Composer Stephen Albert: `Impassioned Man Of Ideas'

Some deaths are so sudden and so senseless that the only response is disbelief.

That's why members of the music community are shaking their heads over the auto accident that claimed the life of composer Stephen Albert, who died Sunday at 51.

Albert's family was with him in the three-car crash on Cape Cod, Mass. Albert died instantly. His wife Marilyn, a neuropsychologist, and son Joshua, 23, were airlifted to Boston, where they remained hospitalized yesterday; his daughter Katie, 21, was treated and released from a Hyannis hospital. The family was returning to their Newton, Mass., home when the accident occurred Sunday afternoon, police said.

Albert was familiar to Seattle concertgoers from his 1985-'88 stint as composer in residence for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, which was part of a long and continuing association with Seattle (an Albert work for clarinet and orchestra is scheduled for subscription programs in January).

Symphony music director Gerard Schwarz, who commissioned several Albert compositions and worked closely with the composer over the past decade, said he was "devastated by this loss."

"You never imagine that something like this could happen," Schwarz said.

"Someone that gifted, that young. It defies all sense.

"I just talked to Stephen a couple of days ago," Schwarz said Sunday. "He was brooding about the issues that concerned him so much - the state of music in this country, the educational system, the financial condition of orchestras, the big picture. He was such an impassioned man of ideas, as well as being such a great talent."

Albert spent much of his career as a musical anomaly, the composer who never quite fit the traditional modes. He didn't like school as a youngster, disliked the Eastman School of Music where he studied, wrote unfashionably tonal works, didn't follow any accepted paths to success, and supported himself for many years as a highly successful stamp dealer in Boston.

After winning a 1985 Pulitzer Prize for his symphony "RiverRun", Albert became an increasingly hot commodity in the music world. Due partly to his championing by Schwarz, who programmed and recorded his music before Albert became well-known, the opportunities began to grow.

It takes something like the Pulitzer to focus public attention on what most of us think of as the avant-garde. In a 1986 interview, Albert said the frequent popular aversion to new music - that is, contemporary symphonic and chamber music - is the result of most composers' efforts to create something different from the past, not necessarily to communicate with audiences.

"Music is the life of the emotions," Albert said, "and you know instantly if you like it. I've gotten tired of suspending judgment: I know as much as anybody about new music, and when it doesn't say anything to me, I don't pretend. We've had 20 or 30 years of dishonesty . . . It doesn't matter how good musical theories may be: The audience knows. People should trust their instincts more."

Albert was an outspoken proponent of tonality, and his beliefs were echoed more and more in the 1980s as atonal music found fewer audiences. As a beginning composer, he looked around at what was being produced and decided, "There's nothing here for me"; ever since, he was going his own way.

Albert's death comes at the height of his hard-earned success, with a recent cello concerto premiered by Yo-Yo Ma, a clarinet work performed by David Shifrin, a new symphony commissioned (and apparently completed) for the New York Philharmonic. He was working on a symphony commissioned by the Philadelphia Philharmonic, according to Susan Feder of G. Schirmer Inc., which published Albert's music.

There would have been much, much more. Albert spoke in interviews of his desire to write an opera, possibly one about the Holocaust. He was eager to try larger forms as well as the smaller, intimate chamber works that had been inspired by James Joyce's novels. He worked hard at composing; it didn't come easily to him, and he agonized endlessly about the finer points and the directions not taken.

Ma told The Boston Globe Albert's death was "a tremendous loss. He was going to write a lot more great, wonderful pieces."

His work was "complex and understandable at the same time," Ma said. "He had his own voice and never compromised to keep that voice alive."

Passionate and articulate, Albert was a philosopher who would pull in facts from many historical eras and cultures to prove a point. He was a remarkable public speaker, and a man of ideas whose opinions were openly expressed, often with the enthusiasm and emphasis of a trial lawyer.

Schwarz recalled Albert's habit of calling him at all hours to discuss musical points. When the calls began to get earlier and earlier, Schwarz countered the 6 a.m. phone calls with a jingle at midnight.

Once, the conductor asked the composer to write some short musical illustrations overnight for a "Musically Speaking" symphony concert the following day. Albert worked through the night, producing a composition that not only gave the necessary illustrations, but also was the genesis of a full-fledged orchestral piece, later to emerge as "Anthem and Processionals."

Schwarz recorded several of Albert's works, and "Music of Stephen Albert" (Delos, 1989), recorded by the National Symphony of Washington, D.C., features the Pulitzer-winning "RiverRun."

During his three-year residency in Seattle, Albert commuted to Boston, where his family remained. But he developed a fondness for his part-time home.

"I think Seattle is the most wonderful city in the United States," he said in 1988. Albert last returned to Seattle in 1991 for a performance of his cello concerto.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.