Stephen Albert, his melodious music helped define the 'New Romanticism'

December 29, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Stephen Albert, 51, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who was one of the founders of what has been called the "New Romanticism," was killed Sunday afternoon in a three-car collision on Cape Cod, Mass.

The accident left eight other people injured, including the composer's wife, Marilyn, 49, and their children, Joshua, 23, and Katie, 21. Mr. Albert's daughter was released from Cape Cod hospital with minor injuries. His wife and son are listed in stable condition at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Among the composers of his generation, no one loomed larger than Mr. Albert. His music was so lush and filled with so many good tunes that they could make a listener think he had heard Mr. Albert's melodies before -- simply because they were so memorable. His music was recorded; he had powerful champions such as the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the singers Dawn Upshaw and Lucy Shelton, the conductors Mstislav Rostropovich (who recorded his 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning "RiverRun" Symphony), David Zinman (who, with Mr. Ma and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, will record Mr. Albert's Cello Concerto in March) and Gerard Schwarz; and he had what Mr. Albert believed a composer should prize most -- audiences who loved his music.

"Stephen's death is a big loss," said a much-shaken Mr. Zinman, the BSO's music director. "He was someone who cared about audiences, who was concerned to write music that could be enjoyed and understood immediately."

Although Mr. Albert became a household word in the new-music world when he received his Pulitzer, for almost 20 years before that he was something of a lone wolf.

The New York City-born composer was a dropout from both the Eastman School of Music and the University of Pennsylvania who eventually obtained a degree from the Philadelphia Academy of Music, then an unaccredited institution. He was not allied with any school of composition, nor, for that matter, was he a member of the academic establishment that, in the 1950s and 1960s, was responsible for the trend to atonal serialism, music that sounds like mumbo-jumbo to average music lovers.

As a result, Mr. Albert -- with his lushly romantic music with its singable melodies -- was a prophet crying in the wilderness. Although he eventually acquired teaching positions at both Boston University and the Juilliard School, he supported himself for years before that by turning his boyhood hobby of stamp collecting into a lucrative career as an investor in and dealer of rare stamps.

"I felt that music had reached an impasse," Mr. Albert said in a 1990 interview with The Sun, shortly before the world premiere of his Cello Concerto with the BSO. "The only real masterpieces after World War II had been by Shostakovich. The only place most new music was going was over a cliff into an abyss, and the so-called conservative alternative seemed to be mired in stasis. The only way out of it, it seemed to me, was to go back to where music had been shortly after the turn of the century. Eschewing the music of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, I became interested in composers like de Falla, Sibelius and early Stravinsky. I wanted a complexity of texture that bears repeated hearings and I wanted at the same time to have a surface accessibility."

By the early 1970s, prominent conductors such as Carlo Maria Giulini began to discover Mr. Albert's music and it began to be performed by orchestras such as the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony. It was not long before Mr. Albert's melodious, deeply felt music began to inspire others.

"He's been one of the biggest influences in establishing what is now the mainstream," said composer Christopher Rouse. "Long before it became fashionable, he claimed that a return to tonality was the way to redeem music from the academic morass in which it had found itself in the 1960s."

According to friends, Mr. Albert was on the brink of even greater things. The recording of his cello concerto by Mr. Ma, Mr. Zinman and the BSO in March for Sony would have meant his debut on one of the giant labels. In addition, he had just finished a new symphony and was negotiating with the New York Philharmonic for its first performance as part of the philharmonic's 150th anniversary.

"What can you say -- he went too soon," said Mr. Zinman. "His music will live, but he had a lot of music left to write."

Besides his wife, daughter and son, Mr. Albert is survived by his mother and brother. Funeral arrangements were still incomplete as of last night.

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