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Play, Write

Composer Michael Sheppard Isn’t Waiting Around For Somebody To Perform His Works

Frank Klein

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 3/15/2006

Michael Sheppard waits for his interview at one of the little tables in the rear of the Maestro Café on Centre Street near the Peabody Conservatory. On the table before him sit a tall cup of coffee and a spiral notebook of music manuscript paper. Even though a TV plays a soap opera nearby, even though his piano is back at his apartment two blocks away, Sheppard scribbles notes onto the staff lines, trying to finish the piano trio he premieres at An Die Musik this Saturday afternoon.

Sheppard, a 29-year-old with dark curls, a square jaw, and blue eyes, chuckles as he closes the notebook. No, he says, composing isn’t like the familiar movie image where the composer sits at the keyboard, tentatively plays a measure of music, pulls the pencil from behind his ear, and dashes the notes down on paper.

“I have what they call ‘perfect pitch’ or ‘absolute pitch,’” he says. “If someone says, ‘Sing an A,’ I can sing an A. So I don’t have to write at the piano. I just hear the notes and their relationships and put them down on paper. It’s not that unusual, but it means I can write anywhere, even here.

“Later I’ll go back and figure out what I’ve done,” he continues. “Then I might work variations on the relationships between the notes, or I might break up the melody into fragments, or I might write some counterpoint to the melody. But, for me, everything begins with the melody.”

Sheppard plays this piece with the Monument Piano Trio, the chamber group he co-founded with violinist Igor Yuzefovich and cellist Maxim Kozlov in 2004. That same year the trio became the first-ever artist-in-residence at downtown music shop/performance space An die Musik, where it averages five concerts a year. Kozlov recently moved on to a gig as principal cellist with the South Dakota Symphony and has been replaced by Dariusz Skoraczewski.

Sheppard is unusual in that he chose to stay in Baltimore after graduating from Peabody rather than rushing off to career hotbeds in New York and Los Angeles. And he’s unusual in that he is pursuing careers as both a composer and a performer. In the pop and jazz worlds, that’s the most common thing in the world; in classical music over the past century, it’s the exception to the rule. For the most part, classical composers concentrate on creating new music that they then turn over to someone else to interpret.

It wasn’t always so. Mozart and Beethoven, for example, were celebrated keyboardists who wrote their own material so they’d have something new for each round of concerts. A new Beethoven sonata was as eagerly awaited as a new pop single, and the audience wanted to hear Beethoven play it himself. Specialization crept in with the Industrial Revolution.

“Glenn Gould used to lament that the future of classical music was very grim,” Sheppard says. “And he attributed it to the split between performer and composer. All the great composers of the past performed their own music, and other people’s, too. But when Liszt created the concept of the piano recital—in place of the variety concert where you’d have a chamber group, a song, and piano solo or violin solo—it required you to play a lot more repertoire than you could write. So people began to specialize in one or the other. Soon you were either a composer or a performer.

“To me, there shouldn’t be a split. The composer needs to know the capability of the instrument and what works on it. The performer needs to know why a composer might choose one particular approach instead of something else he could have done. The more I compose, the more I understand other composers’ music. Every performer asks the question, ‘How do I bring to life a score so it sounds as intended?’ If you’re a composer yourself, you have a better idea of that intent, and how each interpretive choice might help or hinder that intent.”

Sheppard makes his living as a freelance pianist, touring North America and Europe; he played a State Department tour of the Mideast and South Asia in 2003. This month alone he plays in New Mexico, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C. By contrast, he has yet to earn a penny for his composing—but he doesn’t face the problem of so many classical composers. Sheppard doesn’t have to wait around for someone else to perform his compositions. He performs them himself.

“I’ve got this terrific group, so I might as well create something for it,” he says of the Monument Piano Trio. “I’ve written solo piano music and duo music for violin and piano or flute and piano, and I’ve performed almost everything I’ve written. It gives you confidence as a composer to know that what you write will be heard. If not, why bother?”

Sheppard was born in Philadelphia and grew up in the city’s suburbs until he enrolled at Peabody in 1994 as a freshman. He started picking out melodies on the piano at age 2 and started taking piano lessons by 9, when he had an epiphany.

“I heard Brahms’ D-minor piano concerto No. 1 on a classical radio station, and it changed my life,” he says. “I had a visceral response that shook my foundations. I had liked the pop hits on the radio, the soundtracks of my favorite movies and the ’80s rock my dad played on guitar, but the Brahms spoke to a deeper level than what I was used to. Before long, I stopped buying pop records.

“I didn’t hear much contemporary classical music until I got to Peabody,” he continues. “But a few weeks after I got there, I was walking by North Hall, which is now called Griswold Hall, and I heard some sounds I’d never heard before. It literally stopped me in my tracks. I forgot about where I was going, walked into the hall, and heard the rest of the concert. It was George Crumb’s ‘Makrokosmos III: Music for a Summer Evening’ played by two pianists and two percussionists. This wasn’t mere mind games like a lot of avant-garde music—this descended below the neck and got into my guts.”

Only in 2000, after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance at Peabody, did Sheppard scratch his composing itch with any diligence. That year he recorded his first—and thus far only—album, Michael Sheppard at Peabody. There, amid the pieces by Beethoven, Chopin, Leopold Godowsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, was “One True Water’s Heart,” an early solo piano piece he wrote.

This past February the Monument Piano Trio performed at An die Musik as part of “Music and Memory: A 70th Birthday Celebration of Nicholas Maw.” Maw, a British native and Maryland resident who teaches at Peabody, is a leader of the new movement to restore melody to contemporary art music.

But Maw’s Piano Trio is not easy listening by any means. Sheppard introduced the two-handed opening theme, which was then echoed by Yuzefovich and Skoraczewski. As easily grasped as that melody was, it had a nervousness that seemed to engender stabbing phrases from the strings or anxious rises and exhausted collapses from the piano. It was the combination of seductive tunefulness and subversive gesture that Sheppard aspires to.

“There’s something about Maw’s piece that fascinates me,” Sheppard says. “It’s melodically driven but in a totally different way than mine. It’s like he’s sticking the melody in an electric socket and it breaks into 10 fragments that are all played at once. It’s very romantic music actually, but it’s so amped up with twice as many notes as usual that it sounds very modern.”

Sheppard is encouraged by the contemporary composition trend away from the academic and conceptual and toward the melodic and emotional. His two favorite living composers are John Corigliano and Crumb, but he also admires John Adams, Christopher Rouse, Osvaldo Golijov, and Chris Theofanidis (who also teaches at Peabody). Among his contemporaries, he likes Michael Hersch and Judith Zaimont. He even confesses his guilty pleasure in John Williams’ soundtrack music.

“There’s something about the physics of melody that moves me,” he says. “There’s something about a continuing line with all the ups and downs, all those changes of direction, all those roundings of the corner that captivates me more than any concept or gesture. That’s what I want to hear and that’s what I want to write.” H

The Monument Piano Trio performs at An die Musik March 18 at 3 p.m. The program includes the world premiere of Michael Sheppard’s Piano Trio No. 1 plus Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2 and Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. For the last piece, the trio is joined by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Jonathan Carney and BSO principal second violinist Li Qing.

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