David Schiff is one of Oregon’s– well, America’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 huge 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 with his wife, Judy Schiff, a former cantor. He keeps coming up with new ideas, bouncing them off of everyday culture, and collaborating with top notch musicians who perform his works.
He is as at home with newly curious music students as he is with seasoned maestros and such famous musicians as virtuoso violinist Regina Carter. She played Schiff’s concerto for jazz violin and orchestra Four Sisters (Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy 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 Four Sisters in Buffalo. The self-effacing Schiff remarked in a 2017 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 The 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 Oregon Arts Watch 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 2022 upcoming premieres in Oregon. The first, Prefontaine, is a 35-minute three-part piece for the Eugene Symphony to be performed June 4 in Eugene. It’s based on the charismatic Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine, who died at 24 in 1975 after crashing his MGB convertible in a Eugene car accident 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 speedy star has remained a local hero the last 50 years.
The two works are rooted, to a large extent, in the Oregon landscape. For Prefontaine, Schiff traveled to Coos Bay, Prefontaine’s birthplace, and toured many of the runner’s former haunts. Schiff’s program notes for the Eugene Symphony’s upcoming concert, which will contain his music, spoken and acted tributes, and video clips, follows:
The visit to Coos Bay filled my mind with musical ideas and images, and before long, the shape of work began to emerge. The beautiful changing vistas of the drive from Eugene, the specific locales of Steve Prefontaine’s life, and the huge and lasting impression he made on his home town, his home state, and on runners from all over the world were all sources of inspiration. When I returned home, I read as much as I could find about his life and his ideas. He had a flair for expressing his core values in memorable phrases. One of the most famous is: To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift. While this phrase sums up the endless dedication and discipline that Steve Prefontaine gave to running, it also applies to the gifts that each of us may have, and the challenge of nurturing them. As I began to compose, this phrase turned into a musical theme, first played on the flugelhorn at the opening of the first movement. This “motto” also led me to think of the work as a concerto for orchestra that would showcase the gifts of all the orchestral musicians.
[The first movement] “Terrain” can be heard as the changing impressions of mountains, woods, streams, dunes, bay and ocean that I encountered on the drive from Eugene to Coos Bay and back. It is written in the form of a passacaglia—variations on a repeated ostinato—but I inverted the usual texture of this form, placing the ostinato in the upper register rather than the bass. The listener can think of the repeated treble figure as an image of the Cascade Mountains, the defining spinal column of the Oregon landscape. I wanted the music to evoke and celebrate the environment that shaped Steve Prefontaine’s entire life. Just as the musical texture turns the usual pattern of a passacaglia upside down, the music reverses chronology, moving from death to life. The musical journey begins at the site in Eugene known as Pre’s Rock where so many people have left memorial tributes ever since Prefontaine’s tragic death in a car crash on May 30, 1975, then traces the way to the Oregon coast, where he was born and grew up. Near the end of the movement nature gives way to human activity with the sounds of the port and the timber mills of Coos Bay.
”School Days,” the second movement, sprang from our visit to Marshfield High School in Coos Bay, where Prefontaine found his calling as a runner, and where his skill and his charisma had already made him a legend among his classmates. Here I drew on my own distant memories of playing tuba in the New Rochelle High School marching band for half-time shows and parades.
The last movement, “5K” is named for the race most closely identified with Steve Prefontaine.
More on that complex and rich movement later follows at the end of this profile.
Schiff’s second premiere, Vineyard Rhythms, is a chamber composition inspired by the changing seasons at Susan Sokol Blosser’s pioneering vineyard established in 1971 outside of Portland in the Dundee Hills. She commissioned it to honor her late mother, who was a violinist with the Chicago Women’s Symphony in the 1920s. The three-movement concerto will premiere with a nonet (two string quartets and bass) at Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest concert July 28. Master violinist/CMNW co-artistic director Soovin Kim will perform the first movement, “Hawk.”
Sokol Blosser’s desire was “to capture the vineyard in music” and to commission a composer who “would be willing to spend time in the vineyard,” she said in an email this spring.
To jump-start the composition, she sent Schiff some of her writing evoking the vineyard’s changing seasons. She invited him to visit the vineyard as often as possible to see it weather the year. “Her words and my many visits inspired me,” Schiff said.
Sokol Blosser wrote to Schiff before he began to compose: “In the vineyard, time is circular. The vines stay put and the seasons flow effortlessly, one into the next, weaving a multicolored, multilayered tapestry. Like the vineyard, we are the same person year after year, but we each have our own season of hope, of growth, of maturing, of inactivity or withdrawal, and then of renewal. The vineyard is my metaphor for life.”
Ultimately, Sokol Blosser loved working with Schiff during Covid times in 2021, the winery’s 50th anniversary. “He came out to the vineyard on multiple occasions, at different times of the day, over the course of the year, and really seemed to have a feel for it.”
For Schiff, he had to “transform what I saw and felt into a concerto,” he says in his program notes for the July premiere.
I decided on a three-movement format, with each movement portraying the passing of one season into the next, and from three different points of view. The first movement, “Hawk,” moves from the depths of winter to early spring, from an avian perspective. On my first visit to the vineyard, Susan had pointed out a tree with a hawk’s nest, and on every subsequent visit, at least one red-tailed hawk monitored my strolls. The second movement, “Gaia,” is a song of the earth, beginning with a chant in the violin’s lowest register, gradually warming from spring to summer. The third movement, “Harvest,” is a celebration of nature’s bounty, and of all the intense human labor needed to turn dormant fields into the world-renowned wines that display the Sokol Blosser label.
Eugene Symphony conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, who will direct VIneyard Rhythms and Prefontaine, said from Eugene by email this spring that “David’s work is incredibly virtuosic and full of complex textures. 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.”
Complex, brilliant, in possession of a stupendous memory
If his work is complex and ranges all over the music 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 with Aaron Copland, 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 that 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 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 clarinetist has known Schiff since 1981. Though both grew up in New York, they met in Oregon when Schiff began his 40-year tenure as a music professor at Portland’s Reed College and Shifrin undertook the artistic leadership of CMNW, 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 CMNW staple. Over the years, Schiff became a de facto CMNW composer–in-residence, contributing a new composition or arrangement every two or three years “Schiff’s relationship with CMNW has produced a body of work that will last in the canon of classical concert music forever,” Shifrin added.
The most recent collaboration is Schiff’s four-part Homage to Benny–as in “King of Swing” Benny Goodman–written for Shifrin (Goodman was Shifrin’s childhood hero and inspiration) and performed by Shifrin and the Miro 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.
A musician thrives in a non-musical world
Schiff grew up in a non-musical family who nurtured his talent without being aware of it. He comes from a family of accountants and teachers, he said by Zoom 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 four decades at Reed College, where he taught music theory and composition and directed the college orchestra. The conducting part he misses, though these days, he is happy to work from 8 am to 2 pm, Monday through Friday in his home office, creating more music, 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 stereo that his Dad purchased in the late ‘40s, and he never stopped listening to it as a kid. He 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.”
If weird, he was constantly 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 (the only instrument left) and played it proudly in the 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., 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 Schiff was 15, playing both the bass and the piano, attending Stonegate music camp in the Adirondacks, and studying under “old school” maestro Richard Karp, for many years the principal conductor of the 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!”
“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 music school. New York’s Manhattan School of Music was offering a summer class on music theory and he enrolled, petrified he wouldn’t fit in–but, much to his surprise, he found his people. He went on to get advanced music degrees from MMS and Juilliard, though his English degrees have served him well. He has written numerous books and articles, including The Music of Elliott Carter and George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue.
But it’s Schiff’s music we know him for. The third and most intricate movement of his Prefontaine premiere, “5K,”is named for the race most closely linked to Steve Prefontaine, which the runner never lost in his four years at the University of Oregon. As part of Schiff’s program notes, he writes that 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.
A previous version of this story was published at Classical Voice North America.