All Classical Radio James Depreist

Remembering David Bernstein: composer, connector, visionary

The Cascadia Composers founder leaves a legacy in music and more.

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Cascadia Composers founding president David Bernstein.

David Bernstein could have relaxed into retirement. When the composer and music professor moved to Oregon in 2006 after retiring from academic faculty positions in Georgia and Ohio, he could have spent his days writing music and exploring the natural beauty that had drawn him to the area in the first place. 

But Bernstein was too community-minded for that. When he arrived in St. Helens, he noticed that the state lacked a place where its many composers could share ideas and music. He’d seen such groups in other states, but no one had succeeded in creating one open to all composers. So the newcomer made some calls, held some meetings — and, in 2008, made it happen. 

Bernstein, who died July 13 at age 81, leaves a legacy beyond his loving family, beyond the emotionally charged music he created. He leaves an enduring institution, Cascadia Composers, that provides the state’s most valuable forum for contemporary music in the classical tradition. And a long list of admiring and now grieving colleagues, some of whom remember him here.

ArtsWatch covered Bernstein often, so we’ll start with an excerpt from one of our first stories that included him.

The Visionary

Visionaries have control issues. And they should. There was no way David Bernstein was going to ensconce his Cascadia Composers within ivory towers, walling them off from the general public. Even in that first welcome speech that made my eyes roll, he was asking that composers be treated as something other than eccentric outliers. His soft-spoken, rather timorous plea belied a steeliness I underestimated and that you don’t want to mess with.

Within a year of arriving in Oregon from Ohio, where he’d retired from the music faculty at the University of Akron, Bernstein had succeeded in doing what no one else in memory had done: started a viable organization of regional composers. Within three years, Cascadia built a roster of top local musicians they paid to perform their works in seven-plus concerts a year.

Bernstein incisively pushed to establish an inclusive consortium of around 60 mostly Oregonian composers now in its sixth year of presenting concerts of locally grown music for a locavore audience. Now, 1980s dance rhythms are presented as viable compositional elements by 30-something-year-old autodidacts (those with no official lineage in composition education), alongside presentations on notating extended techniques for oboe by established academic composers. It’s the autodidacts who push the boundaries of anything, “boldly going where no one has gone before” unhampered by textbooks outlining history, boundaries, possibilities or impossibilities. And it’s those with official lineage that help solve problems encountered by those who boldly go.

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I’ve also seen the CC academics loosen up and have fun immersing themselves in aspects of composition they’ve never encountered at a university – clapping and stomping a clave rhythm, for example, perhaps cataloging it for use in a future composition. As Cascadia Composer and ArtsWatch contributor Jeff Winslow says in agreement with Bernstein’s style, it’s the enabling method of running an outfit versus the gatekeeper method. David instituted this early, averting an “us vs. them” organization in the founding process by inviting all those who did NOT want an inclusive organization that encompassed autodidacts or non-academics (although Bernstein is himself an academic) or perhaps part-timers, to leave. And they did.

I also underestimated Bernstein’s tenacity and sky-high IQ, evidenced by his ability to alter the growth pattern of what first looked destined to be a hack amateur group at that first early-in-their-inception concert I attended, and to surround himself with a critically thinking working board of directors matching his intelligence and vision.

– From “Good Fellas” by Portland pianist, teacher and writer Maria Choban, Oregon ArtsWatch, June 21, 2013. See below for the coda to her relationship with Bernstein. Later, Choban co-created a song with Bernstein. She remembers their collaboration.

Fast forward: In May 2021, The Godfather sheepishly asked if I’d write lyrics for his submission for Cascadia’s annual summer student concert — In Good Hands 2022. “It’s a bit of a far cry from my other stuff, but the piece is for kids, high school kids at any rate. It is also tonal as hell so please forgive me on this also.” 

“Oregon Sunrise” rolled along through my headphones with none of David’s masculine percussive energy, none of his crunchy harmonies. A simple languid tune in F Major with a couple of nifty, subtle rhythm hooks. 

After eight months of dot-to-dotting, I got from Sunrise to Summer to School’s out! I sent David my first draft depicting a middle school kid who hates family vacations. 

David responded with comments like — “In system E, the word “LOOK”! , because it’s on a long note, seems to close up the flow of the sound.” I changed the word and all the other words he pointed out that seemed to not work with the underlying music. 

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Back and forth we went, draft after draft, finally getting to my suggestions for David’s music. And I had a few — like a much faster tempo. 

After some outright “NO”’s in red, he’d think stuff over and respond with “The newer tempo does work much better.” Or, “I’ll take out the tie in this bar so [the word] C’MON will fall on the eighth note and the quarter note.” He let me change the title to “Best Vacation Ever!” 

Working with creatives can often devolve to “my way or the highway.” After all, we’re tampering with naked souls. Working with David on this project was like playing frisbee with my favorite doggie and communing with Stephen Sondheim — simultaneously. David had so much knowledge and experience both with composing and with writing lyrics, but he made me feel like a peer. This collaboration, like the entire Cascadia Composers consortium collaboration David founded, was just another example of how with David, one plus one equals one million.  

After the concert, the student who sang the song, costumed in beach attire, bounced up and down giggling to David and me. “That’s exactly how I feel about family vacations!” Her mother laughed. David and I hugged and promised to collaborate again for another In Good Hands.  As the Greeks say: αιώνια η μνήμη May his memory live eternal. — Maria Choban

Bernstein (upper right) with (clockwise) fellow Cascadia Composers founders Greg Steinke, Tomas Svoboda, Dan Senn, Jack Gabel, Gary Noland and Jeff Winslow. Photo: Chris Leck. 

The Connector

It is with a heavy heart that I wish to pay tribute to the life and legacy of a very dear friend and musical colleague, Dr. David S. Bernstein. As I reflect upon his passing, I celebrate the truly remarkable impact he made as a composer, musical colleague, and most importantly, as a very special friend; and also of three special birthday concerts we shared over the years (a 70th, 75th and most recently 80th), which were each special events of collaborating together.

David possessed a special talent for composing music that touched the depths of one’s being and evoked a kaleidoscope of emotions. His compositions always had a way of taking one on a transformative journey through sound. I was fortunate to witness his creativity, passion, and dedication to his craft, which never failed to inspire and captivate me.

Beyond his wonderful musical talents, David was also a wonderful collaborator. He believed in the power of unity and the magic that transpired when talented individuals come together to create something extraordinary. His willingness to listen, learn, and adapt allowed him to seamlessly blend his musical ideas with others’, thereby producing compositions that could transcend boundaries and bring people together.

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Yet, I think David’s impact could extend beyond the realm of music. He had an excellent ability to connect with others on a deep, personal level. His smile, laughter, and genuine interest in the lives of those around him made him a cherished friend to anyone who was fortunate enough to know him. He possessed an unwavering kindness and empathy that could provide solace during difficult times and special support during moments of celebration.

Whenever one can listen to his music or gather to share stories of time spent with him, one may possibly feel his enveloping presence. I will remember his unwavering dedication to his craft, an unwavering interest for those around him, and a certain zest for life.

I’ll take solace in the fact that David’s music will hopefully continue to fill the world with its beauty and meaning to remind a world milieu of the remarkable person he was. As I bid him farewell, I’ll hold onto the memories I have of him and find comfort in the fact that those memories will forever be intertwined with my own and with his family, friends, and musical colleagues.

Oregon composer and Cascadia Composers co-founder Greg A Steinke

The Mentor

When I joined Cascadia Composers in 2015, I was living in northeast Ohio and teaching at Hiram College, which is 30 miles northeast of the University of Akron, where David Bernstein taught before retiring in 2000 and moving to Portland. I had been traveling to Seattle several times a year to visit family, so when I discovered Cascadia Composers, I inquired whether I could join. I was welcomed and invited to attend a board meeting, where I met David for the first time. Later that evening he shared with me how he had started Cascadia Composers after retiring and that he was also one of the founders of the Cleveland Composers Guild (CCG).

Bernstein also started the “Not The Dead White Composers Radio Hour” on WCLV, a weekly radio show that airs music of CCG members, and was involved in securing the Bascom-Little Fund for the CCG, which allowed the Guild to pay professional performers for the five annual chamber music concerts. David was a highly respected composer in Ohio and beyond and was awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize in 2000 (something I never heard him mention in his Cascadia presentations).  

In the summer of 2019, I relocated to Olympia due to a family emergency, leaving behind not only a tenured teaching position but also many professional and personal connections. But as a member of Cascadia, I had an immediate network of new friends and professional connections. I became a board member soon after my arrival. During my four years as a Cascadia board member, David and I had several opportunities to speak not only about music but about politics, travel, and family. He was deeply concerned with the rise of right-wing nationalism. His music reflects not just his intellect and his command of craft but also his empathy and concern for social justice. He was as versatile a composer as I have ever known.

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Both Cascadia and the CCG have served as important sources of support and opportunities for many composers, and I have been lucky enough to belong to both – in fact, simultaneously for four years – at crucial points in my career. I cannot imagine Cascadia without David, but he has left a broad, deep, and lasting legacy in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. His generosity and commitment to supporting the creators of new music have benefitted not only composers but also countless performers and audiences. I am indebted to David for creating both of these organizations and for his friendship during the few years that I had the honor to know him. 

–Northwest composer Dawn Sonntag

David Bernstein. Date and source unknown.
David Bernstein. Date and source unknown.

I joined Cascadia Composers about six months after it was formed. I knew very few people in the organization and there were only a couple of other women. But there was David! He knew how to help a new person become assimilated. First, he asked me to create a donation box. For me, this was the first step on the way to my feeling part of the group. Next, he included my string quartet in a concert given by Cascadia Composers. 

And he didn’t stop there. After he had been president of Cascadia Composers for about five years, David felt that it was time for a change. So, he asked me, a complete novice, if I would take over for him. And, during my time as president, he was always there offering support and help. 

David was also the creator, in 2010, of Cascadia Composers’ In Good Hands concerts. Once a year, students perform pieces that have been specifically written for them or were selected by them or their teachers from a composer score call. Over the years, close to a dozen of David’s student works were performed.

In 2018, one of my students performed David’s Minstrel Music for the Court of King Arthur. What a wonderful experience that was for both my student and for me. This music came from a 2015 book, Eight Musical Landscapes for Piano. I had the privilege of playing through the eight pieces and giving David feedback on how I thought they would work for students. And, I will always treasure the words that David penned in the book he gave me: To Jan…my esteemed colleague and friend. Thank you so much for your help and support over these many years. David S. Bernstein

So, I will never forget David, an icon in the field of music, but also a kind, generous and thoughtful man who not only had music performed by orchestras but happily shared his knowledge with teachers and students.

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Oregon composer Jan Mittelstaedt

The Enabler

I met David shortly after he relocated to Oregon. Tomas Svoboda had recommended he contact me about organizing Cascadia Composers. David was the initiator and chief organizer of CC. His commitment to the CC concept is what brought it into being. Unfortunately he had gotten some curiously strong resistance to the idea of a composers’ cooperative from several well-established Oregon composers. To his credit, he simply ignored them and carried on until he found enough supporting artists willing to work together. 

All Oregon composers owe David Bernstein a debt of gratitude for his vision and determination. Outside Cascadia Composers, I worked directly with David on recording, editing and mastering his audio CD release Late Autumn Moods and Images with some of Oregon’s fines chamber musicians. It’s an impressive legacy.

—Portland composer Jack Gabel

Bernstein & Jack Gabel. Photo: Cascadia Composers.

I can’t believe he’s gone.

Can’t believe I won’t hear any more of his perceptive commentary in awe of Mahler and of Beethoven, two favorite subjects among the many that interested him. Can’t believe there won’t be any more shared trips from my house to the Portland Columbia Symphony and the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, Fear No Music and more. Who knew that what started out years ago as a convenience for me and company for him — I live right on his route into Portland from St. Helens, two-thirds of the way along — would turn into a long, easygoing and collegial friendship.

I could hardly believe my good fortune at his inviting me to be one of the eight founders of what became Cascadia Composers back in 2008. Surely I was the least of those eight, yet by his example of generous acceptance, was never made to feel it. His attitude became a hallmark of Cascadia, which has always striven to be much more of an enabler than gatekeeper. 

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Sometimes it seems people don’t understand that Cascadia is a group of members, and as such cannot and should not escape reflecting the demographics of the area we serve. Yet at the same time, David set an example with his empathetic awareness, particularly of Indigenous and Black history and culture across the region and America. Similarly, he was open to a wide variety of esthetics, from the purest concert works through theater, film and commercial music; and styles from traditional to arcane. We must, we will, continue such openness in his memory. 

What is easy to believe, but can be hard to deal with as we move forward without him, is how his name and influence are everywhere around me, especially in my capacity as volunteer secretary for Cascadia. Again and again I want to ask him a question, get his advice, share a discovered nugget. I look to the fountain, but it’s silent… I feel empty.

There was more than a little in David that reminded me of my oldest brother and father figure Walter, a composer who died far too young, while still “emerging” 25 years ago. At Walter’s memorial, his longtime friend, the composer Edwin Dugger, concluded with a simple, heartfelt declaration that I’m honored to pay forward for David: “He was my friend and I’ll miss him very much.”

— Portland composer and Cascadia Composers co-founder Jeff Winslow

Read ArtsWatch Music Editor Matthew Andrews’s remembrance of Bernstein and view performances of his music here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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4 Responses

  1. I miss David already. He was always there as a kind of rock, a beacon in Cascadia. He was solid as both a member of the organization and as a composer. David’s compositions really had a signature in style. I resonated with and respected his music (and not only because I also love Beethoven’s pacing and Mahler’s emotion). I was fortunate to travel with him and a handful of other Cascadia Composers to Cuba in 2016. He had a blast of a trip. (I love that yellow cut off tee shirt he got there!) David left us too soon and suddenly but I am grateful to have been a small part of his musical world these last fifteen years. Cascadia has sure made my life much richer. “And so it was.”…(A Davidism, if I got it right, or was it “..and let it be written”?–Thank you Brett and everyone for your words here.

  2. Thank you so much for this moving tribute to David. He was a giant in the Portland music scene and leaves a huge hole. I’m so glad I got to perform on the concert to celebrate his 80th birthday last fall. I had no idea that it would be the final time we’d celebrate him.

  3. You’re so close, Paul. His frequent mock-serious quote of Yul Brynner in “The Ten Commandments”, more ironic than pharaonic, was “so let it be written,” often followed by “so let it be done.”

    On occasion he could expand this into a dizzying, apparently inexhaustible array of vaguely ecclesiastical formulas. It sounded as if an AI chatbot had been trained on a library full of sermons. David himself said he didn’t know how he did it, but I can only guess it went back to his early ambition to become an actor.

  4. Aw, I hate to learn of this. I was his last graduate school teaching assistant before he retired from the faculty. He was always so giving of his knowledge and talents. I enjoyed my two years with him immensely. His theory class was super hard…wow. I still have nightmares.

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