Eye surgeon indulges mind's ear Composer: Music shares the fore with medicine in the life of Juilliard-trained physician Scott Steidl.

December 07, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Sometimes Dr. Scott Steidl's music inspires audience members to approach him after a performance, shake his hand and say, "I really hated your work." It's one of the things he loves about creating musical compositions.

New works empower their listeners, Steidl says. "If you hear something you've heard 20 times before, your reactions are muted. If you hear something new, you react, love it or hate it. I don't mind negative comments because I think it's part of the role of art. It makes people flex their emotional muscles."

Steidl is unusual, and not simply because of his tolerance of outspoken audience members. He's both a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music -- a composer -- and a graduate of Mount Sinai Medical School -- an eye surgeon.

By day, at the University of Maryland at Baltimore School of Medicine, he performs intricate surgeries on damaged retinas.

By night, crack of dawn, weekends or whenever else he finds time, Steidl composes operas, quintets for brass ensembles, orchestral works, classical pieces to accompany poems and so on.

One composition -- called "The Snow" -- premieres tomorrow at the Christ Episcopal Church in New Brunswick, N.J. Set to three poems by Archibald MacLeish, it will be performed a capella by the Catabile Chamber Chorale of New Jersey.

Often, a concert is the first chance a composer has to hear his work performed. "It is like nothing else I know," the 40-year-old doctor says. "But I will say that most of the joy is not in the hearing of it, but in the writing."

Steidl's music is theatrical, colorful and accessible. Often he turns to literature for inspiration. His opera "The Monkey's Paw" is based upon the short story by W.W. Jacobs. "His works are very dramatic," says Joel Revzen, music director for the Fargo/Moorhead Symphony in North Dakota, who is commissioning a Steidl work to be played next fall. "They have a strong visual element to them. One can really let one's imagination soar with his music and come up with all kinds of visual impressions."

For "The Snow," which was commissioned by the chamber chorale, "[They] suggested something seasonal. I suggested a capella," Steidl says. "So I began with a core idea, which was distilled to the three poems, and the music was written to evoke those words."

As he talks, Steidl sits in an orderly office at his Timonium home, which he shares with his wife, Mary, and Lauren, his 2 1/2 -year-old daughter.

It is only 6 on a recent Monday evening, but he is tired. Earlier he spent three hours in surgery as part of a two-surgeon team re-attaching a retina and then replacing a diseased cornea with a transplant. "That's about as complicated as it gets. It's exhausting," Steidl says and gulps coffee.

It is here, on weekends, that he does much of his composing.But some mornings, if he has no early surgeries scheduled or grand rounds to make, he rises as though he had and drives to work. Once there, in the clinical surroundings of his medical center office and in the silence that occasionally can be achieved by arriving at work before the day reaches full gear, he attempts to create art. "One of the things medical school did for me was force me into using time as it occurs," he says.

While at Juilliard, Steidl often sat in coffeehouses and composed with paper and pencil. Now, much of his composing is done on LTC an electronic keyboard, which can play back what was just written. The keyboard is hooked to a computer that can then show the music on its screen -- and later print out the score.

Sometimes he seeks feedback from his wife, Mary, whom he met when she was a dance major at Juilliard. Now, she's a free-lance opera director, working as associate artistic director at the Berkshire Opera Company in Massachusetts, as well as with other companies around the country. The couple occasionally collaborates on works, as well.

Though it is often difficult for contemporary composers to get their music played, Steidl's works have been commissioned by the Brown University Orchestra and the Robin Becker Dance Company of New York, and performed at the Aspen Music

Festival, the Circle in the Square Theater and the Paul Hall at the Lincoln Center.

"His music is vivid, colorful, definitely contemporary, but it has a kind of communicative quality that is accessible to the audience. He is able to use the instruments to create colors," says JoAnn Falletta, music director for the Long Beach Symphony, which last year performed Steidl's "Fire Dreams."

Steidl, a native of Minneapolis, always has had music and medicine in his life. His mother taught music appreciation and his father now is chief of staff at the Veterans' Hospital in Walla Walla, Wash. As a child, he studied piano, bassoon and saxophone, joined rock bands and composed pieces for his jazz ensemble to play. "I had the full American music experience -- being in rock bands and jazz ensembles," he says. "It was very much an American cross section."

As an undergraduate student at Brown University, he studied both science and music. But getting accepted to Juilliard's doctoral program was a turning point. "Up till then, I hadn't really committed to one thing," he says.

Later, however, when he considered the fact that many composers are forced to take another job to support themselves, medical school seemed a good option. He graduated from New York's Mount Sinai Medical School in 1989, completed a two-year fellowship at Harvard Medical School and in 1995 came to the University of Maryland at Baltimore, where he heads the retina department in the department of opthamology. "Composing -- that inner journey -- is real fulfillment, and it complements a life in which I'm inundated with other people's needs, with helping people. I think that's where it works for me: It allows me to sort of probe my own mind."

Pub Date: 12/07/96

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