Composer's life a classic tale of following one's star

Staff WriterJanuary 18, 2004 

DURHAM -- Stephen Jaffe grew up on the tales of his infamous great-uncle, the Tin Pan Alley composer Archie Gottler: Married five times to four women. Drank himself temporarily blind. Stayed at the finest hotels in town -- then left, sticking his family with the bills. Made a fortune in royalties, lost it in alimonies.

Jaffe's father probably meant these as cautionary tales. His parents, both geologists with the now-defunct U.S. Bureau of Mines, actually forbade Jaffe and his siblings from pursuing a career in music.

And in what may be a cautionary tale for overprotective parents, all three Jaffe kids ended up doing just that: His older brother is a respected jazz arranger and composer; his sister, an accomplished oboist; and Jaffe, 49, is a classical composer and Duke University professor whose star is rising fast.

This month, Jaffe's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, commissioned by classical world luminary Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, debuted in Washington. The Washington Post's classical music critic called it "a virtuoso piece with genuine intellectual aspirations, combining rapt lyricism with a sense of sonic adventure."

The premiere caps a long string of important commissions and impressive awards, plenty to aggrandize an ego or inspire a debauchery or two. But Jaffe's parents needn't have worried. Those who know him -- professors, conductors, other composers -- roundly describe him as a caring family man, intellectual and thoughtful, an earnest soul.

"I think to have your life in that kind of balance is a real feat for an artist," says Stuart Malina, who in 2000 conducted the premiere of Jaffe's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, written for North Carolina-born virtuoso Nicholas Kitchen. "There aren't lots and lots of artists who manage to pull off a dazzling creative career as well as being a good father or mother. ... I use 'normal' in the most complimentary terms. He's an extraordinarily normal person."

In Jaffe's office at Duke, a tidy space dominated by a Steinway grand piano, he fiddles with a pair of mallets -- he had just asked students to compose a piece for the wooden box drum -- as he talks. He is often on the move, jumping over to the piano to illustrate the exact resonance of the Kennedy Center concert hall, or arranging his fingers around an imaginary violin to imitate a particular flourish.

As much as his parents tried to dissuade him from a career in music, they also filled their home with it, playing live radio concerts, Beethoven to Bartok, as well as jazz and popular music. Jaffe would drift off to sleep each night to the sound of his father playing the piano, his mother singing.

Jaffe started playing violin at about age 6, followed by piano at 11 and guitar (it was the 1960s, after all) at 13. He dabbled with composition early -- he chuckles over one piece, "The Melee Dance Song for Fast Piano" -- and at 12 he starting producing pieces for violin and piano, a string quartet and a string octet.

At 16, he had presented an entire concert at a church, with pieces for pipe organ, string quartet, flute and string quartet, and threw in a hymn for the congregation for good measure. Jaffe denies he was a prodigy, pointing out that a variation on the hymn included a note for the viola too low for the instrument to reach.

He was a quiet, serious student, but he also loved sports. When he tried to join the school basketball team, he told the coach that some of the practices would conflict with his music lessons. The coach told him to choose. "I dearly loved basketball," he says, "but I never went back."

His family moved to Geneva for a year when he was 16, and he enrolled in all-day composition, theory and piano classes among professional musicians at the city's music conservatory. He later graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, studying under composers George Crumb, George Rochberg and Richard Wernick.

Upon graduation, he scrounged around for work, editing music, teaching adult music lessons and running a senior citizens' choir. He got a job at Swarthmore College at the "stupendous" salary of $12,000 a year, which he liked. Then, at 25, he was awarded the coveted Rome Prize fellowship for emerging artists -- "That I really liked" -- and spent a year at the American Academy in Rome, composing.

He soon attracted Duke's attention, as officials were looking to bolster their music department upon the pending retirement of famed composer Robert Ward. Jaffe joined the faculty in 1981.

It has been a fruitful relationship for both. Jaffe has built up the composition program. He founded and co-directs Duke's contemporary music concert series "Encounters: With the Music of Our Time." He also co-directs the newer "Milestones" series, a collaborative effort with the University of North Carolina music department.

A more selfish composer would be tempted to hijack those platforms for his own aspirations, but Milestones co-director, UNC associate professor Allen Anderson, called Jaffe "extremely generous."

"He's not just out to have his own pieces played," Anderson says. "It's not about that first and foremost. He wants to show the wide variety of creative musical activity."

Jaffe enjoys teaching -- and the health insurance -- and the time he gets to continue composing, which often involves one-on-one collaborations with his soloists.

He wore out Interstate 95 traveling between Durham and Washington, working on his most recent concerto with David Hardy, the National Symphony Orchestra principal cellist. Jonathan Bagg, violist with Duke's Ciompi Quartet, was in the audience when Jaffe's cello concerto premiered.

"His music is always bursting with ideas and texture, and a lot of it is new," Bagg says. "The stuff that you're hearing is not going to sound exactly like something else you've already played. It's going to require you to use your imagination to understand what he's going for, which is what makes it fun to play."

It makes Jaffe a musician's composer, which doesn't necessarily make him a popular one. There's often a gulf between what an audience wants to hear and what a musician wants to play. Usually composers don't know in their lifetimes whether they'll be remembered after their deaths.

"Composers who compose today try to do something original, with a capital 'O,' and new, something that lasts for posterity," Jaffe says. "It means saying something that only you can say and nobody else can say."

Staff writer Vicki Hyman can be reached at 829-4728 or vhyman@newsobserver.com.

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