American Masters Series: Composer David Del Tredici Celebrates 80 Years

By Thomas May

The tradition of the composer-performer underlies some of the cornerstones of the repertoire. Think of Vivaldi the violinist. Mozart the keyboard phenomenon. Mahler the conductor—his instrument being the orchestra itself. But sometimes it’s actually the distance between composers and the instruments for which they write that adds a special flavor to the creative act.

Consider the case of David Del Tredici and David, Goliath & Beyond, his brand-new composition for bass trombone and violin. It received its premiere in January at the floating concert hall known as Bargemusic, with the Brooklyn Bridge as a backdrop. “David is such an enjoyable composer to collaborate with,” says Mark Peskanov, the virtuoso violinist who also helms Bargemusic. Peskanov teamed with Felix Del Tredici (the composer’s nephew) to perform David, Goliath & Beyond, which is dedicated to both. “He knows what he wants, but at the same time he’s very open to my suggestions.”

“I try to get the ones who are virtuosos to give me some of their secrets. They can do things I would never dream of in a million years,” Del Tredici tells me shortly after the premiere. After starting out as what he calls an “old child piano prodigy—I was already 12!” the California native came close to pursuing a virtuoso career himself. But at the last minute, he opted to focus on composition and turned down an offer to study with the legendary pianist Myra Hess in London.

“Becoming a composer was an accident,” he adds with a characteristic note of impish glee.

David, Goliath & Beyond has ushered in a milestone year for Del Tredici. In March he turned 80, joining his colleagues Philip Glass and Steve Reich in the pantheon of eminent octogenarian American composers. Del Tredici already earned a permanent place in music history in the 1970s through a legendary series of orchestral-vocal works inspired by Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice books. In Memory of a Summer Day, another in his constellation of Carroll-related pieces, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1980.


The enchanting, imaginative musical language Del Tredici forged—and the enthusiastic reception it attracted—helped reanimate the field for an emerging generation of composers at a time when new orchestral music was widely regarded as moribund. “It was the era of the serialists calling the shots, when how a composition was made, how it looked, became more important than how it actually sounded,” he explains.

While the Minimalists showed one path out of the stranglehold of academic modernism, Del Tredici’s brand of Neo-Romanticism blazed a different trail. (His publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, offers a handy retrospective of the composer’s career on its website.)

Trying to recapture the atmosphere of the period is like making the effort to recall Cold War Berlin, when the city was still divided by a wall. But at the time, Del Tredici remarks, “Young composers found me a musical lifeline to get out of the straitjacket of atonality, which I was happy to be.”

At 80, the New York City–based composer retains his unique combination of quirky humor, imagination, and insight. Del Tredici’s creative drive has always led him in unpredictable directions, and his most recent destination has resulted in a focus on writing music for strings. “I’m in a string period!” he announces, as if suddenly connecting the dots represented by his partnership with Peskanov and colleagues. A two-CD release devoted entirely to new works (due out this spring from Albany Records) gathers the fruits of this development. Along with a set of variations for Felix Del Tredici, it includes the First String Quartet, a piano trio (Grand Trio), and Dynamic Duo, the immediate violin-cum-trombone ancestor of David, Goliath & Beyond.


Also on the horizon are a violin concerto (“I’m listening to a lot of concertos in D lately”) and, to complement Grand Trio, Grand Duo for Peskanov and cellist Mike Nicolas, who both joined with pianist Steve Beck for the piano trio. “I wanted the duo to be better than the Ravel [the Sonata for Violin and Cello] and I have actually composed most of the piece already, but I set it aside when I began to write David & Goliath—70 pages of handwritten, non-Xeroxed score. It’s buried somewhere in the house, so I need to find it before I write the last movement. Unless someone ran off with it—in which case, please bring it back!”

Del Tredici’s decidedly old-fashioned method of pencil to paper—“If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”—belies his naturally innovative way of looking at the world. It’s a perspective that readily entertains such an unlikely pairing as violin with bass trombone. When Dynamic Duo was first heard at Bargemusic in 2013, Del Tredici says, instead of thinking of it as just another world premiere, “I called it a civilization premiere. It does sound like
a weird combo on the surface. But [Mark Peskanov and Felix Del Tredici] are such brilliant musicians and have such a sense of line that it really doesn’t matter what the instruments are.”

Peskanov recalls thinking David, Goliath & Beyond might be a modest piece of about five minutes when it was first commissioned. “But it turned out to be 20 and wasn’t ready until the day before the premiere.” The frantic rush didn’t faze the violinist. “I think of how Beethoven brought the violin part for the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata in with changes just hours before the concert. The truth is that composers have always been like that—they write and then adjust. And it takes time to live with a piece, to drive with it and find the right proportion and tempi in order to bring it to life.”


Violinist Mark Peskanov and Felix Del Tredici at the Bargemusic premiere of ‘David, Goliath & Beyond’. Photo by Susan Johann

Del Tredici’s initial image was visual rather than sonic. “I saw a vision of Felix’s trombone slide jutting out as parallel to the slingshot of David. Then I started thinking, his hands are involved, but his feet are not, so why not give them something to do? So he plays bass drum and hi-hat, too, and at the end there’s a long period of improvisation that deteriorates into noise.”

If the rest is noise, Del Tredici jokes, “It’s taken me 80 years to actually write
modern music! To have it at all disintegrate at the end. But it has to happen in a context.
The disintegration happens at the end of a piece that’s tightly composed, with discipline.” For Peskanov, the effect is bracing: “After all this emotionally charged music, it’s like a burst of insanity. You wonder whether it was all a dream.”

The collaboration with Peskanov, who has participated in four of Del Tredici’s premieres to date, has been a source of fresh ideas. “It’s very helpful as a composer when you connect with someone who really knows how to play the instrument and is willing to go there with you on the journey,” Del Tredici says. “It can also be quite scary because they can go so fast and it’s hard to catch up with them. I’ll write something simple and tell Mark to make a fancy version of it, and he’ll make it sound more like a Rolls Royce. He’s a terrific intuitive musician. I love his romantic freedom and spirit, which are rare nowadays—and which [suit] the music I write.”