Stephanie Berg, a young composer setting out to remake fine art music, gets her big break.
Imbibing the arts may elevate the human spirit, but working in the arts field is a tough way to rise in the world. Competition is no less exacting than in any professional sport. In the case of music, respected composers often live out their days never having heard a major orchestra perform their work. And so, at age 28, Stephanie Berg, BM ’08, MM ’12, made history of a sort Jan. 10–11, 2014, when the renowned St. Louis Symphony performed a piece she wrote while a student at Mizzou.
Fine art music is notoriously set in its ways, but Berg has set herself the dual task of pleasing audiences while giving her field a facelift. Her lively seven minutes of “Ravish and Mayhem” opened the concert at the sumptuous Powell Hall. Berg’s music is unmistakably new, but it’s somehow familiar. “Ravish” opens with a brass fanfare that seems to invoke Aaron Copland, perhaps America’s best-known composer, who played and wrote everything from jazz and movie scores to art songs and symphonies. In “Ravish,” Berg paints a street festival, complete with snake charmers and tambourines, street performers and even a few trumpeting elephants. More than once during the short piece, she sets the whole section of highly trained violinists to strumming their instruments like so many folkie-guitarists charging the atmosphere for jugglers and dancers.
The audience stood to applaud when it ended. Berg walked quickly to center stage to take ecstatic bows and fling kisses into the crowd, standing alongside conductor Andrey Boreyko, Russia’s instrumental version of Mikhail Baryshnikov. On that night’s program, Berg’s name appears on the same page as Ludwig van Beethoven, whose seventh symphony ended the evening. Berg, a fresh product of the Mizzou New Music Initiative, wearing modest business attire, was on a world stage and keeping some very good company.
“Stephanie’s success at such a young age speaks to an amazing combination of things that have come together, centered around her own talent,” says Robert Shay, who directs MU’s School of Music. Others have as much talent. But, Shay says, “Her being in the right place at the right time allowed this to happen.”
Early Days and Avatar
For starters, Berg was born in the right place — to musicians Joyce and Steve Berg, who both teach piano for a living. As a 6-year-old learning to play the piano, she sometimes produced melodies Steve professorially describes as “simple but surprisingly clever and elegant for that age.” When Berg was in her early teens, at the end of family car trips, she sometimes emerged from the back seat with four- to six-part compositions fully formed in her mind’s ear. These pieces, composed in silence, were surprises to her parents, who had been riding in the car with her all along. Many of those early pieces had a Celtic sound that was an early sign of her interest in world music. Typically, she played the composition, one part at a time, into the family’s Clavinova, a high-tech piano that collated the musical strands into finished recordings the Bergs still possess in their Kansas City, Mo., home.
This medley of musical anecdotes from Berg’s early life leaves the impression that she has long been a rising star in music composition. But she composed only sporadically until well into her undergraduate years at MU. As a youngster, she leaned more to the visual arts. Joyce says her daughter’s drawing notebooks from her youth are alive with characters that would look at home in the film Avatar.
When Berg joined her middle school band as a clarinetist, she was immediately a strong player. Her love of performing grew, and Joyce sometimes accompanied her on piano. “She would put all of her soul into her playing,” Joyce says. “I’ve never heard before or since anyone who can play with her passion.” In ninth grade, Berg auditioned for the Missouri All-State Band and landed the 23rd spot out of 24 clarinetists. But by 10th grade, she had decided to become a professional clarinetist, and she was first chair, where she reigned for her remaining prep years. Berg arrived at Mizzou in 2004 on a clarinet performance scholarship. Although her parents suggested that she take composition courses, she worked toward mastering her instrument for two more years.
New Music Pipeline
In the meantime, as Berg was spending hours in practice rooms, a succession of donations from the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation was building a pipeline at MU for young composers called the Mizzou New Music Initiative. The foundation’s musical mover is Jeanne Sinquefield of Westphalia, Mo., whose avocation of more than 50 years has been playing double bass. Her long fascination with composers and composition eventually set her on a mission “to make Missouri a mecca” for new music. “You can’t be a composer unless you hear music in your head, and it’s just a very small number of people who have that talent,” Sinquefield says. “It’s a craft like anything else, and it will get better with training. Imagine writing a symphony — all the strings and horns — you are talking about thousands of notes. To conceive a piece that only you hear, to write it all down and have it performed. Just think of it! Every time I hear a new piece, I always hope it’ll be the next great work.”
The initiative, whose programs reach from kindergarteners through top professionals, is unique in the country for its comprehensiveness, Shay says.
The first piece of the pipeline came in 2005, when MU launched the Creating Original Music Project, or C.O.M.P. Students in grades K-12 submit compositions in a variety of styles as they vie for cash prizes. C.O.M.P. also includes a weeklong summer camp for high school students, as well as incoming college freshmen. MU faculty members tutor campers, who each write a piece that the resident ensemble performs at the end of the week.
MU students compete annually for the Sinquefield Composition Prize. Outside judges pick a winning composition, whose composer earns a scholarship and cash prize to write a piece for a large ensemble that records the work and performs it live at the Chancellor’s Concert. Few young composers have good recordings of their work that could help advance their careers, Sinquefield says. “Typically, they are recorded by friends or maybe a lousy local orchestra,” she says. “Unfortunately, sometimes the end result does not do the composition justice.”
With little formal preparation, Berg submitted a piece and won the 2009 Sinquefield Composition Prize. She honed the large-ensemble composition during one-on-one lessons with Professor Tom McKenney, who calls her a “joy to work with.” Before the performance, as she prepared the final score with Associate Professor Stefan Freund, the light bulb went on, Berg says. “At one point he turned to me and said, ‘You know, you could do this. You could really do composition.’ We all need teachers who inspire us. For me, it was that moment. I needed somebody to give the permission.”
Berg’s applications to other graduate schools were wait-listed, so she stayed on at Mizzou to earn a master’s degree in composition and performance. The initiative funds eight composition scholarships for undergraduates and seven stipends for graduate students who perform student works as part of the New Music Ensemble. Having the ensemble not only lets young composers hear their music outside of computer composition programs but also offers hands-on experience collaborating with performers to refine their work.
Festival of Sounds
Berg also took part in the last major piece of the pipeline — the Mizzou International Composers Festival. For this weeklong gathering on campus, more than 200 applicants are winnowed to the eight composers who are rising in the new music world. The festival also brings in two guest composers, who have included Pulitzer Prize winners. Participants present their work and learn from one another. At the end of the week, Alarm Will Sound, a critically acclaimed new music ensemble of 20 pieces, including Freund on cello, performs a piece by each composer.
Some of the sounds in these pieces would likely be unfamiliar to lovers of traditional fine art music. Some are so experimental that seasoned performers specializing in the avant-garde grind rehearsals to a halt every few bars to quiz composers on their intentions. But other pieces are easier to grasp, occasionally wafting idioms of jazz or blues or world music, or perhaps using some newer and unnamed musical grammar that sounds somehow both familiar and fresh.
In 2012, Berg wrote “Ravish and Mayhem” for the festival, based on a theme that had come to her during a long car ride. That was the first year Freund sent some festival pieces to St. Louis Symphony musical director David Robertson, in hopes he would include one or more in his programs. He said yes not only to “Ravish” but also to University of Michigan doctoral student Patrick Harlin’s “Rapture.”
Meet Me in St. Louis
Robertson’s interest in new music was yet another stroke of luck, Shay says. “He is respected around the world, and he’s one of the top two or three champions of new music among the great conductors.” Robertson considers it the duty of a responsible culture to listen to every segment of society, and he wants to support the Mizzou New Music Initiative.
Still, new music can be controversial among symphony patrons, he says. “People who don’t like new music will say, ‘Oh, it’s very dissonant and ugly,’ and people who do like it will say, ‘Oh, it’s very vital and energetic.’ Each person has their own personal reaction to music, which makes it very hard for a composer because you don’t know where each person’s personal barriers are. So, if you use a rhythm that is syncopated in such a way that they lose the pulse, are you going to lose that audience member? If you use a melody that has one or two large jumps in it and therefore is not easily singable, are you going to lose that person? If you use a harmony that someone is not certain they have heard before, and it is followed by another harmony that is unusual, are you going to have audience members who say, ‘Nope, I’m now turning off’? These are challenges because composers nowadays can do essentially anything. But as John Cage once blithely put it: Freedom to do anything doesn’t mean you just get to do anything you want. ”
What Berg wants is to engage people. “I believe that composers should write whatever they are compelled to write, whether tonal or face-melting. As for me, I prefer things a little more recognizable.” And so she conceived “Ravish and Mayhem” to evoke a street party gone wild, complete with dancers, acrobats, exotic animals and fireworks. “There’s a sexual aspect to the piece, too,” Berg says. “A composer friend of mine said, ‘This is the kind of piece that makes me want to take my clothes off,’ and I told him I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going for that.”
Berg says that other composers are better suited to a more cerebral style, and she leaves that to them. “Classical music tends to be put on a pedestal, and people are sometimes afraid to come to it. I want to make music that is more accessible and relevant to people. I want to bring sexy back to classical music.”
On Berg’s big night at Powell Hall in January, no one in the audience threw unmentionables on stage at the conclusion of “Ravish and Mayhem.” But their reaction was warm indeed. “The style in which Stephanie is composing right now is very democratic,” says conductor Boreyko. “It’s not written for musicians. It’s open-source music. All you need to enjoy it is an open heart and a wish to be part of it.”