Harsh Tones | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Harsh Tones 

Composer Ralph Shapey spits fire at the establishment he sees arrayed against him.

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By Ted Shen

"Let's face it, I'm a persona non grata to the city's music establishment," says composer Ralph Shapey. "Maybe there's a conspiracy, maybe there isn't. Who's to say? But isn't it suspicious that the last time a composition of mine was performed was in '96? And I was the one who scheduled it as part of a Contemporary Chamber Players' Fromm concert. Don't they know I've kept composing?" Actually, Lullaby, written for Shapey's newborn grandchild, was given its local premiere last season by CUBE. But it's also true that he's been writing four or five pieces a year that haven't been played here.

Shapey taught at the University of Chicago for 27 years, until 1991, when he was 70. And he'd still rather be teaching or conducting than sitting in his score-strewn studio in a Mies van der Rohe high-rise in Hyde Park. "When they say I want to compose all day, that's bullshit," he says. "I can't sit at a desk for a long stretch of time. I want to be with young people, finding out their enthusiasms. I want to be around other musicians exchanging ideas. Well, I was shafted by the U. of C. They forced me into retirement when they could've bent the rules."

The university runs the CCP, which Shapey founded in 1964, but it let him continue conducting concerts by the group. After all, they were paid for by a bequest from his longtime patron, wine merchant Paul Fromm. But the money ran out, he says, and he was dumped. "They brought in that fellow from California whose nickname is Lucky. He programmed some awful music and didn't really know how to conduct. The musicians hated him." Needless to say, Stephen "Lucky" Mosko snubbed Shapey during his brief tenure.

Shapey feels even more slighted by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But then his relationship with its managers has always been rocky. In the 60s, when Jean Martinon was in charge, the CSO played a few of his works, but he didn't like the way they played them. "Let me tell you this classic story," he says. "My violin concerto, called Invocation, was scheduled with me conducting. But the musicians were having a fight with Martinon, so they decided to give it to me. They crapped around in performance. I walked off the podium. 'Somebody insulted you?' Martinon asked. And I said, 'Yes, the whole orchestra. I'm not taking this shit.'" He shakes his head. "Can you imagine that the CSO's concertmaster later said to me, 'Your music is too difficult, so we should get double pay'? I asked why, and he said, 'We get paid for playing and paid again for thinking.'

"Solti ignored me totally. Not that I cared. He didn't understand at all any music past Wagner. Let me tell you another story. Roger Sessions came to hear Solti conducting his When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd. Afterward he came up to me and cried. 'That was the worst performance of it I've heard so far.' Also in the audience was this young man who'd conducted it much better. The CSO should've asked him. Why didn't they? Solti was the star! Classical music has become more and more dependent on personalities and less on passion about music."

Shapey's opinion of the orchestra sank even lower when it performed his magnum opus, Concerto Fantastique, in 1992. "It was a commission for the centenary of both the CSO and the U. of C.," he says. "I suppose that's why they even bothered to ask me." He gave them a score that clocked in at 70 minutes and was filled with gnarled passages that demanded the utmost in technique from the musicians. Daniel Barenboim, who was slated to conduct, got sick at almost the last minute, and Shapey was called in to sub. "The percussions were fine with their parts, and the winds too," he recalls. "But not the strings. They complained about how their hands couldn't adjust. Hell, I was a violin prodigy, and I knew what you could and could not do."

The concerto's premiere was a fiasco. "I must admit that the string playing in particular was awful," Shapey says. "Those guys didn't have a clue." He chortles when reminded that some of the violinists leaned over the stage and motioned to people sitting in the first rows to leave before the work started. Many fled, but many who stayed cheered when it ended. Shapey doesn't believe he'll ever hear the work again. "I believe the CSO has put a gag order on it," he says. But he thinks the work will someday find its audience. "I'd like to think of the concerto as my Sacre du printemps, a work that shook things up."

Certainly the work shook up the Pulitzer Prize board. That year its advisory committee of three eminent composers recommended Shapey for the prize on the basis of the concerto, and to ensure that no one else would be in the running, they submitted only Shapey's name. But their decision was overruled by the board, the majority of whose members, according to speculation in the press at the time, couldn't stomach either Shapey's music or his irascibility. Shapey learned about the rejection when the head of the advisory committee, George Perle, a friend from the 50s, contacted him. "I got calls for response from critics all over the country," he says. "One of them told me the Pulitzer board felt they had to consider consumer interest. I answered, if that's the case, they should put the prize in Kmart." The loss still galls him. "I was robbed. There's no other way of putting it."

Shapey is convinced that his music has been banished from Orchestra Hall. As proof he says, "When the Juilliard Quartet were there for their 50th-anniversary recital [in 1996] they'd wanted to play my String Quartet no. 8, but they were told to drop it from the program. When the story was printed in the Tribune the management didn't dispute." The Juilliard's Joel Krosnick confirms that the Shapey quartet was slated, then turned down by the CSO booker because it wasn't popular enough. He adds that a U. of C. concert organizer also resisted including Shapey works on Juilliard programs for the same reason.

Shapey may feel abandoned by Chicago's music community, but he still has lots of musician fans on the east coast. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he grew up wanting to be a conductor--he led a youth orchestra when he was only 17. He says he realized early on that "to be a good conductor I have to be a composer." Stefan Wolpe, a German emigre composer, became his mentor, instilling in him a love for expressive serialism and romantic gestures. Another seminal influence was Edgard Varese, whose sonically daring work Shapey championed during his tenure as head of CCP. "Let me tell you a story about Varese and me," he says. "I conducted his Ecuatorial on his supposed 80th birthday--there was confusion about his age. He liked the performance so much that on his deathbed he came out of a coma and said, 'I heard my muse finally, and it's Ralph Shapey.'"

Shapey was in the army in Europe during World War II, and when he returned he headed straight for New York. For several years he couldn't find a steady job in music, but he spent a lot of time hanging out with poets, painters, and performers. Willem de Kooning was a friend, as were new-music advocates such as violinist Paul Zukofsky. Shapey was once married to Vera Klement, whose portrait of him as an Old Testament prophet in jeans now hangs near the entrance of his apartment. He says that the structurally complex, impassioned canvases of the abstract expressionists inspired him more than the dry musings of the Schoenberg disciples who began to dominate the academic music scene--he likes being tagged as a fellow abstract expressionist. "I've grown beyond that, of course," he says. "But back then we got ideas from one another. We weren't afraid to try out new things--we were true comrades. That's something I've always missed in Chicago. In the late 60s I tried to create a similar milieu here. Didn't work. Artists were segregated, didn't want to know each other."

Shapey took a sabbatical in 1985 and returned to New York to teach at Queens College. He toyed with the idea of staying there, but he found the city's culture had changed. "It was the same old crowd that had grown cynical," he says. "People didn't care about the works of others, and the knives were out even as they smiled." He got married again--to soprano Elsa Charlston, who'd sung many of his vocal pieces--and retreated to Hyde Park.

Yet he's maintained close friendships with numerous first-rate New York performers. Three of them--Krosnick, pianist Gilbert Kalish, and percussionist William Trigg--will give a recital at the Arts Club this Friday in hopes of renewing appreciation for Shapey in his hometown. Krosnick says he first met Shapey in 1959 when he was starting out as a cellist. "We both feel passionate about Beethoven," he says. "Not surprisingly, over the years I hear more and more Beethoven in Ralph's music. Ralph is one of the few creators who have the courage of their voice. And his voice is that of infinite detail, a vast unpredictable imagination, structurally intricate yet elemental."

Shapey has returned the compliment by writing works for Krosnick and his partners. "Eleven so far and still counting," he says. Three of those works--Sonata Appassionata for Cello and Piano, Soli for Solo Cello, and Evocation #2 for Cello, Piano, and Percussion--are on the Arts Club program. A fourth, Passacaglia for Piano Duo/One Player, was composed for Kalish and will be given its world premiere.

"Ralph's work reaffirms my belief that I'm in a worthwhile profession," Krosnick says. "I don't come away feeling that I'm in the wrong fucking place. The Juilliard has performed pieces that sound terribly beautiful the first couple of times, but then we realize that's all there is. Not Ralph's. I'm reminded of how I react to Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, which, by the way, is Ralph's favorite. I hear things I haven't heard before. I listen to all that complex polyphony and wonder if today's audience might go for it had it been written only yesterday."

Shapey scoffs at the notion of difficult music. "The word 'difficult' is not in my dictionary," he says. "In my younger days musicians came out of Eastman, Curtis no-nonsense and ready to play anything. Many of them ended up in major orchestras making a decent living. Then they started hating music, dismissing anything new as difficult. I pity them." But he thinks that might be changing. "Let me tell you another little story. For years I hated Jackson Pollock, the idea of dripping paint all over the canvas. Years later I was in the Museum of Modern Art and saw this painting that looked familiar. 'Wait a minute--it's magnificent!' I said to myself. The pendulum of my aesthetic sense had swung the other direction. People used to call me a charlatan or a phony. Now they're beginning to call me a genius and a prophet. Maybe the pendulum is swinging."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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