Grammy-Winning Composer Stephen Hartke to Join Oberlin Faculty

March 9, 2015

Erich Burnett

Stephen Hartke
Stephen Hartke, professor of composition
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Celebrated composer Stephen Hartke, whose influential works draw upon inspiration ranging from medieval music to the blues, has been appointed Professor of Composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. He will begin July 1.

Hartke arrives in Oberlin at the height of his creative powers, following an illustrious career as Distinguished Professor of Composition at the Thornton School of Music of the University of Southern California, where he has taught since 1987.

“Stephen Hartke is a truly brilliant composer whose work encompasses an extraordinary range of influences, styles, and genres. He presents a powerful model for the young composers he teaches, and we look forward to the deep experience and perspective he will bring to our students and our program,” says Andrea Kalyn, dean of the Oberlin Conservatory. “We are absolutely delighted to welcome him to the Oberlin faculty.”

Hartke will serve as chair of the composition department, part of Oberlin’s robust Division of Contemporary Music, which also includes the Technology in Music and Related Arts department (TIMARA) and Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble.

“Oberlin is a world-class school,” says Hartke, who attended performances of Oberlin student ensembles during a December visit to campus. “I heard the students play, and it’s amazing—I was blown away by how good their playing was. And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, because that’s been going on here for a long time.”

Composition studies at Oberlin boast a rich tradition and are core to the institution’s vibrant culture of contemporary music. Student performers are uniquely engaged with the efforts of Oberlin’s young composers; each semester, dozens of student-penned compositions are performed in concert, and many conservatory students request original works composed by their peers to be performed during junior and senior recitals. Alumni composers’ works are frequently programmed by Oberlin ensembles and faculty, and have a strong presence on the Oberlin Music recording label. Four releases in the catalog include works by Oberlin alumni Huang Ruo, Peter Swendsen, Aaron Helgeson, Pierre Jalbert, Peter Flint, and Thomas Lopez, among others.

Hartke relishes the opportunity to guide students in an environment where hands-on experience is a fundamental principle.

“One of the things that appeals to me about Oberlin is that it has always been and continues to be a performance-based program,” he says. “There is nothing purely theoretical about what you do here; it’s all practical experience. I want to help mold students who leave here having found out what works. There’s nothing more important for a composer than that.”

“We are bursting with excitement to bring one of America's leading voices and most prominent composers to Oberlin's faculty,” says Professor Tim Weiss, director of Oberlin's Contemporary Music Ensemble and chair of the composition search committee. “We look forward to the many ways in which Stephen will provide leadership and inspire innovation in Oberlin's composition department, and become a key link between performers of contemporary music and composers.”

As chair of the department, Hartke looks forward to developing an intensive yet flexible curriculum that allows for adjustments based on industry trends and other factors. He enthusiastically embraces the opportunity to collaborate with the TIMARA department on cutting-edge projects, and he is intent on increasing the ratio of female composers in a field historically dominated by men. “My main goal,” he says, “is always to help students acquire the skills they need to write the music that they want to hear: music that’s effective and true to their vision.”

Honored for his work throughout the world, Hartke won the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, two Koussevitzky Music Foundation Commission Grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Stoeger Award from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Charles Ives Living from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Deutsche Bank Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin. Hartke's 2008 opera, The Greater Good, was awarded the first Charles Ives Opera Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He has had major works commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Harvard Musical Association, the Library of Congress, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Music America, the Institute for American Music at the Eastman School of Music, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among many others.

Hartke’s composition Meanwhile—Incidental Music to Imaginary Puppet Plays, was commissioned by the Oberlin-bred new music ensemble eighth blackbird. The 18-minute piece, inspired by Hartke’s love of Asian theater music, won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in 2013. (Eighth blackbird also won a Grammy that year for its recording Meanwhile, which featured Hartke’s piece.)

In addition to eighth blackbird, Hartke has received commissions from numerous groups, including the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Glimmerglass Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the National Symphony Orchestra. His collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble resulted in his Symphony No. 3, which was commissioned by Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic.

Hartke’s Symphony No. 4, commissioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, made its world premiere in November 2014.

Hartke’s compositions have been widely recorded on labels including Cedille, Albany, EMI Classics, ECM New Series, Chandos, Bridge, and Naxos, among others.

A native of New Jersey, Hartke was raised in Manhattan, where as a boy he performed as a chorister in the New York Pro Musica, the New York Philharmonic, the American Symphony Orchestra, and the Metropolitan Opera.

He earned a BA from Yale University, an MA from the University of Pennsylvania, and a PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Prior to joining the Thornton faculty, he taught as a Fulbright Professor at the Universidade de São Paulo in Brazil.

He is married to singer Lisa Stidham, with whom he has a son.

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