, “I can think of no composer more appropriate to end my brass quintet career performing.”

Saturday April 19:  Tuba/Euphonium Ensemble.

Program  TBA

Notes:  This brass chamber music extravaganza will feature several student brass ensembles, trumpets and horns.

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